PRINT November 1977

Who Shapes the World? A View from the Place Beaubourg

FILLING THE PLACE BEAUBOURG, the Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou overwhelms with its vitality. Crowds of happy, eager citizens and tourists surge through its cavernous main floor until, like so many sizzling hamburgers, they are moved on endless belts diagonally across its huge façade from one level to another. Here is the acme of mass attraction to culture, an attraction which no longer needs personalities such as Tutankhamen or Picasso for its activation. Culture of any sort has become an automatic, if rather vaguely defined, success.

One of the four main divisions at Beaubourg is the Centre de Création Industrielle, which can be translated as the Design Center. Here design means shaping the world to suit human beings. It includes everything from land usage to Band-Aids, while excluding the academic estheticism typical of museum design collections in the United States as well as the opportunistic trade promotion of many government design centers and glossy magazine “awards.” By spotlighting and commenting on what is characteristic in everyday living the Centre de Création Industrielle hopes to reveal visual design as a significant symptom of, and influence in, modern society.

The first impression of CCI is colored rosily by the vitality all around it and by the fresh and interested attitudes of the Pompidou staff. It is a new experience to encounter guards and information personnel who are spontaneously polite and alert. Then one wants to know who is in charge, how CCI is structured, and what its programs and potentials, and its actual performance, amount to. The staff of CCI gave help unstintingly and I had a long conversation with the new director, Jacques Mullender.

Mullender made CCI seem viable and well based, and this air of responsibility is bound to be reflected in the unit so long as he is in charge. Neither a designer nor an art historian himself, Mullender went as a young man from war to 20 years of administrative responsibilities throughout French Central Africa. Then he served for a decade in the fiscal administration of the Paris region, with particular emphasis on social facilities. From there on, he participated in the reorganization of the state-owned airplane manufacturing establishment. In short, Mullender is a socially committed man who has a certain perspective on the practices and values of Western civilization. Above all, he is a man seasoned by the intricacies of governmental bureaucracy. Can these talents serve the special needs of CCI? On the side of sheer survival—and survival is a major preoccupation in a newfangled agency like the Pompidou—there is no doubt that the presence of Mullender is a good omen.

Design, as conceived at CCI, is a complex field. It touches on so many aspects of life that the center itself is not tied to any single source of support, either fiscally or intellectually. Nor is CCI’s practical range limited to its headquarters in the Pompidou: like its sister divisions, it sponsors outside activities, sends shows and personalities throughout the country, and provides many services to schools and associations as well as to individuals—services which may be either ready-made or tailored to suit. Not least, the center publishes catalogues, quarterly reviews and position papers. Clearly CCI could be called more of an art center than a museum, but it does have an historical design presentation, in its main-floor galleries, to which I shall return.

CCI aims first of all to reach the general public, to awaken it to the labile forms of the man-made world—those forms which are constantly sending out visual messages of immediate significance for the quality of people’s lives as individuals and as members of society. It wants to alert the public to thinking about why the world looks and works as it does, with due emphasis on the assessment of practicality and fair value. Design as an act of grace, delivered by a happy few to the inert many, is finished, dissolved by the acid test of mass production and mass distribution, mass use and mass information. Not only are tastemakers considered superfluous, but even engineers, those old heroes of the anti-academy, are considered narrowly utilitarian. Ultimately the quality of design will be tested in the spontaneous popular arts and artifacts of the age, like Chardin’s copper cauldrons, the Cubists’ siphon bottles, and Corbu’s bentwood chairs. Even in its grander manifestations—like architecture—design is seen not as a Fine Art or a negotiable commodity, but as a natural facility of society. Hallelujah! We have heard many variations of this message before, from William Morris, Horatio Greenough, and Thorstein Veblen, then echoed by Sigfried Giedion, Bernard Rudofsky, and the Venturis. At last it is being freshly promulgated where the masses are, day in, day out, in a mood of receptivity. Will the idea get through?

