ISPA Conference & Expo
ISPA Conference & Expo
ISPA Conference & Expo

Interview

Mike Davies

Forty years after the Pompidou Centre opened in Paris, Kim Megson meets one of the architects behind the project to discover how a young and radical design team managed to create a cultural landmark like no other


Back in 1977, a new cultural building caused quite a stir when it opened in Paris. Some of the world’s greatest architects, including Oscar Niemeyer and Philip Johnson, hailed it as a revolutionary piece of work. Critics called it a monstrosity.

What none of them could have predicted was that, 40 years on, the Centre Georges Pompidou would be one of the world’s most popular cultural buildings – receiving an average of 3.8 million visitors a year. Its famous steel skeleton, ‘inside-out’ configuration, exterior caterpillar escalators and colour-coded utility pipes are recognised by people across the world.

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of this architectural icon – created by Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano and a talented team of architects, designers and engineers – CLAD speaks to Mike Davies, an integral part of the Pompidou story and a founding partner of the Richard Rogers Partnership (now RSH+P).

How did you become involved with the Pompidou Centre project?
I had started an architectural practice called Chrysalis with two British friends – Alan Stanton and Chris Dawson – and we had a lightweight structures firm out in Los Angeles. The ethos of America at the time was all about autonomous living, being off grid and not relying on orthodox networks. Our fascination was with inflatables; at the time, the last thing we wanted to do was traditional buildings. We carried out 53 projects in four years, 27 of which were built. Some of them were really way out – including the world’s largest mirror dome.

It was a great time. We used to go and watch Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Crosby, Stills and Nash and a radical dodgy group called The Rolling Stones. Everyone and everything in LA was creative and there was a buzz everywhere.

Then one day I got a phone call from someone I’d met in London in Architectural Association circles called Richard Rogers. He’d spoken to me some years before because I had some expertise in inflatables and lightweight structures.

He called at 4.30am – he’d forgotten the time difference – and explained that he and Renzo Piano had won this enormous competition in Paris. ‘The problem is, they think we’re a huge architectural machine, when really it’s three guys and a dog in charge,’ he said. ‘Would you guys be prepared to join us?’

Our visas in the USA were running out, so we all met around the pool to decide if we should leave for Paris. Eventually we thought, ‘what the hell, let’s go for it’.

I arrived in Paris on 19 February 1972; it was -9 degrees. I’d rented an apartment with a stone floor and it was like living in a fridge. When we all met up, I remember us looking at each other and saying, ‘Oh my God, what have we done?’

So our Paris experience started with a shock. In the end it turned into six wonderful years.

Where did the design concept for the Pompidou Centre come from?
All our team were wary of building monuments – especially one to a president – because most of the time with projects like this clients wanted something self-consciously grand and iconic, rather than functional and challenging.

Our concept, expressed in Richard and Renzo’s competition drawings, was different. It wasn’t really a building. Instead it was a Meccano set – a machine that could adapt continuously to varying events and uses over time.

Every other art museum at that time was a basilican building with rooms and halls connected to other rooms. Curators were faced with wrestling with the issue of achieving the vision and layout they wanted in a building they were heavily constrained by.

With Pompidou, the basic idea was a loose-fit flexible space where the building did not constrain what you wanted to exhibit. It had to house a permanent collection of modern art – one of the finest in the word – and temporary ones from all over the planet, so adaptability was fundamental. Each open, loose fit floorplate was the size of two football pitches, with no columns. That was a total departure.

We designed the Pompidou Centre on the basis that its users didn’t know what would happen to it in 10 years’ time. So we separated the served and servicing areas to create a clean, neutral user space. The piping and services were all grouped outside on one façade, with the opposite façade being dedicated to feeding people in and out of the huge useable spaces within the building. This ‘served and servant’ approach has been a common characteristic of our practice ever since – for example, with the Lloyd’s of London building in London.

Finally, we were great lovers of Gustave Eiffel and we wanted to make a fine steel building in the great French tradition, which had virtually disappeared, and which we wanted to revive.

How did people respond to the design?
There was a terrific fight with the French architectural establishment, who resisted the notion of foreign architects doing a national building. We weren’t registered with the French Architecture Institute, but there we were, designing a grand national project with the French president as our client.

