Was the Centre Pompidou the last building with which architecture meaningfully influenced our wider culture?
After writing the piece on Steven Holl’s Linked Hybrid in Beijing, I happened to be by chance reading Sanford Kwinter’s Requiem for the City at the End of the Millennium, published by Actar in 2010. (Ed. This was first published at cityofsound.com on 17 April 2011.)
A beautiful little book in every sense, Kwinter writes wonderfully and perceptively about the city, and architecture and urbanism, and particularly its relationship to technology. There’s a lot in this small book, but the very first chapter resonated immediately, creating a chance juxtaposition between Linked Hybrid and Centre Pompidou, aka Beaubourg.
Kwinter places the building’s meaning squarely in the context of the early 1970s, when he had been a student, as well as within the extraordinary work of artist Gordon Matta-Clark: particularly his Conical-Intersect (1975), a dirty great bore-hole through a series of apartments in Beaubourg:
Kwinter effectively portrays Pompidou in the same light, suggesting both interventions repositioned the everyday “neighbourhood of flats” as “social and economic infrastructure” instead. When writing about the architectural ‘intersect’ of Rogers and Piano’s project, Pompidou/Beaubourg, which opened a couple of years after Matta-Clark’s, he uses language entirely redolent of descriptions of ‘Conical Intersect’:
“Beaubourg is a social, economic, and intellectual performance of great risk, even violence…”
But what’s particularly interesting is that Kwinter suggests that Beaubourg not only reflects, expresses, or makes manifest the emerging social and cultural patterns of the day, but also that he implies that it there is a symbiotic relationship. He suggests that the building itself exerts some influence in return, in effect calibrating those forces. In fact, it is precisely this sense of wider influence that I’m suggesting is lacking with Linked Hybrid. And, as Kwinter later states, Gehry’s Guggenheim lacks this influence too.
“The Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers tour de force was the intellectual harbinger of cultural and especially economic processes that were then remotely and invisibly preparing themselves and that today have become so plain to see: the multiple, subtle “coups” of economic liberalization, globalization, and the systematic subsumption of social and cultural capital by financial rationality.”
“No more than a couple of times in an era, a building comes along that fully transcends its specialised context-that is, that challenges and intervenes within developments taking place across an entire society. Such a building forces us to acknowledge that the shaping of subjectivity and the organisation of (productive and other) forces in a society are dynamic activities, which can be understood as somehow ubiquitous design processes that are guided by invisible hands. Sometimes an architectural work can make these processes palpable, or like a delicate servo-mechanism guiding a much larger machine, it can modulate the larger system’s output in such a way as to make its dynamic apprehensible. In these cases nothing is more stifling and misleading than forced recourse to the technical languages and concepts of architectural appreciation and analysis.” [emphasis added]
So is Kwinter suggesting that the effect of Pompidou is not just in potentially apprehending such modernising “coups” but also in redirecting their forces such that it simultaneously enables an entire national culture to modernise, through placing “logiciel” at the core of its society?
The design team for the Pompidou often sounds like the opening line of an unsavoury joke—“An Italian, an Englishman, an Italian-Englishman, and an Irishman walk into a pub”—but this is a serious trick to pull off, if it’s the case. A tantalising idea.
“French society in the post-Pompidou era has far surpassed the American public in its tolerance of urban infrastructure modernization (perhaps slightly overtaken now only by the Dutch and the Finns) …” [Intrigued by these last references to Dutch and Finns, by the way — DH]
Both the Pompidou and Linked Hybrid projects are ‘acupunctures’ of a sort, both inserting a form of “urban infrastructure modernization” into hugely different existing conditions; Pompidou into the old 4th arrondissement, Linked Hybrid into a haphazard corner of the gargantuan second ring road in Beijing.
Yet although Linked Hybrid would also claim to be an indication of a new kind of urban space and pattern of habitation, and the scale and quality of the development suggests such a statement is being attempted, it already seems unlikely that it will resonate as Beaubourg did.
Is the programme of cultural centre able to do perform this ‘alchemy’ in a way that an essentially residential environment-albeit a mixed-use one-cannot? Or did the cultural foment of the late-60s/early-70s, centred on Paris, provide a crucible for such a transformative project, whereas Linked Hybrid gets lost amidst the extraordinary profusion of building innovation in contemporary China?
Or is it that architecture itself shifted at this point, precociously suggesting a promise that has rarely been achieved since? In Kwinter’s words:
“It might be said that this was the moment when architectural practice first confronted its capacity to function as a science as well as art. Architecture was no longer entirely wedded to buildings, but was becoming a form of knowledge, research, activism.”
If we accept Kwinter’s idea that Beaubourg did shape cultural forces, and my suggestion that Linked Hybrid will fall short of that, it would be interesting to further assess why Beaubourg can when Linked Hybrid can’t.
And by extension, what kind of architecture and design practice can exert this wider influence, and turn a “mere building” into “delicate servo-mechanism guiding a much larger machine”?
Ed. This piece was first published at cityofsound.com on 17 April 2011.
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