PRINT October 2007


The So-Called Utopia of the Centre Beaubourg

HENRI LEFEBVRE CALLED IT an “immense boutique,” the “Palm Beach of the poor,” and a “complete failure”; Gordon Matta-Clark dubbed it a “brave-new cobweb”; and Jean Baudrillard, in a single short paragraph, likened it to a “carcass,” an “incinerator,” a “black monolith,” and a “mad convection current.” Architectural history is full of snarky disparagements of newfangled buildings, but the wave of criticism that greeted the 1977 opening of Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers’s Centre Pompidou was remarkable not only for its intensity but also because so much of the opprobrium came from the intellectual and artistic vanguard. For in many ways, Beaubourg—as Parisians call the institution, after the working-class neighborhood that once occupied its site—seemed to have risen in the image of avant-garde ideals. Its futuristic design was grounded in Rogers’s belief that technology would free humankind from what he called “the age-old capitalist morality of earning one’s keep.” And under the directorship of Pontus Hultén, the curator who had transformed the program of Stockholm’s Moderna Museet into one long happening, Beaubourg seemed poised to situate itself at the nexus of avant-garde art and radical social practice.

But, in fact, it was these apparent affinities that were the problem. To its critics on the left, as architectural theorist Simon Sadler has observed, the Pompidou monumentalized state efforts to appropriate and tame the energies of 1968, and its staggering attendance figures were a galling reminder of how well those efforts were working. Beaubourg was intolerable, in other words, precisely to the extent that it gestured toward revolutionary aesthetic and political agendas, for in those gestures its detractors saw its deviousness and the root of its success. Baudrillard puts things explicitly in such terms in his 1977 essay “The Beaubourg-Effect,” which surely ranks with Céline’s Death on the Installment Plan as a virtuoso display of Gallic spleen. The Pompidou, to Baudrillard, is a “model of all future forms of controlled ‘socialization’: the retotalization of all the dispersed functions of the body and of social life.” Beaubourg’s lauded “transparency” is false: Its “cool and modern” exterior screens an interior “uptight with old values.” He expresses his umbrage at this dissimulation via cascades of mixed metaphors and a stuttering, spluttering cadence (“. . . Beaubourg-Machine . . . Beaubourg-Thing—”), creating the impression that he is expiring from sheer disgust but is nevertheless compelled, like a poisoned man struggling to name his murderer, to muster the strength for a climactic utterance: “MAKE BEAUBOURG BUCKLE!” Yet toward the end of his screed he returns, as if in spite of himself, to May ’68, citing it as the first in a series of “implosions” that may eventually topple social structures, power itself, and the Pompidou’s polychrome carcass. This implosive force “continues underground,” he concludes, subtly working against simulacral behemoths like Beaubourg.

Imagine Baudrillard’s reaction, then, had he discovered that a space in direct opposition to the Pompidou really did exist “underground,” in the most literal sense of the word—right beneath the crowds and color-coded tubes. The diaries of one Gustave Affeulpin tell us that there was such a space—an eighty-story subterranean “beaubourg,” the lowercase b signaling its difference from the institution above. In this sunken retreat, bankers, bikers, junkies, criminals, activists, schizophrenics, and students came together to realize a radical vision of creative production and communal life. The idea was not to “consume culture” but to “make it”; and to this end, the beaubourgians created theatrical productions, wall paintings, and giant assemblages in the shape of submarines, while also engaging in numerous artisanal activities and lots of yoga. But their primary endeavor was a lived critique of something even more fundamental to Western culture than capitalism—namely, “internalized respect for Authority.”

How could such a singular institution have been lost to history? The answer, of course, is that Affeulpin’s book, La Soi-Disant Utopie du Centre Beaubourg (The So-Called Utopia of the Centre Beaubourg), is fiction. “Gustave Affeulpin” is the pseudonym of Swiss sociologist Albert Meister, who published his imaginary chronicle in 1976, projecting it a decade into the future with a preface dated 1986. The book first appeared in French and was later translated into Italian, but it never really took off. According to Switzerland-born, Sweden-based artist Luca Frei, who has translated Meister’s book into English for the first time, the Italian edition sold three hundred copies in ten years.

