For obvious reasons the Centre Pompidou in Paris has a special place in the hearts and minds of most of us. An epochal building and an ambitious cultural institution with a program that the world had not seen before. And it should be added: a place that has created some of the most innovative - and popular - architectural exhibitions to be seen anywhere. The Belgian architect Jean Dethier was the first to act - during three decades, from 1975 to 2005 - as author, curator & stage-designer of 20 of those architectural exhibitions produced at the Pompidou by the CCI department. He received from the French government the highest professional award - the prestigious “Grand Prix National d’Architecture” - for his many contributions to renew, enlarge and promote, among a very large international audience, a “vivid architectural culture”. Currently he is writing the book: “Living with Earth. Traditions, modernity and future of architecture & cities built with raw earth: a world & trans-historic panorama”, hopefully to be published in 2013. Dethier, a persevere and focused man - very often dressed in “Bordeaux red” - has researched earth architecture worldwide for over 40 years and sees this encyclopedia as his Manifesto for an ecological and sustainable domestic architecture.
How did the story of the Centre Pompidou start as a new and ambitious cultural project where architecture exhibitions would become a major goal and a pioneering international achievement ?
It all started in the wake of May 1968, a political, social and cultural revolution initiated in Paris by students - and later by workers all over the country - against the conservative politics of President Charles de Gaulle. Faced with a huge national wave of frustration and fury he had to resign. In 1969 Georges Pompidou was elected to lead the country. He was the first president of France to have a political profile including a background and motivation in the fields of arts and culture. He is the author of one of the most popular anthology of French poetry. Privately, he was also a passionate collector of contemporary art. Due to his culturally oriented sensibility, Pompidou understood that the May 1968 movement included also a claim by the young generation in favor of a new and liberated approach of culture as well as a radical change of its way of life, and that those two quests were converging. He had the conviction that culture was a key tool for social change. So, one of his first political decisions was to initiate a very innovative and ambitious cultural state institution exploring all new facets of contemporary arts and cultures. Initially called Centre Beaubourg - due to the name of the district of Paris where it was located at the very heart of the capital - this institution was later named Centre Pompidou (CP) in memory of his passionate creator who died three years before its inauguration in 1977.
Was that project managed by Pompidou himself? Did he personally shape its program? Yes indeed, this project is his most memorable brain-child. He personally initiated and controlled all the essential options and decisions during 5 years, since his first intentions announced in 1969 as soon he was elected. It was his “Grand Projet”. Culture has always been an important facet of politics for all French governments but as a pioneering case, the birth of this mega-project was decided by the President himself. The concept and program of the future CP was not initiated at once. It followed a quite a pragmatic and evolutionary process. His first idea was to promote a new Museum of Modern and Contemporary Arts (MNAM) to replace the tiny and old fashioned one operating at the Palais de Tokyo since 1937. Then he added a very large encyclopedic Public Library (BPI). Soon emerged the project of a Music Research Center (IRCAM) dedicated to avant-garde. This basic three parts scheme was later enlarged to theatre, dance & cinema. The final step of this creative process was the integration of a department (CCI) devoted to Architecture, Civic Design and the Built Environment. Those many ingredients materialised a “multi-disciplinary strategy” to develop new creative synergies between all possible facets of arts and cultures. All those activities would be located under one same roof in a new emblematic building clearly designed to promote a process of “democratization of culture”. This large “culture refinery” (as initially nicknamed by the medias due to its architectural structure) would be totally financed by the State - the Ministry of Culture - and managed by a staff of about 1.200 people.
Why was the Centre Pompidou building commissioned to Piano & Rodgers?
This is another facet of this amazing epic. As President of the Republic, Pompidou could have decided by himself the choice of the architect. Wisely, he preferred to launch an international open and anonymous competition. In 1970 it was a world première for such a huge cultural institution. He also decided not to be part of the jury which should be, according to his request, composed of 12 top professionals, many of them selected abroad to guarantee a non-nationalist and a non politically-oriented cultural choice. Among them were the architects Philip Johnson (USA) and Niemeyer (Brazil). To act as president of this totally independent jury, Pompidou appointed the most respected, creative and exigent French architectural designer: Jean Prouvé. Among the 681 projects submitted (including by then world famous architects), the jury selected the most innovative, seductive and provocative one. It was designed by two very young and unknown architects from Italy and Great Britain; at that time Piano and Rodgers had only built small and confidential projects. So the risky jury’s choice turned to be highly memorable: it gave life to an instant worldwide success-story and to an iconic architecture now considered as a major reference of the 20th century. This High-Tech building - developing 60.000 m2 on seven levels - was initially conceived for a daily frequentation of about 4.000 to 7.000 visitors. But the reality of the public reaction was very different: during the first decade, that average has been around 30.000 entrances every day (17.000 daily in 2006). Such an overwhelming figure was a unique socio-cultural phenomenon in the world of museums. It stays as an eloquent statement about the exceptional success the Centre Pompidou, cumulating largely over 200 million visitors since its opening.
