When asked By Building Design magazine to contribute my favourite building to its 50 Wonders series last year, it needed very little thought. It was seeing the Pompidou Centre on a family holiday sometime in the early 1980s that inspired me to become an architect, and I have continued to visit it regularly ever since. No trip to Paris is ever complete without paying homage!
Wind forward a few years to when I was a student studying architecture and three goliaths strode the stage of British architecture: Norman Foster, James Stirling and Richard Rogers. Whilst Foster’s brand of refined Modernism always seemed a little placeless to me and Stirling’s fun Post-modernism a little too historicist for the tastes of a young architect, Rogers’ work seemed both hyper-modern yet also engaging and cleverly contextual. His buildings made places and entered into a dialogue with their surrounds. The Pompidou (designed with Renzo Piano) remains the exemplar of this.
The inside out nature of the structure and services animates the surrounding streets, providing the sort of visual detail and interest that much architecture of the time seemed completely to lack. It boldly poked its head above the otherwise (then) relentlessly uniform Parisian skyline, offering a new means to engage with the city, whilst movement up the façade on the externally mounted escalators is still one of the great urban experiences.
Most importantly, the building left almost half of the site blank, creating in the process Place George Pompidou. This gently sloping space, when set against the dynamic façade of the building, effortlessly seems to fill with life and activity, as well as being eminently ‘sittable’. Whatever happens to be showing within the building itself, this is the real spectacle of the city. A spectacle – mis-quoting Jane Jacobs – always replete with new improvisations, and never the same from visit to visit.
This was the first masterpiece of a lifetime filled with them – and not just buildings. For urbanists his Towards an Urban Renaissance report of 1999 provided a handbook for a generation and an analysis of the city that we would do well to return to today. Richards Rogers, a true inspiration! RIP
Professor of Planning & Urban Design
The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL