Fifty years ago Paris lacked a permanent showcase for the contemporary arts, so President Georges Pompidou decided to build one. A major international competition was conducted, ultimately won by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano with a groundbreaking 'inside-out' design. Centre Georges Pompidou opened in 1977, across seven functional floors, and was thoroughly refreshed for a grand reopening in 2000. Today it attracts over 3½ million paying visitors a year, which is more than any UK attraction manages, and there's nowhere else quite like it. It's also reallydifficult to photograph.
The large car-park-esque building is located a few blocks north of the river, alongside a rectangular open space whose footprint is approximately the same size. This is a good place to sit and stare up at the pipes, girders and struts on the exterior, plus the tubular escalator snaking up the side. I've got as far as outside the building before, but been thwarted by lack of time or the fact it's always closed on Tuesdays. On this visit I picked my day carefully and timed my visit to avoid the queues by turning up at 4pm. The Pompidou keeps all its exhibition galleries open until nine, so a late visit pays.
Anyone can get inside the main building for nothing, but you do need to make your way through security first. This grants access to a huge atrium, with all the exposed painted pipework and ducting you'd be expecting, plus an underutilised mezzanine level and a labyrinthine basement. If all you want is a wander and the Photography Gallery that's fine, but basically you're not getting anywhere decent without paying. Further wandering costs 5€, but what everybody goes for is the 14€ “Museum and exhibitions” ticket, otherwise all you're going for is a view. Sticking your rucksack in the cloakroom is obligatory, but now free.
As a first time user I confess to being impressively baffled as to where the art was and how to get there, but the gist is that it's "up the escalators". The short escalator I thought connected only to a cinema was the key, leading first to a ticket check and then to the external tubular experience. It's here you step into the escalatorzigzag up the side of the building, shielded inside a grimy perspex pipe which might once have felt hugely futuristic but now has shades of '80s shopping mall. It's further than you think. The first two floors contain a public library, accessed elsewhere, and the next floor is only for the exit from the main collection, so you need to climb one grinding flight higher.
Four paragraphs in, and at last here's the art. The Musée National d’Art Moderne showcases key works from 1905 to the present day, conveniently split by floor into 'before I was born' and 'after'. On the 5th floor that means Expressionism at one end and Pop Art at the other, arranged pretty much chronologically, which makes a pleasant contrast to the vagaries of Tate Modern's woolly thematic blur. Starting off down the first long compartmentalised gallery I was starting to worry that the two hours I'd allocated weren't going to be enough.
You don't get a lot of any particular artist, but you do get a lot of artists. And while French painters get more of a look-in than others, that's no bad thing. I loved the bright speckly Matisses, and the expressive Kandinskys, and made tracks to further investigate Quizet. It was inspiring to be surrounded by a select few googly-eyed Picassos, a couple of them pointedly blue. An added dimension was provided by objects rather than canvases, for example a selection of Bauhaus furniture, as well as some intriguing historical displays tucked up intermediate side-passages. All in all a big thumbs up to the fifth floor, and I wish I'd had the chance to walk a bit slower.
Downstairs comes the modern modern art, post 1965, arranged more conceptually. Here we find the plastic lumps, deconstructed metaphors and video installations, tons of them, filling a similar-sized space less densely. More a showcase than a permanent exhibition it's still an intriguing wander, even if nosing round certain corners can be a brief disappointment. A handful of artists get their own mini-exhibitions up one end, these currently including Stéphane Mandelbaum's cartoons, Isidore Isou's graphics and Ellsworth Kelly's windows. I'm not sure whether I enjoyed this floor more for its variety or its unfamiliarity.
Scattered across the building, on the top floor and the first, are four further galleries devoted to specific temporary exhibitions. In the main upper galleries that's currently a Victor Vasarely retrospective. I initially thought "who?", but grew to enjoy his dazzling optic art more and more with each twist and turn. He's on for three more weeks. Downstairs offered The Factory Of Life, a thought-provoking assemblage of bio-chemistry masquerading as art (and vice versa), plus a body of bold vegetal sculpturings from Brazil. Each of these galleries was noticeably busier than the main collection, presumably because all the local visitors have already seen that, possibly several times.
All in all, hugely worth the initial 14€.
Aside: In London the core art comes free, but you get stung for a lot extra to see small individual periodic exhibitions. In Paris entering the art gallery costs, but the small individual periodic exhibitions bear no additional cost. Both models have their positives, and I love that London offers so much for nothing, but the Parisian model is undoubtedly better value for money.
And when you're done with the art, there's the view. The sixth floor balcony extends the length of the building, and is higher than the entire neighbouring skyline so would have some amazing views if only it weren't inside a grime-encrusted plastic tube. The fifth floor balcony has almost as good an aspect and is entirely open, so that's the place to be (beating the fourth floor where the rooftops opposite start to block everything). A few steeples, obviously the Eiffel Tower, distant Montparnasse and a single compact skyscraper cluster in the distance. What wowed me most though was Sacre Coeur on its hilltop, a domed spectacle above lines of chimneypots, proving that architecture is also art. Formidable. [12 photos]