Thursday, June 25, 2009

Cities are like oil paintings.

They are built over time by the addition of countless layers. There may or may not be a grid, but there is movement and there are centers of focus. Older layers lay the foundation for new developments, yet at times they are scraped off in bold and calculated artistic gestures. The artist sets parameters but also lets the painting take its own course. Sometimes there is too much going on and so panels are added on the sides to expand the canvas. At other times the canvas is limited and additional elements have to be incorporated in the already highly complex fabric.
The Centre Pompidou in an aerial map of Paris. Photo by Pierre Metivier.
The Centre Pompidou is like a splash of color that has recently been added to one such old and precious painting, the city of Paris. Some Parisians find the high-tech/modern/postmodern style of the building jarring and contradictory to what Paris is all about. Yet for me the building is a natural part of the city and visiting it is always an uplifting experience.

In a city with so much historic grandeur, the idea of architectural change is met with horror. All the architecture that Paris needs already exists here, and its value will rise as the years go by. But more and more, the architecture ceases to be architecture and becomes art instead.
The Centre Pompidou. Photograph by Serge Melki.
Henri Ven der Velde and the gesamtkunstwerk designers of early Modernism would argue that buildings are a part of the continuum of things that surround us and which we like to design. They are containers of the human body just like clothing, furniture, the room and the city are containers of the human body. Our clothes are an expression of who we are today and not 200 years ago and similarly our buildings must express the spirit of the contemporary age.

Even Victor Hugo writes about the “crisis of change” in a positive light: “Certain things have been unlearnt, and that is good, provided other things are learnt. There must be no void in the human heart. Edifices may be pulled down, but only on the condition that others are put in their place.” So there is no modernism or postmodernism anymore, there is only good architecture and bad architecture. And though it is all very subjective, I would agree with Robert Venturi’s idea that architecture needs to be designed with awareness of one’s own time and of all the periods of the human history. The symbolic is as important as the formal.

During lunch-break yesterday, I rushed to Les Halles for the legendary Paris sales and I was struck by the Pompidou Center which was visible through a slit in an alley on Rue du Temple. I took a picture and only later realized why the moment was so powerful. As I compared the tall structure of the Center Pompidou with the Paris street façade, I noticed a lot of parallels. The pediment, for example, is clearly echoed in the steel structure, and so is the rhythm of horizontals and verticals (Tuscan columns of the 21st century?). The building has proportions that are harmonious in the way classical architecture is. This observation allowed me to understand why the building is a perfectly natural part of Paris in a way that the Forum des Halles finds it hard to be.

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