Indeed, perusing Frei’s newly released, annotated translation, one can’t help but wonder whether Meister himself is fictional. The sociologist is not credited on the book’s cover, and there is a suspicious whiff of the Borgesian about his biography, at least as summarized on the dust jacket: His career, we are told, took him to Kyoto, Belgrade, Geneva, Buenos Aires, Rosario, and Tucumán; and his patron was leftist typewriter mogul Adriano Olivetti—just the sort of improbable figure you would think a contemporary fabulist might be tempted to press into service. In fact, an alternate history of Beaubourg attributed to an imaginary author would not be wholly out of place in Frei’s oeuvre. Since graduating from Sweden’s Malmö Art Academy in 2002, the artist has built a practice that ranges across media, from artist’s books to performative actions to site-specific installations that reflect his interest in architecture and evoke the clean, bright geometries of Swiss modernism. But these diverse forms are unified by a playfully pedagogical impulse and a recourse to the poetics of the archive. The central element of Frei’s 2003 project Munich Readings, for example, was a library of texts revolving around themes of temporality, the production of space, and everyday life. The texts, photocopied onto colored paper and offered as take-aways, were housed in a modular Plexiglas structure that, for Frei, was both “a stage and a kiosk,” functioning to “activate the audience from being spectator to being actor.” Elsewhere, under the moniker Gruppo Parole e Immagini (a “gruppo” in name only, since its only member is Frei), he conducts analogous activations of text, retrieving and disseminating theoretical and political writings such as Peter Kropotkin’s 1897 essay “Anarchist Morality,” which Frei printed as a booklet with an elegantly designed green, red, and black silk-screened cover. The artist has also made several works directly relating to the Pompidou. A 2003 poster juxtaposes a photo of the parking lot on which Beaubourg was built with a Kodwo Eshun quote—EVERYTHING WAS TO BE DONE. ALL THE ADVENTURES ARE STILL THERE—that hints wistfully at a sense of untapped potential. And a slide projection from the following year shows a juggler strolling idly in front of the center, tossing balls whose colors—red, blue, green, and yellow—match the facade’s exposed pipes. “Metaphorically,” says Frei, the juggler is “playing with that structure.” If these projects can be construed as part of an elaborate metaphoric game that the artist is playing with the status and significations of Beaubourg, one thinks, then perhaps the eccentric sociologist is himself a metaphor.

And yet the peripatetic Meister (1927–1982) was very much a real person, and Frei’s book is essentially a faithful translation of his 1976 text. The artist is fascinated by The So-Called Utopia in part, he says, because of the way Meister combines a sort of absurdist humor with “very committed ideas,” so as to “challenge more dogmatic ways of writing, and of course reading.” His aim in publishing the work in English is to “revitalize” the text, to see “how it can be read today.”

The realization that the book is what it purports to be, however, only increases the sense that there is something a bit uncanny about it. The narrative begins in a sci-fi vein: Affeulpin has developed a device for “molecular matter contraction,” which he uses to gouge a large hole in a copy of Thoughts and Precepts of Life by Richard Nixon. Having successfully tested his invention, he proceeds to blast a giant crater into the vast parking lot where construction of the Centre Pompidou is about to begin. This cavity soon becomes the thriving “beaubourg,” while the better-known cultural center is blithely constructed above. The denizens of the underground space quickly abolish private property and leadership hierarchies and set about upending the most basic tenets of daily life. After orgiastically divesting themselves of bourgeois sexual mores, they overturn conventional attitudes toward sleeping, hygiene, eating, parenting, learning, dressing, keeping track of time—even, finally, rejecting the notion that people should have names.

The beaubourg does have its problems. No one cleans; blowhards dominate meetings. “I am about to start hating the sitar,” Affeulpin complains. Nevertheless, notables from Jean-Paul Sartre to Pierre Cardin become enthusiastic supporters. Hultén himself floats through the book, a ghostly, neurasthenic presence who suffers from cold sweats and wishes he could give up his job at the Pompidou for a life beneath it. After some years, the influence of the beaubourgians’ grand experiment begins to make itself felt across France and then across the globe. Renault supervisors abruptly refuse to give orders to their workers; consumers stop drinking Coca-Cola; the Basel zoo frees all its animals; and new beaubourgs spring up everywhere, until finally Affeulpin can happily opine: “The arts . . . have become the rehearsals, the practicing of the art of living, the only big Art. Culture stops being the substitute of the art of living, and History begins.”

Affeulpin is not a misty-eyed idealist, however. He crankily voices agreement, for instance, with politician Michel Rocard’s observation that within the Socialist Party, “the percentage of idiots [is] as big as anywhere else.” Besides, says Affeulpin, all past revolutions have been failures. Therefore, the beaubourgians want “nothing to do with political participation.” Nor do they have false hopes: “The new culture is not hedonistic . . . it is tension and struggle and pain too, and all this without the illusion of changing the world.” As the title of his book suggests, Meister was not a utopian; he did not believe in a perfect no-place. If anything, his worldview had a tinge of the dystopian about it.

