When the Centre Georges Pompidou launched its competition in 2003 to design an outpost in the sleepy Alsatian town of Metz, its shortlist of top architectural talent produced the expected stratum of eye-catching designs, but Shigeru Ban’s winning submission was by far the most eccentric. To the competition organizers, his peculiar object—which has been likened to everything from a UFO to a paper lantern to some kind of crustacean—must have seemed the most likely successor to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in terms of putting an out-of-the-way city on the map. It certainly looks as odd and thrilling as Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s design must have appeared to the Pompidou’s selection committee in 1971.
Designing the follow-up to one of the most radical pieces of architecture of the 20th century must have been daunting, for the Centre Pompidou-Metz’s administrators and the architect alike. Ban acknowledges, “There is no real similarity, except that it also strives for innovation.” The Tokyo-based architect certainly has proved to be an innovator, most notably with his paper-tube constructions that demonstrate his interest in low-cost, lightweight, low-tech materials and systems. His ability to achieve elegant, often deceptively complex-looking results with off-the-shelf materials and technology made him an interesting choice for the museum.
It’s common today for high-end architecture—especially of the disorderly, sculptural sort, epitomized by the work of Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid—to rely on all manner of customized components. And of course the Pompidou was a seedbed for ingenious new building systems, such as Peter Rice’s cast-steel gerberettes that in turn defined the building’s very profile. By contrast, the Pompidou-Metz uses no novel fastening devices, brackets, or systems. Ban consciously avoids using sophisticated joints or customized components, finding them expensive and wasteful.
The building, which was designed in collaboration with architects Jean de Gastines and Philip Gumuchdjian, was built for a reasonable $90 million and meets sustainable development criteria that Metz has outlined for future projects in this planned cultural district. Most of the gestures are passive, such as a general conservativeness with materials, as well as deep overhangs that shade the walls and a Teflon-coated fiberglass membrane that allows a fair amount of natural lighting to enter the galleries.
Though the curves appear tricky, a bird’s-eye view reveals that it’s actually a fairly regular geometry—a rigid hexagon, pulled to a peak to make way for the elevator and create a grand entrance foyer, and pulled downward on each point, the roof appearing to funnel into treelike pillars to the ground. The hexagon is the very foundation of the structure, following precisely the composition of a woven bamboo hat, traditionally worn by Asian rice farmers, which Ban found in a Paris shop 10 years ago. (Though why an Asian hat should be the reference for a project in Alsace remains inexplicable. My husband offered a more offbeat interpretation: He saw an infinitely repeated Star of David, which wouldn’t be too inappropriate, given that the region is home to one of the largest Jewish communities in France.)
Ban was clearly turned on by the simplicity and logic of the hat’s structure: bamboo weave, topped by a layer of insulation, and oil paper for waterproofing. His building has the same basic blueprint. Some of the early schemes explored the possibility of a truly woven structure; if he could have pulled off a large-span, self-supporting space frame based on a woven material (as some engineers are currently trying to do, mostly with more malleable materials such as fiber-reinforced polymers), that would have been thrilling. As built, the structure is actually a system of layered and bolted timbers.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the architects’ commitment to creating a sculptural roof has led to some jarring moments of disconnect with what’s going on below. The meeting of the roof with the elevator column looks awkward, its square form filling an oculus that’s been patched in with a sort of corrugated panel. A transparent corrugated plastic appears also as an enclosure of the foyer, but has a provisional feel.
The Pompidou-Metz embodies several concepts that were key to the Parisian flagship, such as structural expressiveness, transparency, lightness, and a fluidity between indoor and outdoor space, all driven by a desire to be a public gathering space. It will be a greater challenge for the museum to become a new urban focal point because it’s located in an open clearing, on the wrong side of the tracks. Given the vast private and public efforts being poured into its development, Metz will surely evolve into an important urban pole for the region—in time.
The Pompidou will make a difference, but equally if not more important to Metz’s rebirth is the TGV, which arrived in 2007 (the museum had targeted a simultaneous opening, to mark the 30-year anniversary of the original Pompidou, but that didn’t happen). The TGV has transformed Lyon, Marseille, Lille, and Bordeaux into vibrant regional centers within a relatively short two decades, and it will no doubt give a similar boost to Metz.
Though the Guggenheim kicked off the franchise trend, French institutions are carrying it to the next level. In addition to Pompidou-Metz, splashy Louvre satellites are now being built in Lens, France (SANAA/Imrey Culbert), and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (Ateliers Jean Nouvel). The government’s “cultural decentralization” campaign overturns the imperial tradition of hoarding a nation’s wealth and treasures in the capital. According to French law, the holdings of national museums may never be sold, so franchising is a strategy to get the most out of their collections.
Museum-building has changed dramatically since the original Pompidou was completed in 1977. First, truly open competitions—the sort that threw the young and unknown 30-something Rogers and Piano onto the international architecture stage—are pretty much extinct, as large commissions are now routinely filtered through select (and quasi-identical) shortlists. Second, museums and cities now insist on insta-icons, obliging their architecture to be sensational.
This makes the architecture exhibition that’s part of “Master-pieces?”—the Metz’s inaugural show—all the more fascinating. Curated by Aurélien Lemonier, it highlights 28 important modern museums by well-known and less-known names alike. The meaty catalogue that accompanies it includes a comprehensive chronology of over 80 projects, including a dozen now in the works. What’s striking is how the French government has acted as a consistent patron of cutting-edge architecture, in many instances providing architects with their first significant commissions or foray into cultural building.
The display on the Paris Pompidou includes a wonderfully colorful pop section drawing, an original model, and best of all, a charming video of the young Piano speaking about the design in heavily accented French. When the Pompidou was completed, the building was not considered perfect by any means. But it catapulted its architects to grander possibilities, allowing them to refine their philosophies and practices in ways that have meaningfully influenced the profession. As one of the rare recent large commissions awarded via open competition, the Pompidou-Metz will hopefully give Ban a similar chance to expand on his refreshingly original ecologically- and socially minded ideas.