Centre Pompidou, Metz: A Balance Between the Extreme and the Ordinary by Shigeru Ban Architects

Ian Mutuli
Updated on
Ian Mutuli

Ian Mutuli

Founder and Managing Editor of Archute. He is also a graduate architect from The University of Nairobi, Kenya.
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Shigeru Ban, a trusted ally and collaborator of the late Frei Otto, is renowned worldwide for their experimental work with lightweight structures and construction materials. However, he is perhaps best known for a massive structure located in Metz, France, just over three hours from Paris: the Centre Pompidou. This structure, conceived as an offshoot of the main Centre Pompidou in Paris, acted as an extension of the original Parisian museum.

Shigeru Ban has said before that the two most prevalent thoughts that led to this end product included the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao and the Dia:Beacon in New York, USA. The client who commissioned the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain, wanted a structure that would outdo itself. Something that would lead to the opening up of the whole of Bilbao to tourists. Frank Gehry designed the Guggenheim museum, a building that has since opened up the whole town to tourists and has led to an increase in the number of tourists by 30% year over year. Borrowing from the success of the building and it's effect to tourism, the "Bilbao Effect" inference was born. On the other hand, the Dia:Beacon in New York is a perfect example of an industrial building renovated to a very neutral museum for displaying exhibition works. The architecture of the Dia:Beacon is very ordinary but the spaces very functional.

In designing the Centre Pompidou, Shigeru Ban wanted to seek a balance between either extremes. There have been concerns that a building like the Guggenheim Museum is a personal monument that makes it very hard to display art and other exhibition pieces; that the whole intimidating nature of the structure doesn't consider the staff and the users at large. People seem to be okay with Dia:Beacon, because it is ordinary. Shigeru Ban thought of creating a design concept that would make it easier to display and view art as well as leave a huge impression to the visitors: the balance in between two extremes.

To create functional spaces, the architect decided to stick to simple volumes. These volumes would have a very simple articulation among them too. The general galleries with varying lengths were based on a 15 metre wide module. 3 simple square tubes with long 90 metre deep rectangular volumes inside were created. These three tubes were stacked vertically and arranged around a hexagonal steel frame tower which contains the stairs and elevators.

The space that was created under the tiered ceilings of these three gallery tubes make up the Grand Nef Gallery. Before this extension to the Centre Pompidou was built, the main museum was only able to display 20% of the entire collection available in Paris. Therefore, the main reason for this new building was to allow the museum to display more works to the public and also be able to display the very large pieces that couldn't fit in the 5.5 metre ceiling height at the Paris museum. To provide a solution to this problem, Shigeru Ban  maintained an 18 metre ceiling height in the Grand Nef Gallery.

The site of the project was isolated from the urban centre of the city to the North. To reconnect the building to the urban centre, the architect designed large picture windows at the ends of the three gallery tubes to collect views of the urban centre from within the galleries for users. The uppermost gallery collects views of the St. Stephen's Cathedral, a symbol of Metz. The second gallery from the top collects views of the Central Station.

Metz is a French town bordering Germany. In the past, Metz has been under both governments with Germany and France both laying claim to this city. Metz therefore has a very large population of the Germans and the French. Germany is known for their Neo-Romanesque style of architecture. Shigeru Ban used the same style in designing the new Centre Pompidou as a reminder of the history of the city between the French and the Germans.

Other spaces in the building include a creation studio, and a square-shaped volume containing an auditorium, offices and other minor spaces. A restaurant was proposed on top of the creation studio and gallery tube 3 but it was cancelled because it was against the building codes in France. A restaurant at that height would be at a height of 28 metres from the ground which is considered a high-rise building in France. It was rejected because efforts of evacuation in case of any emergencies would be very complex for the structure.

To connect all these volumes including the galleries into one whole, the architect designed a hexagonal hovering timber roof structure to unify all spaces. The choice of a hexagon by the architect is justified by the fact that the French consider a hexagon as a special symbol of their country because France's geographical shape is hexagonal.

Today's architecture is increasingly distancing the general public according to the architect. To continually discourage such, Shigeru Ban is creating designs that connect the inside to the outside. In this establishment, he designed the spaces in a way that they seem to lack walls. Buildings have always only been known as such due to the existence of permanent walls that make it a house.

However, for the Centre Pompidou, the roof plays the part of defining this as a space where people are welcome to view the displayed works of art. As for the walls, they are removable since they are just glass shutters. Visitors and tourists therefore feel connected to the space which when the glass shutters are removed, feels like a part of the surrounding park.

If you're interested in exploring more remarkable architectural projects by Shigeru Ban Architects, you may want to read about Shigeru Ban’s Nine Bridges Golf Club House and Cardboard Cathedral.

Project Information

Architects: Shigeru Ban Architects
Timber Roof: Holzbau Amann, Weilheim-Bannholz (Germany)
Acoustics: Commins Acoustics workshop, Paris – Daniel Commins
Structure Consultant: Ove Arup, London – Cecil Balmond
Location: Metz, France
Site Area: 12,000 sqm
Construction Cost: €51M
Photography: Shigeru Ban Architects, David Matthiessen, Didier Boy De La Tour

Ian Mutuli

About the author

Ian Mutuli

Founder and Managing Editor of Archute. He is also a graduate architect from The University of Nairobi, Kenya.
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