How have you been selected to act as director of architectural exhibitions in such an innovative institution? What kind of professional background did you then have?
After my studies of architecture and town-planning in Brussels - I am Belgian - I initiated in 1965 a one year study trip in North Africa to explore vernacular and colonial architecture. Fascinated by those cultures, I decided to stay for four more years in Morocco, working for the Ministry of Housing and Urbanism. There I was involved, with UNESCO and United Nations agencies, in different pilot-programs. Among them, the rehabilitation of the magnificent vernacular earth-built village of Tissergate in the Draa valley (8 km. north of Zagora) as well as the conception a large multi-media show for the 1st Pan-African Cultural Festival (Algiers 1969) about Traditional and Modern Raw Earth Architecture all over Africa. This was the origin of what would become one of my professional passions. After one year in 1970 at Princeton University - to finalize and publish my research about the History of Modern Architecture and Urbanism in Morocco - I settled in Paris. During three years I acted as advisor for a large private company involved in housing construction. My main job was to organize each trimester a 3 days cultural study-trip in a different European city to initiate the chairman and his 25 top directors to the best examples of housing and urban design. After Algiers, it was my second experience into “cultural communication”. At that time I was often visiting in Paris the Musée des Arts Décoratifs where I appreciated their provocative exhibitions about art and the very first architectural exhibitions shown in France. They were mainly devoted to pioneer-architects like Gaudi, Horta, etc. I found those monographic shows useful but quite academic in their concept and “flat” in their conventional 2D mural layout. So, during my free time at home, I initiated some research to develop an alternative approach of architecture exhibitions through a thematic scenario and a 3D scenography. I asked to meet the directors - Mathey & Barré - to present them the vast iconography I had collected to promote an idealistic concept that grew in my head: a hypothetical show focused on the evolution, from 1830 to 1975, of Railway Architecture closely related to the many facets of the so called Railway Revolution.
How did you argue in favor of adopting such a specific approach?
I argued that this Railway Revolution and its strong impact in many fields of modern society had been - and still was - so powerful, influential and diverse worldwide during 150 years that it was highly appropriate to explore and show - in that context - the pioneering design process of Railway Architecture and Engineering. My idea was to approach and explain this specific creativity through explicit reference to a large panorama of complementary and contextual domains: technology, economy, politics, town-planning, industry, military strategy, sociology, art and so on. The key idea was to investigate and exhibit, for the first time in a museum, a full typology of architecture - in this case the Railway Station and all related concepts - as a multi-faceted mirror of modern society, illustrating an innovative multi-disciplinary spectrum of interactions.
What was the result of this plea?
The reaction of Barré and Mathey was to me a real surprise: after further interviews, they offered me a job at the Centre Pompidou, then still under construction and scheduled to open two years later. So, in 1975, I was headhunted to act there as a full-time “advisor for architecture”, to initiate a global strategy, to curate and design exhibitions in this field. I was then 36 years old. This would be my activity during the next three decades, up to 2005. I am still highly grateful to them for the confidence they invested in my appointment. This option radically changed my life and gave me, during 30 years, an amazing opportunity to invent - in total freedom and independence - new approaches and concepts for action. Furthermore, the CP was then the first Centre of Modern Art in Europe to incorporate a large department devoted to architecture and civic design: a unique, powerful and influential place to promote those fields of creativity.
How did you initially define your strategy about architecture exhibitions?
