Le Centre Pompidou

Location

The Centre Pompidou is right near what people call the "heart" of Paris. Technically in the 4th arrondissment, this museum is situated on rue Beaubourg, a street that brushes up against several of the central areas of the city. Most notably, the Centre Pompidou is right across the street from Les Halles, a 4-floor shopping mall that starts at ground level and extends, like a giant fungus, underground. On floor -4 is the Métro station "Châtelet Les Halles," which is the most depressing and foul-smelling place in the city. If ever I should need to refer to this station again, it will be called merely "the pits." This is the mood set by the entire mall, actually; the place is usually pretty empty during the day and notoriously dangerous at night. However, if you're just in Paris for "le shit," Les Halles should be your destination. Also bordering on the Pompidou is a grid-like array of streets (rare in Paris) overflowing with closely-nestled sex shops. This makes for some unexpected surroundings and prepares you quite nicely (in the way hot tubbing prepares you for rolling in the snow) for the close encounter you're about to have with beauty.

Design

The outside of the museum is striking: the ventilation pipes are all on the outside of the building and are all colored red, yellow, or blue. The escalators leading from one floor to another also run along the exterior, on the side of the building that faces a big public square, where young French kids gather to sit around, play the guitar and sing, where mimes can sometimes make a buck, and where you can't walk ten feet without hearing, "You speak English? You want me to draw caricature?" The Centre dates from 1977, and architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rodgers are two rare examples of 70's designers who didn't do everything ass backward; all you have to do is walk across the street to wallow in the pity of Les Halles and you'll see what I mean.

A Library?

The inside of the building is equally awesome, and the first steps inside will be a bit stupefying for the average visitor. The first floor is home to a gift shop and the ticket windows, and part of the second floor can be seen, where there is another gift shop and a library. The library is only accessible by a different entrance - this is consistent with the French desire to put everything in its right place. The library is a typical Parisian library from which it is not permitted to check books out, and which is usually packed on the weekends with students doing research.

The Art, Silly.

The main interest for the museum's visitors is, of course, the art. The second and third floors having been assimilated by the library, you have to take the escalator up to the fourth floor to view the collection. This affords you an excellent chance to look through the winding streets of the neighborhood and to examine its old buildings. As you reach the fourth floor, you're at about the same level as rooftops of most Paris apartment buildings; you can see the Eiffel Tower and Sacre Coeur poking out from behind. The entrance to the fourth- and fifth-floor collections (the fourth floor containing art done between 1960 and the present day, and the fifth starting at 1905 and ending around 1960 - "from Fauvism to Surrealism and French and American abstract art") tempts you in before you can take the escalator higher to see the panoramic view of the city (the cheapest available, unless you're willing to sneak up a seventy-foot ladder to get to the top of a residential building). I won't comment on the works inside the museum, save to say that since I was last here in Paris - two years ago - the contemporary collection has been entirely rotated and I am as happy with the new stuff as I was with the old, which is to say euphoric.

Special Exhibitions

Before I go into the part about the special exhibitions, I should give a quick warning. You probably shouldn't walk into the Centre Pompidou and ask to see the exhibition, because the person behind the ticket window might think you want to see a middle-aged man open his raincoat for you. Usually the sixth floor has a few different expositions going on at any one time - anything from a retrospective of an artist's life and work to a featured comtemporary artist to a survey of currents in architectural thought. Of course, to see all of this you need a more expensive ticket (it currently costs 5€ to get into the collections and 10€ for the collections plus the exhibitions, unless you're less than 26 years old, in which case you pay 3€ or 8.5€). That aside, the real reason that most people go to the top story is to admire the view of the city. Basically all major landmarks are visible, though some need to be extracted from the maze of surrounding buildings. Paris is quite a different place when you get away from the white noise and labyrinthine nature of the streets. I would say that I feel the power of a cartographer or an architect when looking at the city from this vantage point. Aside from the view, and hardly worth a mention, there's a restaurant on the top floor of the museum. Of course, it's ludicrously expensive, but if you're the type to want to dine on top of a modern art museum, you shouldn't really care about that sort of thing.

What Now?

The Centre Pompidou is always eclipsed by the Louvre and the Musée d'Orsay, but it should be at or near the top of a tourist's list. If you think that modern art isn't accessible enough, then go to the Louvre and the Orsay first (in that order), then check out the 5th and 4th floors of the Pompidou (in that order). Soon you'll find yourself saying the word post-modern with reckless abandon and attending esoteric gallery openings.
Editor's note: the aforementioned qualities are in no way admirable.

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