Most of Meister’s sociology is firmly rooted in data he collected in far-flung locales, but in one section of his 1972 book Vers une sociologie des associations (Toward a Sociology of Associations) he indulges in some uncharacteristically macroscopic musings. It’s an unnerving disquisition. Extrapolating from Alain Touraine’s 1969 book on postindustrial society and from nascent trends, Meister seems almost to be prognosticating—diagnosing the ills of our own present, not of his. Noting the emergence of a “technostructure” of informational elites, he speaks of a “widening gap between masses and powers” and of a society in which authoritarianism does not manifest itself as outright oppression, because it doesn’t need to. In this society, Guy Debord’s vision of a collapsing public sphere is playing itself out; people are withdrawing into their “increasingly comfortable home[s],” where they are held in thrall to the “totalitarianism of mass media,” too dazed to protest the surveillance that intrudes further and further into their private lives. Participatory democracies are faltering as citizenries turn into vast “commercial clientele[s],” bent on the purchase of “immaterial products.” The counterculture has been neutralized, and a toxic “symbiosis” has developed between capital and the “neoartisanal sector.” There is one glimmer of hope—but this is Meister’s eeriest proposition of all, for it appears to forecast not only the Internet but the liberatory discourse that would come to surround it. Perhaps, says Meister, the system can be turned against itself via the subversive use of science and electronics: “The rationality of our postindustrial societies—does it not prepare the way to a utilization of information at the level of daily life and participation? . . . Cannot one dream of a ‘computer hypothesis’?”

Still, computer hypothesis aside, this is a fairly grim state of affairs, and one can presume that it is this dark vision that The So-Called Utopia is really militating against. And militate it does, if a bit perversely, in the sense that the most concise strategic pronouncements in the book could be read as rejections of the very concept of strategy. “All we want is to refuse what will continue to keep [the world] in its grip for a long time: money and power,” Affeulpin says at one point. The notion of refusal comes up again: “The only way to refuse the system is to negate it, to ignore it.” And again: Henri Lefebvre, he says, has declared the beaubourg the impetus of “a new phase of history, in which the strength of progress won’t be based on contest, revolution and the assumption of power, but on refusal.”

Although autonomist Mario Tronti is not one of Meister’s dramatis personae, the echo of Tronti’s essay “Strategy of the Refusal” is unmistakable here. In this seminal 1965 work, which continues to influence theorizations of nonstatist resistance, Tronti asserts that traditional forms of mass struggle merely prop up the existing order. Therefore, he argues, true revolution—what he calls “revolution tout court,” an irrevocable and global transformation of society—must be predicated on the refusal to “act as active partner in the whole social process, and furthermore, the refusal of even passive collaboration in capitalist development.” This total refusal will allow for the creation of “an autonomous power of decision in relation to the whole of society, a No Man’s Land where the capitalist order cannot reach, and from which the new barbarians . . . can embark at any moment.” While we don’t know whether Meister had read Tronti, the “strategy of the refusal” does seem to reconcile the tension in The So-Called Utopia between, well, so-called and utopia—between, that is, Affeulpin’s disavowals of revolutionary ambition on the one hand and the vision of a worldwide proliferation of beaubourgs on the other.

Per the sentiments he attributes to Lefebvre, the “new phase of history” that Meister imagined was not to be brought about through the assumption of power. Maybe Meister’s vision of revolution was too big to be contained in the word revolution—what he had in mind, maybe, was revolution tout court. His beaubourg, in fact, sounds much like Tronti’s No Man’s Land—not a utopia, but a site of refusal and a staging ground from which revolution tout court might be launched. What is particularly compelling is Meister’s transitive equation of the practice of art and the politics of refusal—his suggestion that the two are congruent, one and the same. After all, the locus of the implosive force he imagines is a space beneath Beaubourg, not beneath a Renault factory or a Coca-Cola plant. There has been an effort of late to rethink and retheorize the relationship of politics and aesthetics, and perhaps this discourse, like every discourse, needs a good parable. In retrieving Meister’s odd and moving document from obscurity, Frei has provided one.

Elizabeth Schambelan is a senior editor of Artforum.


Luca Frei, The So-Called Utopia of the Centre Beaubourg: An Interpretation, (London/Utrecht, The Netherlands: Book Works/Casco, 2007), 211 Pages.