First, I adopted with enthusiasm the pioneering ideas initiated by François Barré who founded the CCI in 1969. One of his political aims was to develop architecture and urbanism as a new cultural field of investigation, information and enjoyment for a very large public. The basic idea was to consider that in a progressive democracy all citizens should know and understand the specific nature and the key challenges of our built environment. So, ideally, they should be able to take part - critically, civically and (even possibly) creatively - in a new “participative process” about the design of their cities, daily environment and habitat. To achieve that strategic ambition, the exhibitions covering those fields had to be conceived to attract, seduce - a key word for me in that context - and convince a broad public. So basically the priority was to capture a large audience through stimulating explorations of architectural and urban issues. If this aim is appropriately achieved - without paternalism, elitism, obscurantism, propaganda or technocracy - it can also stimulate the interest of all concerned professionals. In clear, those architecture exhibitions were not designed just to attract the restricted milieu of architects who, at that time, still represented a ghetto isolated from society.
What kind of ideas did you personally add to develop your own strategy?
One of them was inspired to me by a seven words quotation from Winston Churchill: “Society Shapes Architecture and Architecture Shapes Society”. His statement confirms that our built environment is the materialization of an invisible dual relationship system of influences on our daily way of life. So, we should all be aware of those specific dangers or opportunities. I am still convinced that the best way to stimulate the curiosity of the public about architecture is to present it in such a critical context. To explore, in each specific case, what the main external powers that a society develops to shape architecture are and, when finally built, how it affects our environment and social behavior. To provide the citizens with those useful keys to capture the full meaning of architecture, this option supposes to adopt a broad and critical contextual analysis. And not only - as it happens too often - one restricted only to aesthetical or technical considerations. In short, a contextual approach of architecture is essential to make it really understandable, meaningful and even exciting for the public. Just the opposite attitude to Koolhaas’ “Fuck the Context” ideological statement. When most citizens are not yet concerned or interested by architecture, the best way to stimulate them is first to capture their interest through a vivid approach related to its contextual components: politics, economy, society, technology, ecology, etc. My quest for a dynamic multi-disciplinary approach led me to choose thematic subjects, and never any monographic one, too much related to the glorification of the ego of a single person. I am also still convinced that those contextual and critical ingredients are the most appropriate to develop a captivating scenario that will guarantee an architecture exhibition is socially efficient and memorable.
Could you illustrate this concept with an example?
When I had in 1979 to choose the theme of my next exhibition, I referred to the most obvious problem society was facing worldwide during the 1970’s: the first major Energy Crisis linked to political and economical oil speculation. I underlined the fact - quite obvious but never mentioned before - that modern architecture was heavily and dangerously dependent on fossil energy because all main building materials used (cement, concrete, steel, aluminium, synthetic materials, etc) were highly energy-consuming in their industrial processing. Cement itself is still responsible today for 6 to 8% of the world’s CO2 production. I used that contextual environmental evidence to campaign - to militate - in favor of a universal raw & natural building material who does not request any fossil energy to be transformed and used. So, my exhibition “Down to Earth” was devoted to architecture and housing built with Raw Earth. It was articulated in 3 parts.(A) A world survey of our ancient and vernacular heritage. (B) Eloquent - but then ignored - examples of best practice from Cointeraux (French 18th &19th C. architect), Le Corbusier or Wright (both during the 1940’s) up to recent pioneers in USA during the70’s.(C) An activist plea to regenerate and develop a contemporary ecological architecture using that basic and cheap raw material, both in developing countries and in our western world.
So, for your most successful and famous exhibition, you initiated an approach focused on a very hot contemporary socio-economic issue to question a forgotten cultural heritage and to argue ecologically in favor of a new sustainable earthen architecture. Is that correct? And what about your broader approach of architectural history?
Yes indeed. Another aspect of my criteria has often been a quest for a trans-historic approach to architecture. Most of my thematic exhibitions provided an opportunity to link organically the past, the present and a prospective future into an inspiring saga. The idea was not to focus on history as such - it would have been inappropriate in a Museum of Modern Art - but to “question the past” in a modern critical attitude, and so to understand more vividly the present evolution; and finally to extrapolate about potential options which could be usefully regenerated during the next decades. This synergy between history and a prospective future seemed to me essential due to the fact that the ideology of Modernity in architecture and urbanism has so long been coupled, during the 20th century, with a voluntary ignorance and amnesia or a dogmatic rejection of the lessons we can learn from the past and from traditions. Paradoxically, critical history is a new key - among others - for the future, if we can creatively extrapolate its meaning and carefully avoid the poison of nostalgia. This approach clearly needs a contextual approach to boost dynamic architecture exhibitions and make them usefully provocative, socially stimulating and efficiently acting as a progressive incitation.
