In 1969, President Georges Pompidou decided that the vacant site of the Plateau Beaubourg should be used for the construction of a multidisciplinary cultural centre of an entirely new type. The decision gave new impetus to a number of different projects that would now be united in the new centre, with the establishment of a new public reading library in the centre of Paris, the provision of worthy premises for the musée national d’art moderne (MNAM), inadequately housed in one of the wings of the Palais de Tokyo, and the creation of a centre for new music (the IRCAM) inspired by the ideas of French composer Pierre Boulez. In addition to this, the new centre would take over the activities of the centre d’art contemporain in the rue Berryer while also incorporating François Mathey’s team from the musée des Arts Décoratifs, who had developed a dynamic programme of exhibitions of contemporary art.
An architectural competition was announced, the first of its kind in France to be open to architects the whole world over: it attracted 681 competitors from 49 different countries.
The international jury chaired by the architect and engineer Jean Prouvé chose a design submitted by a team of three, British architect Richard Rogers and the two Italians Renzo Piano and Gianfranco Franchini, all relatively unknown. Piano and Rogers alone oversaw the management of the project; the two then went on to make separate careers, both later winning the Pritzker Prize, the highest award in the architectural world.
Today considered an emblematic 20th-century building, taken to the hearts of the people of Paris and a special favourite of tourists from elsewhere, the new arts centre rising from the Plateau Beaubourg was at first compared by its detractors to an oil refinery. Piano and Rogers’ building continued to be a subject of polemic right through the 1970s, before becoming the icon and exemplar that it is today.
The Centre Pompidou was inaugurated on 31 January 1977. From the moment it opened to the public on 2 February 1977, it met with immense success, rapidly becoming one of the most popular cultural venues in the world and one of the most visited monuments in France.
The late 1970's and the 1980's saw the Centre Pompidou stage highly influential exhibitions that made major contributions to the history of 20th-century art: the series “Paris-New York”, “Paris-Berlin”, “Paris-Moscow” and “Paris-Paris”, “Vienna: Birth of a Century”, “The Immaterials”, “Memories of the Future”, “Maps and Figures of the Earth”, “Magicians of the Earth”. Under the leadership of its directors Pontus Hulten and Dominique Bozo, the collection of the musée national d’art moderne grew considerably and became a world leader in the field of modern and contemporary art.
A reorganisation in 1992 saw the creation of a department of cultural development, responsible for a programme of live performance, film screenings, lectures, symposia and debates. The fusion of the modern art museum and the centre for industrial design laid the foundations for an architecture and design collection that in twenty years has become one of the most impressive in the world.
After twenty years of activity and having welcomed over 150 million visitors, under president Jean-Jacques Aillagon the Centre Pompidou underwent renovation work that lasted from October 1997 to December 1999. The government provided funding to expand gallery space for the display of the permanent collection and improve facilities for live performance. The whole project saw the renewal and reorganisation of 100 000 m2 of floor space.
The Centre Pompidou reopened on 1 January 2000, again meeting with great success, being visited by 16 000 people a day that year. At present, the Centre Pompidou welcomes some 3.5 to 3.8 million visitors per annum, depending on the year.