There were incredible diatribes against the Pompidou, funnily enough including one featuring exactly the same words used against the Eiffel Tower when that was first proposed.

The concept was radical, the construction was radical and the design detail was unlike anything else seen in France, so there were lots of professional critics and many sceptical officials. We were menaced with court action.

The obstructive dam broke after nearly three years, when they realised that it was too late to stop us. By then we had created the biggest hole in Paris and steel was rising out the ground.

There was a wonderful government project leader, Robert Bordaz, who was a friend of Georges Pompidou. He was a legendarily safe pair of hands and a master at defending against political attack. He dealt deftly and elegantly with all our opposition. Without him, the Pompidou Centre would never have been built.

What are your memories of the opening day?
A few months earlier, Georges Pompidou had died and the budget had been immediately frozen by the new president. We were 86 per cent through the budget when that happened, so we ended up going down to the local hardware shops to buy paint to finish the building.

The opening had a strange atmosphere. The new president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, an aloof man of the right, was very unlike the left-leaning Pompidou. He opened the Pompidou Centre with a grand speech, but without mentioning either the building or its architects. That was quite an achievement!

There were huge queues, but nobody was on our wonderful public piazza, which was entirely fenced off and inaccessible. It took six months to get the barriers removed. The attitude was: ‘Mr Rogers, this is a national building, we can’t have the public coming up to the front doors!’

Richard had to go to the top of the political establishment and the police, explaining that the piazza was meant to be open to everyone and the building was consciously designed for the common man – a symbolic manifestation of the new open society in France.

What is your personal view of the Pompidou Centre today?
The acid test is if you go ‘wow’ when you go into your own building. I think we did with the Pompidou Centre. I still find the lacy façade and rocker beams spectacular and beautiful.

It’s still radical and young people still love it. The moment it opened it was taken over by students, and that friendly occupation has never really stopped.

For me, the Pompidou Centre is as exciting now as it was when we first built it. It remains true to Richard’s competition-winning vision of a building for all people.

I also still love the underground building I was in charge of that is part of the centre – the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music. I had a wonderful time creating it for the French composer Pierre Boulez, who’d returned to Paris to lead an open research centre for avant-garde musicians. It features the world’s most acoustically flexible studio space – a 400-person experimental studio.

What impact do you think the Pompidou Centre has had?
There was popular public acclaim after the centre was built, and at the same time professional art gallery scepticism.

It was more radical than any other art museum on the planet and it looked like a piece of technology. Most people in the art world wanted more cool concrete surfaces, discreet lighting, neutral spaces and discretion. We were the Johnny Rottens of the business, rather than the Simon Rattles.

But the building continues to cope with any curatorial vision and is uplifting and bubbling with life. So it’s been immensely successful. Few venues have significantly exceeded its visitor numbers, apart from the Millennium Dome – now the O2 Arena – the world’s most successful entertainment venue. It’s nice to have been involved with both.

What inspires you, apart from architecture?
Anything interesting is a passion. My problem is I’ve got too many passions. I have been an amateur astronomer all my life and in my spare time I build large telescopes and observatories. I love sailing, I rock climbed for many years and I’m an eclipse chaser. My wife and I go where we are told to go to by the movement of our solar system, rather than by a travel agent. The universe says, ‘right, you need to be on this little atoll in the South Pacific for two and a half minutes,’ and that’s where we go.

A total eclipse of the sun is one of the rare moments when a human can actually watch the earth, moon and our solar system visibly moving. You witness this huge eye in the sky staring down on the world.

You’re famous for dressing only in red. How did this begin?
It started in California in the late 1960s. This was the era of the Beatles – nobody was in grey suits. One day, walking on Hollywood Boulevard, I saw an incredible electric purple velvet suit in a shop window and smitten, I bought it straight away.

In Paris I used to travel from my flat by train to the Pompidou site in my purple suit. I thought the French women were quite bold, because I always got my bottom pinched on the Metro. One day Pierre Boulez said, ‘I admire your courage for wearing this incredible colour – and even more for demonstrating your homosexuality in public.’ I asked him what he meant, and he said: ‘Do you not know this is the code colour for the homosexual community in Paris if you’re incognito?’

