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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

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