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Centre Georges Pompidou
Place Georges-Pompidou, 75004 Paris, France
Centre Georges Pompidou
associated engineer
Ove Arup & Partners
Povl Ahm
Edmund Happold
Peter Rice
Lennart Grut
date  May 1972 - 31st January 1977, opened 1978
UK era  Modern  |  category  Building  |  reference  Tb191936
photo  courtesy Arup
Located in the heart of Paris, the Centre Georges Pompidou — Centre National d'Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, or the Beaubourg — was an instant hit when it opened officially in 1978. Since then, the 'inside-out' arts complex with its exterior steel frame, snaking colour-coded service pipes and giant run of escalators, has reached design icon status. British firm Ove Arup & Partners was the structural (Structures 3 team) and services engineer.
An international design competition for a new public library and art museum for Paris was launched in December 1969 by the then President of the French Republic, Georges Pompidou (1911-1974). The site designated was the Beaubourg area between the town hall (Hôtel de Ville) and the area formerly occupied by Les Halles, the food market, which had recently vacated central Paris. The Beaubourg project is one of a series of major cultural constructions initiated by French presidents in a 30 year period.
Engineer Edmund (Ted) Happold (1930-1996, later Sir Edmund Happold), who led the Structures 3 team at Ove Arup & Partners, saw the competition announcement in the architectural press. Structures 3 approached architects Richard Rogers (b.1933, now Lord Rogers) and Renzo Piano (b.1937) to join Happold and his associate Peter Rice (1935-1992) in putting together an entry. The members of the competition team were Rogers, Piano, Happold, Rice, Su Rogers and G.F. Franchini.
The team worked collaboratively but was led conceptually by the clear vision that the architects had of developing a building based on "a large loose-fit frame where anything could happen" (Rice, An Engineer Images). The team wanted a non-elitist, classless building — an idea based in 1960s optimism. The engineering solutions developed were not necessarily the most obvious ones but they are ones that fit this philosophy.
The competition entry was prepared very quickly, and at the last minute, but the final building is remarkably like the proposals, which included the external exposed steel frame and the disposition of circulation and services. The original design included moveable floors, which didn't make the final design for fire protection reasons.
Chairman of the jury, which had 687 entries to contend with, was French designer Jean Prouvé (1901-1984). The result was announced on 13th July 1971. It was a very big commission for an untried architectural team, though the presence of Arup's engineers was reassuring, since Ove Arup & Partners had succeeded against the odds in getting the Sydney Opera House built. To ensure delivery of the building, Président Pompidou appointed a top civil servant (Robert Bordaz) to head a public delivery authority, now a common approach for such major projects.
The Centre Georges Pompidou is a major modern art gallery. It is also home to a public reference library, a Forum area, sculpture terrace, cinema and performance halls, and a bookshop, cafés and a restaurant. All are arranged over six levels including a basement. The building is rectangular in plan and occupies half the area of the site — the other half is a public piazza, which is also home to the re-sited studio of sculptor Constantin Brancusi.
The principle of its design is to provide as much open flexible space in the interior as possible. To that end, most of the structure, circulation and servicing is pushed to the exterior, largely on the long elevations. The basic disposition is straightforward. The east-facing side facing the piazza is a circulation zone, with a full-width run of escalators and walkways enclosed in transparent tubes. The west-facing side on rue de Renard is a mechanical services zone, smothered in colour-coded ducts, pipework, goods lifts and fire stairs. The zone in between — inside the building — is for art.
In plan the building measures 164.4m by 60m, and is 45.5m high (east elevation) and 42m high (west elevation). The main entrance is to the east, where the piazza slopes down to the building. Each storey is 7m high and column-free. The 'ground' or Forum level is 10.5m in height.
The substructure consists of a concrete basement, 60,000 sq m in area. This houses support facilities, a 600 seat multi-purpose hall, a small cinema, central reception and parking for 700 cars. Its average depth below road level is 16m — 20m at its deepest.
The primary structure is based on two rows of 14 full-height steel columns, one row on each long façade. Spanning between them across the full width of the building, 2.85m deep x 44.8m wide steel trusses support the floors. At each end, the trusses bear on short stubs of 8.2m long cantilevered beams, tied to the ground at their outer extremities. The cantilevered beams act as levers and are pinned to the columns. The ties consist of vertical 200mm solid forged steel bars and are connected to an underground prestressed concrete wall.
