A Living Exhibit

When Tokyo-based architect Shigeru Ban opened his new Paris atelier this past December, he did not have to shop around for real estate—he simply looked to the Centre Pompidou. In a high-profile collaboration with Paris-based Jean de Gastignes and London-based Philip Gumuchdjian (the team beat out competitors such as Herzog & de Meuron, Dominique Perrault, Foreign Office Architects, and Nox), Ban won the commission to design a satellite for the contemporary art museum in Metz, an industrial town near France’s border with Germany, in November 2003. The project is by far Ban’s biggest to date, and the Pompidou offered him workspace on the sixth-floor terrace of its iconic Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers building, where he organized the construction of a temporary paper-tube and plywood office that doubles as an exhibit of the architects at work.

“At first I proposed to the president of the Centre Pompidou, Bruno Racine, that I could make my own structure here kind of as a joke,” Ban says. “But Mr. Racine understood that this would help the audience of the Pompidou be aware of what is going on in Metz. He accepted the proposal [on the condition that] we exposed part of the office to the public.” The Centre Pompidou-Metz will be the first satellite installation of the museum’s collection outside the capital, which the institution describes as “a novel venture in cultural decentralization.” Once construction of the Metz project is complete (the new museum is scheduled to open in 2007) and the architect’s team moves out, the temporary atelier will be donated to the Pompidou collection, probably to become part of the permanent exhibit on contemporary architecture.

Initially the Pompidou offered Ban three possible spaces—on the main plaza outside the museum, in the isolated Brancusi Atelier courtyard, or up on the terrace. Opting for the sixth-floor location—which he thought would be the quietest—Ban designed a variant of the temporary structural system that he has famously used to create warehouses, art exhibits, and emergency relief housing. A vaulted framework comprised of cardboard tubes bolted to wooden nodes is clad with plywood and plastic sheeting. In accordance with Racine’s request, rows of circular portals have been cut into the plywood like peepholes on a construction site, revealing a glimpse into the life of the office. On one end the plywood does not entirely cover the structure, leaving the model-makers exposed to visitors’ curious stares and snapshots. Sometimes a door that opens onto the terrace—usually locked with an electronic system—does not swing shut. “If the door isn’t closed properly, people walk in and ask if we are part of an exhibit,” Ban’s assistant Asako Kimura says. Though no tours are granted, pamphlets describing the work being done in the temporary structure and how it was built are for sale at the bookshop downstairs.

Visitors to the museum aren’t the only ones learning from this arrangement. “I have come to see this Pompidou differently,” Ban says of the functional insights he has gained firsthand. “The museum is not only for adults but also for schoolchildren, so we have to think about that kind of behavior.” Other such observations will result in tangible improvements at the Metz facility. “I notice that at the women’s toilet there is always a queue,” he says. “We have to see about how we can reduce that.”

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