So I found out that it wasn’t the ladies who had been pinching my bottom on the Metro, it was the men! Being happily married to a wonderful French lady, to avoid confusion I went to the local sports shop and bought three pairs of bright red golf trousers. That’s when I started wearing all red.

It makes it easy to break the ice at parties, and you waste no time wondering what to wear in the morning. I have a red car, red telescopes and I draw with red pens.

My clothes have started thousands of conversations and they tend to cheer everybody up, including New York immigration officers – which is quite an achievement!

Forty years of performance art in a conservative world have been an unmissable pleasure.

The Pompidou Centre in numbers

The building extends over 10 floors of 7,500sq m each

2,210sq m for galleries displaying the collection of the Musée National d’art Moderne

15,900sq m for temporary exhibitions

2 cinemas (315 and 144 seats)

A performance space (384 seats) and a lecture theatre (158 seats)

A 10,400sq m public reading library for 2,200 users

2,600sq m for the museum’s own research library

The famed escalator is housed in a glazed tube and offers spectacular views across Paris / Photo: Shutterstock
The famed escalator is housed in a glazed tube and offers spectacular views across Paris Photo: Shutterstock

The Pompidou Centre

A History

• In 1969, President Georges Pompidou decided that the vacant site of the Plateau Beaubourg should be used for the construction of a multidisciplinary cultural centre. An international design competition was held, with 681 submissions received.

• The jury, chaired by the architect and engineer Jean Prouvé, chose a design submitted by a team of three: British architect Richard Rogers and the Italians Renzo Piano and Gianfranco Franchini.

• Piano and Rogers alone oversaw the management of the project, with a team including Mike Davies and Arup engineers Edmund Happold and Peter Rice.

• The centre opened on 31 January 1977.

• After 20 years, the centre’s then-president Jean-Jacques Aillagon announced a major state-funded renovation of the Pompidou Centre. The gallery spaces were expanded and the live performance spaces were improved. Around 100,000sq m (1 million sq ft) of floor space was reconfigured by the time the building reopened on 1 January 2000.

• At present, between 3.5 and 3.8 million visitors visit the centre each year. Now, a new US$108m E101m, £88.3m) facelift, overseen by Piano, is planned, including the replacement of the famous exterior escalator.

L-R: Pierre Boulez, director of IRCAM; Robert Bordaz, director of the client body; Richard Rogers; Renzo Piano / ©Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners
L-R: Pierre Boulez, director of IRCAM; Robert Bordaz, director of the client body; Richard Rogers; Renzo Piano ©Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners
The Pompidou Centre opened on 31 January 1977 / Photo: ©Martin Charles
The Pompidou Centre opened on 31 January 1977 Photo: ©Martin Charles
Gallery
Click on an image to open the image gallery
company profile
Company profile: Robert D. Henry Architects + Interiors
Robert D Henry Architects (RDH-Architects) was founded in 1990 in New York City by Bob Henry, known as the “sensuous architect of serenity.”
Try cladmag for free!
Sign up with CLAD to receive our regular ezine, instant news alerts, free digital subscriptions to CLADweek, CLADmag and CLADbook and to request a free sample of the next issue of CLADmag.
sign up
features
Tokachi Millennium Forest is being marketed as having a sustaiable vision of 
a thousand years
"It’s a public space that’s managed very beautifully and has a strong message of sustainability"

It’s a huge source of sadness that the Garden Bridge became as political as it did, says the project’s landscape designer

The Green Heart at the centre of the Marina One development in Singapore
Mary Bowman studied at the University of Virginia and the Architectural Association
"Marina One was quite special in the degree of integration between the landscaping and architecture "

The Gustafson Porter + Bowman partner on the landscape projects changing the face of our cities

The Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Seoul is a good example of what can be achieved using parametric design principles, says Schumacher. The centre opened in 2014
Schumacher joined Zaha Hadid Architects in 1988 after studing architecture in Stuttgart and London
"Zaha was a star… very courageous, very driven in terms of wanting to excel"