The column grid creates 13 structural bays along the building's length, each 12.8m wide. The trusses are braced on the short façades, and 60mm high strength steel diagonal tie rods brace the long façades at the ends of the short beams.
The combination of a suspended beam and a short propped cantilever is known as the gerberette solution, and Centre Pompidou's short beams are referred to as gerberettes. This solution for supporting the loads outside the façades without obscuring them was probably suggested by Lennart Grut (b.1941), another Arup engineer in the design team. Gerberettes are named after 19th century German engineer Heinrich Gerber, who invented the beam/cantilever solution for bridge design.
The gerberettes are made of cast steel and were manufactured by Krupp in Germany. They are huge, each weighing 9.6 tons. The decision to use cast steel as a major element of the scheme was made early on in the design process by Peter Rice, who was looking for a way to 'personalise' the structure, giving it individuality. Cast steel is more-usually used in the oil and gas industry.
The gerberettes pivot about the column support position on an axle that has two spherical bearings. These ensure that the pivot motion doesn't exert eccentric forces on the columns, which would otherwise need to be bigger to resist the bending moments.
Cast steel is also used for the nodes in the trusses. The upper chords, or compression booms, consist of twin steel tubes. The lower chords are single circular solid steel sections. The nodes connect the alternating tubular and solid compression and tension diagonals. During construction, some Paris streets were closed each night for the delivery of the huge trusses.
The columns are centrifugally-cast thick-walled steel of variable wall thickness and constant 850 mm external diameter. They are up to 85mm thick at the bottom and 40mm at the top. This approach enabled a slimmer column to be used than if a standard hollow steel section was specified — such a column would need a larger diameter to support the building. The columns are filled with water for fire protection.
Each structural bay took just ten days to erect and the whole steel frame took eight months. Since all the structural detailng is exposed, erection was relatively simple and quick. The façades are clad in suspended glass and steel curtain walling.
The floors are composite concrete and steel I section beams. The beams span the main trusses. Precast concrete panels are used over truss locations and in situ concrete elsewhere. Floor continuity is maintained using steel plate cross-bracing. Truss connections alternate between pinned and fixed, allowing trusses to deflect independently of the floors.
The building services design was carried out by Tom Barker at Ove Arup & Partners. The main service routes are mostly accommodated on rue de Renard side in the 6m space created between the glass façade and the vertical tension tie rods of the gerberettes. The pipes and ductwork are colour-coded — blue for air, green for fluids and yellow for electricity cables. Red is used around the building for movement and flow. This colour-coding, together with the expressed structure, create the building’s distinctive 'information machine' hi-tech style.
Extensions of time and budget were granted to cover elements unforseen at scheme design stage but the building was completed to the revised time and budget. It was opened officially on 31st January 1977 by Pompidou's successor, Président Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. From the start people were drawn to it in vast numbers, and they continue to be — the realisation of Rogers & Piano's philosophy of making art and culture accessible to the masses.
Inspired by the 1960s Archigram movement that endorsed colourful, flexible space — and by the work of British architect Cedric Price — Rogers & Piano wanted to bring culture off its pedestal and to build a kind of 'anti-monument', unintimidated by tradition. In this they succeeded admirably. The Centre Pompidou is the last great project expressing this 1960s design ideal.
Architect: Piano & Rogers
Competition/programme/interiors: G.F. Franchini
Services engineer: Tom Barker at Ove Arup & Partners
Contractor: GTM (Jean Thaury, site engineer)
Cast steelwork: Krupp
Lifts and escalators: Otis
Heating and ventilation: Industrielle de Chauffage
Heating and ventilation: Saunier Duval
Glazing: CFEM
Research: RK
"Design and construction of the Centre National d‘Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou" by P.B. Ahm, F.G. Clarke, E.L. Grut, P. Rice, in the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers Part I , 1979, 66, November, pp.557-593
"Renzo Piano Building Workshop: Complete works volume one"
by Peter Buchanan, Phaidon, London, 2007
"The Seventy Architectural Wonders of Our World" edited by Neil Parkyn, Thames & Hudson, London 2002
"The Making of Beaubourg: A Building Biography of the Centre Pompidou, Paris" by Nathan Silver, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1994
"The Engineer's Contribution to Contemporary Architecture: Peter Rice"
by Andre Brown, Thomas Telford Publishing, London, 2001
reference sources   AEI

Centre Georges Pompidou