The answer depends as much on the actual practices of CCI as on its proposed structure and program, and here I was indeed disappointed. The CCI, like every division of the Pompidou, got off to a rather grinding start. Certainly any broad critical judgment of exhibition handling should be deferred until there is a chance for everyone to hit his pace, but I think it is neither unjust nor unfriendly to point out patterns which already recur in various manifestations of CCI and which seem unlikely to lead toward the desired results. First, there is a reliance on concepts and procedures developed for the printed page. Activities are programmed as if to make a balanced “table of contents,” and whole sectors of the displays are hardly more than sheets from industrial or commercial catalogues. Is this, perhaps, conceptual art discoloring onto exhibition display? Or is it the evidence of people at work trained in the word rather than in the image—minds which have been deadened to the wavelengths of primary visual communication? (To begin with, the best conceptual art has been canny enough to capture the power of visible allure in however unfamiliar ways.) The changing design exhibitions I saw in the Beaubourg galleries were presented without shape or sequence; their units were scaled so similarly from one show to another that it was easy to slip around without knowing where one was. A uniform height prevailed, masking the density (or paucity) of attendance, but low enough to leave a vast empty overhead.

My second criticism is that the choice of visual evidence at CCI is stale and insensitive. A retrospective on design since the mid-19th century demonstrated this nicely. Hundreds of identically sized, back-lit, linear illustrations dealt out the evidence, rather weakly reflecting evidence assembled a long 40 years ago by the Germanic design apostles (Giedion who was sent to France; Pevsner who was sent to England; and Gropius who was sent to the eastern United States). What may be said about the accompanying dusty groups of real three-dimensional objects from the past, low-lit so as not to interfere with the didactic illustrations? They avoided the preciosity of elitist collections, but without any biting edge. There was nothing with the vitality of a wooden rake in a farm museum, or of the unsuspected industrial patterns captured, for instance, by the photographer Georg Gerster in Grand Design. A sense of visual quality, of visual efficacy, has been lost. Book learning has eroded the image; Victor Hugo was too right when he saw that the printed book would kill off art (in that case narrative sculpture), entitling a chapter of Notre-Dame de Paris “Ceci Tuera Cela.”1

When it comes to the printed matter disseminated by CCI, of course the objection to word-mindedness is far less apt. But my second criticism, the lack of quality and incisiveness in the material presented, can still apply. I read through a thick sheaf of catalogues replete with essays, and of quarterlies on important design themes like “fonctionnalismes en dérive” (deviations of functionalism). Here CCI was addressing a specialist public rather than a general one, yet freshness and insight were again lacking. Despite the remarkable qualities of CCI’s structure and program, I began to think of it in the image of the building where it is headquartered: a shell of ingenious excitement around great, gloomy, airless spaces.

A depressing reaction and an unjust one. Part of the material I read had been produced in the years before CCI could move into the Centre Pompidou, while its organization and personnel were shifting and being shifted until full operation could begin. Now too, more adjustments are to be expected. The efficacy of CCI has to be achieved by trial and error, especially since its basic approach is unorthodox and unproven. It is the testing of CCI’s theses which will make it crucial to the future of design in modern life one way or another. Up to now there has been no design agency which could mediate between the general public—the people who buy and use the goods, gadgets and facilities spewed out by industry—and those who design, make, and sell these things; no agency attuned to people as user-consumers of the symbolic values communicated by design. Without this link modern industrial culture is bound to flounder expensively and frustratingly. The great hope is that CCI can learn to trust the enormous power of visual communication and put it to work in an active feedback situation where design itself is used to make the very significance of design understandable. If CCI attempts that, a new era of human self-control will have opened. How plausible does it seem to expect pioneering by a government agency? Well, someone must try. And I think this time the betting might be even.

Edgar Kaufmann, Jr formerly director of the Department of Industrial Design at the Museum of Modern Art, is now professor at the Graduate School of Architecture and planning,Columbia University.



1. This chapter is often omitted in English edition of the novel, but Frank Lloyd Wright quoted its title in his Autobiography.