Concerning the 20 exhibitions you have personally curated and designed - which were among the most successful at the Centre Pompidou, with a cumulated international frequentation as high as 6 million visitors - what is the one you would like most to be remembered as your best socio-cultural achievement?
I hesitate between two of them. 1] I could choose “All Stations” [Le Temps des Gares] because it was in 1978 my first extra-large multi-disciplinary architecture exhibition (1.500 m2) located at the top floor of the CP, in the “Grande Galerie”. It is still the most prestigious place in Paris to exhibit major projects focused on modern art & culture, but also the one where the prerequisite condition to use it was to be certain to attract at least 150.000 visitors in 75 days. It was the very first time architecture was shown there and so it was really risky to target such a large frequentation. For the very first time for an architectural show, the public response was overwhelming with about 220.000 visitors: an average of 2.900 per day which was similar to the attendance of the big exhibitions devoted to top modern artists like Magritte or others. After presentation in Paris those Railway Stations were shown in six European capitals where they attracted in three years over a million visitors. Finally, due to the impact of the exhibition on the medias and the decision-makers, the French National Railways (SNCF) seriously improved their strategy about historical and new railway stations. Some of them were soon built according to a cutting-edge design: a real progress in terms of civic architecture, urbanism and public service.  But, to answer to your question, my final preference would go to “Down to Earth” [“Architectures de terre”] inaugurated in 1981. Because it is my most eco-militant exhibition and the one which won the largest international recognition and influence, partly through his extra-long circulation during 16 years on the four continents where it cumulated 3 million visitors.
What creative options did you adopt about the so called “by-products” related to your architecture exhibitions?
“By-products” progressively became an important strategic complement to any exhibition: to enlarge socially and geographically their impact or to hold it alive during a longer period than the quite short life of a show. I am convinced, since 1980, that any architecture exhibition which has a militant ambition to change something in our built environment should be closely linked to a full size permanent demonstration of its purpose. In clear the idea is to materialize simultaneously an architectural program specifically built to demonstrate the feasibility of the ideas promoted by the exhibition. I call this activist process a “passage à l’acte”, a term referring to a shift from theory to practice, demonstrating in full scale the realism and the efficiency of your ideas. Indeed, I believe it is too easy - and even irresponsible - for an exhibition director to promote publicly architectural or urban strategies without offering an evident proof of their effectiveness, … as any scientist would do.
How did this ambition materialize? How many times did you apply that specific strategy?
I did it three times.  Firstly in 1980 as a complement to my exhibition “Down to Earth”. I initiated the construction of a social housing program of 62 houses & apartment blocks (up to five floors) conceived as an urban eco-district (in the New Town of L’Isle d’Abeau near Lyon) promoting the use of raw earth as an alternative ecological and natural construction material. The “Domaine de la Terre” [the Earth Estate] was inaugurated in 1985 as the first European experience to modernize a vernacular building tradition and to adapt it, in a realistic way, to contemporary technological, economic, social and urban needs. The result of this strategy was awarded in 1987 by the United Nations (through its “Habitat” agency) the title of “pilot experimental eco-housing project of major international significance”.  The second project was linked in 1988 to my exhibition “Châteaux Bordeaux”. Its aim was double. [A] To reveal the amazing architectural heritage of the prestigious wine business which, as such, was nearly unknown or forgotten, even within this region. [B] To criticize severely the lack of architectural responsibility and creativity of most owners of those great wine estates since the 1950’s and to initiate a militant process to modernize the ancestral tradition which was successfully materialized during centuries through its quality dual-management articulating “Great Wine & Great Architecture”. To stimulate such a contemporary renaissance, I initiated locally three European architectural competitions and a strategic cultural agreement with one prestigious estate to build there a cutting-edge new wine “château”: Pichon-Longueville, inaugurated in 1989 in Pauillac, Médoc. It was designed by Jean de Gastines (co-author with Shigeru Ban of the new regional Centre Pompidou opened in 2009 in Metz) &Patrick Dillon. This pilot project would later be recognized for its pioneering impact: it kick-started a new creative wine architecture boom in the Bordeaux region with new “wineries” built since 2000 by Porzemparc, Nouvel, Botta & others ; as well as in Spain - where the exhibition was also presented -with new spectacular buildings, mainly in the Rioja wine region, recently designed by Gehry, Calatrava, Hadid, etc.
Did you devote a similar strategy to promote militant ideas about urban design?