The director of Zaha Hadid Architects on how ZHA plans to keep innovating with passion

Catalogue Gallery
Click on a catalogue to view it online
To advertise in our catalogue gallery: call +44(0)1462 431385
features
Mirrors gave the impression that the maze was larger than it actually was
Martha Schwartz
"No one is taking the issue of climate change seriously. Some bad things will have to happen before there is a change"

The outspoken landscape architect on climate change, bagels and being controversial

Deep Ocean Technology’s Water Discus underwater hotel
"The Norwegian coast inhabits such beauty"

The world’s most ambitious underwater buildings

Aliya Khan, global design strategy, Marriott International
"Millennials are investing more in experiences versus physical things"

How millennial travellers are transforming hotel design

features
Bill HellmuthCEO, HOK Sport + Recreation +, Entertainment
"It’s a great time to be back in sports – it’s a piece of our practice we’ve sorely missed"

HOK re-enters the sports market

By developing a model based on bubbles, the team at Grimshaw solved the challenge of unpredictable ground levels for the Eden Project biomes
Michael Pawlyn
"Herzog and De Meuron’s Bird’s Nest stadium looks awesome, but it’s incredibly resource-intensive and takes none of the ingenious aspects of Birds’ Nests"

From climate change to resource scarcity, Exploration Architecture uses biomimicry to address some of the world’s major challenges. Its founder tells us how

The 2,000sq m Ayurah Wellness Centre fuses spiritual and medical care, with a range of medical 
and spa facilities
Kenzo Takada fashion designer
"Kenzo has created an unparalleled private island"

Designing interiors for a new Cambodian wellness retreat

cladkit product news
Codelocks develops new glass door smart lock
The new lock model allows facilities and building managers to create and manage access via an app or online portal
Megan Whitby
Codelocks has launched its first glass door smart lock to bring intelligent access control to modern spa, leisure, fitness and ...
Eden project uses drones to spell out climate change warning
Magali Robathan
Almost 300 drones were used to signal an environmental message above the Eden Project’s biomes, during the UN Climate Change ...
Eco Resort Network conference to convene in Mauritius this May
The event will be hosted in the Mauritius in 2024
Megan Whitby
Hospitality industry event Eco Resort Network is set to take place at the Ravenala Attitude Hotel, Turtle Bay, Mauritius, from ...
cladkit product news
Alberto Apostoli and Newform collaborate to launch the A.Zeta showerhead
The showerhead offers two modes; rainfall or waterfall
Megan Whitby
Italian architect Alberto Apostoli has renewed his partnership with Newform – an Italian wellness company – and designed A.Zeta. A.Zeta ...
Jaffe Holden helps bring Academy Museum of Motion Pictures alive
Jaffe Holden provided architectural acoustics for the Academy Museum
Magali Robathan
Acoustical consulting firm Jaffe Holden provided architectural acoustics and audio/video design services for the recently opened Academy Museum of Motion ...
Koto Design introduces wood-fired hot tub
Koto is known for crafting modular, energy-neutral cabins and homes
Katie Barnes
A striking wood-fired hot tub has been unveiled by Koto, an architecture and design studio which has a passion for ...
cladkit product news
Alberto Apostoli designs tech-forward Wellness Therapy furniture collection for Varaschin
The furniture collection draws on absolute geometries, pure lines, neutral colours and strong references to nature
Megan Whitby
Furniture manufacturer Varaschin has unveiled the new Wellness Therapy range, designed by Italian spa and wellness architect and designer Alberto ...
Mather & Co and ITV unite to create Coronation Street Experience
Mather & Co has transformed the visitor centre into the ultimate haven for ardent Coronation Street viewers
Magali Robathan
Experience designers, Mather & Co, have orchestrated a remarkable collaboration with ITV to unveil the new Coronation Street Experience, a ...
Siminetti unveils iridescent decorative panelling range inspired by plants
The Clematis design
Megan Whitby
The Botanicals is Siminetti’s newest Mother of Pearl decorative panelling collection, inspired by the distinctive patterns found in botany and ...
ISPA Conference & Expo
ISPA Conference & Expo