The recent death of the great British architect High Tech Modernist Richard Rogers has made us wonder about the fate of buildings like his and Renzo Piano’s Center Pompidou, which were initially vilified but have become icons.
Looking only at Rogers’ London architecture – the Millenium Dome, Heathrow’s T5, the Lloyd’s building, the Leadenhall building aka the Cheesegrater, the list goes on – we see Rogers’ impact on the life of this one city. .
But it was the Center Pompidou that established its modernist references. So let’s start there, before discussing three other equally poorly received buildings that have nevertheless proved popular to posterity.
CENTER GEORGES POMPIDOU (1977, Paris, France) by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano
The so-called Hi Tech is turning architecture upside down, or as some commentators say, more accurately, upside down. Rather than hiding a building’s underlying structures and services, these are deliberately revealed.
In the case of the Pompidou, the pipes are chosen in primary colors and the exposed elevators and escalators pass through and up and down the exterior of the building. Generous interior spaces allow for plenty of play.
It’s really fun, but critics and various interest groups hated its apparent slap in the face of high culture. However, it quickly became a favorite place for the general public and one of the most popular cultural institutions in Paris. Power to the people! Long live the revolution !
EIFFEL TOWER (1889, Paris, France) by Gustave Eiffel, Stephen Sauvestre, Maurice Koechlin and Emile Nouguier
While we’re in the City of Love, let’s remember that its most famous structure at the time was neither unanimously praised nor even intended to stand. In other words, no love lost there.
Originally built for the 1889 World’s Fair celebrating the centenary of the French Revolution, the 324m tower was to stand for just 20 years. The public radio and telecommunications services granted a permanent stay of execution.
But if the early critics had been successful, it would have been torn down immediately. Or not built at all.
For example, some of France’s most eminent writers, artists and composers, including Guy de Maupassant and Charles Gounod, wrote in an open letter of “the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower, which popular resentment, so often the arbiter of common sense and justice, has already baptized the Tower of Babel”. Ouch.
TOWER BRIDGE (1894, London, UK) by Sir Horace Jones
This Victorian Gothic Revival masterpiece was generally praised upon its completion. And who doesn’t love its fairytale evocation of medieval order and chivalry (a fantasy, but why ruin a good story?), so close to reality, the Tower of London? Yet, as a quick online trawl reveals, many contemporary press articles were scathing. I love this one from the Pall Mall Gazette:
“…there certainly seems to be a subtle quality of ugliness, a certain varied ugliness, so to speak, that age can hardly fade or stale, about this new bridge. It is perfectly situated for our public works the ugliest, astride the Thames, to the terror of the wandering stranger.
SOLOMON R GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM (1959, New York, USA) by Frank Lloyd Wright
It is form following function, the spiraling museum ramp imposing works of art are viewed in a predetermined sequence, one at a time, while still being able to see back and forth. From the outside, it looks like the sculpture, the work of art, that it is. A giant snail, perhaps.
But as Emily Genauer wrote in the New York Herald Tribune at the time of the Guggenheim’s opening, the museum had been “variously derided during its three years of construction as a giant corkscrew, a washing machine and a marshmallow”.
A future shock case for the layman, perhaps. Fellow architects and critics thought differently, finding it, according to Genauer, “the most beautiful building in America.”