Yes indeed, that was one of my goals.  My 3rd attempt was linked to the exhibition “Living Bridges” when it was initially staged in 1996 at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Its concept was, once again, based on a double thematic approach. [A] The first “act” was to trace, for the first time, the long international history - from the middle-age up to now - of those specific urban bridges and their rich (but then unknown) typology. They combine three functions in a unique and spectacular civic symbiosis. Engineering (by crossing an obstacle), Architecture (housing, retail or other services built, on two to five stories, on both lateral sides of the bridge) and Urbanism (connecting closely and organically two parts of a city previously divided by a major obstacle: river, urban highway or railway tracks). The most famous archetypes of ancient Living Bridges still are the Ponte Rialto in Venice and the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. [B] Secondly, to extrapolate creatively from this ancestral European and forgotten tradition. What where the lessons to learn from that former multi-functional “Collage” concept to avoid over-consumption of urban land and other disasters related to contemporary technocratic urban segregation of functions? To me, this heritage could promote an ecological alternative based on 3 cumulative values: Urban Density, Intensity and Compacity. To materialise that idea advocated by the exhibition, I met the British Minister of the Environment (Sir John Gummer) to choose with him the most appropriate site in Central London - on the Thames river - to locate there a new ambitious and spectacular Living Bridge. Its design would be the result of an international competition I suggested to launch, with my British partners, on the base of my two previous similar experiences in France.
What exactly happened then?
Among the 7 architects invited to submit a realistic project were Libeskind, Krier, Zaha Hadid and Antoine Grumbach. The jury being unable to choose the winner between the two last architects, I suggested - as an homage to British democracy - to ask the visitors of the exhibition - where all the large models were shown - to make the final choice. Among those 122.000 visitors (more than 1.300 each day) - the Royal Academy claimed it was the highest frequentation for any architectural exhibition ever taking place in Britain - 84.000 participated to that vote and gave 82% of their support to the French project submitted by Grumbach. He became an instant-star in England. The press was amazingly enthusiast about the exhibition as well as the future Living Bridge to be built parallel to Waterloo Bridge, at the very core of London. The public’s enthusiastic fervor was a stunning consecration of my option to combine an exhibition with a competition to materialize in full size the civic design idea promoted by the show. A property developer paid Grumbach’s honorarium during three years (up to 2000) to achieve the updated and detailed plans to build this very ambitious bridge (50 m. wide, 300 m. long and developing 44.000 m2. of built surface). But sadly it never came to fruition because the two boroughs, located on each side of the Thames, proclaimed irreconcilable political requests about the social nature of the buildings to be built on top of the bridge: one wanted social housing and the other luxury hotel development. Churchill was right to state that “society shapes architecture” but he should have added that politicians can also block that process.
Could you name - with some key words - the very nature and ambition of your ethical engagement to conceive and manage your exhibitions and related projects?
It would be a subtle balance between “Eco-Activism and Civic Seduction”; four key-words to outline my main convictions. “Eco” because an ecological strategy is now essential to save, regenerate or invent our environment. “Activism” means here a form of militancy to promote ideas and practices able to stimulate the understanding, criticism and improvement of architecture & urbanism. “Civic” because the priority of architectural and urban excellence must benefit first to the collectivity and promote Civic Design. And finally “Seduction” refers, in this specific context, to the social ability and power an exhibition must have - both intellectually, emotionally and visually - to catch the public and media interest, to formalize progressive ideas promoting a civic debate and finally to convince people and decision-makers to adopt them to improve our built environment.
Cultural exhibitions have become a large and specific new field of cultural & media communication, as well as an architectural field of creativity, in its own. And they now can capture huge audiences. How do you explain this evolution?
Indeed, I was lucky to be part of the first generation of authors and designers involved in this new creative process. But the many ideas, strategies, design projects, experiences - and their real social impact - cumulated during the last three decades have not yet been analyzed and published as a critical synthesis. Let’s hope that a new generation of historians concerned by contemporary culture, medias and architecture would start soon to investigate about this specific creativity. I transferred all my professional documents to the Centre Pompidou Archives to facilitate such research. I hope we would all see soon – hopefully with the help of ICAM - the development of an innovative research in this specific field and the publication of a stimulating and useful History of (Architectural) Exhibitions which should contribute to avoid a cultural amnesia in this under-explored domain. For any contact with Jean Dethier: email@example.com 6 rue de Belzunce, Paris 75010, France.
Published 2012 ICAM print 4