Published September 19, 2018
I have the good fortune to be able to borrow a flat on the Île de la Cité in Paris from which I see from one side the towers of Notre Dame above the roof of a 19th-century seminary, and from the other side, across from the Seine, the ornate reconstruction of the 17th-century Hôtel de Ville, which burned down in 1871. To the right of the Hôtel de Ville the classical façade of the Church of Saint-Gervais-et-Saint-Protais rises above terraced streets of Lutetian limestone, and to the left of the Hôtel the same serene limestone forms a terraced background to life in a popular square.
In this part of Paris the banks of the Seine have not been reduced to motorways, and looking to my right I see the river as I remember it from half a century ago, lapping the shores of the Ile Saint-Louis, flowing beneath the arches of the Pont Marie and the Pont Louis-Philippe, and watched by people sitting along the embankment, eating, reading or taking the air. Whenever I need to renew my energies, to finish a book, or to let the world pass by, I come to this place that inspired me to be who I am.
The most interesting feature of the view from my window is that the buildings — with one exception — all harmonise. Even the flamboyant Hôtel de Ville, with its ranks of precarious statuary and grotesque pepper-pot chimneys, attracts to itself no more attention than is its due, being built from the same materials as its neighbours, in a familiar château style, and in deference to the layout of the streets. The surrounding apartments date from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, built according to the principle that each new addition must fit to the existing skyline and street plan. Even the 20th-century additions are slotted into the gaps without too much violence, and the overall impression is of a long-standing settlement and a much-loved home. There is nothing like this in London, certainly nothing that so reconciles the grandeur of a great metropolis with the modest needs of those who live in it.
But there is a blemish in the view from my window. Above the elegant classical facades on the far side of the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, I see a collection of metal pipes, tubes and boxes in childish primary colours. This debris, washed up on the rooftops like rubbish on a beach, marks the presence beneath it of the Centre Pompidou, which houses the public library, the museum of modern art and the centre for music and acoustic research. The Centre was built in 1977 on a five-acre site by decree of Georges Pompidou who, like every French president, was granted, on leaving office, the right to deface some corner of the world’s greatest capital city. In the event the Centre was less a decision of the ex-president than a vanity project of his wife, who wished to be known as a patron of modern art.
To my chagrin the Centre, like Disneyland, Glastonbury and public executions, has attracted large crowds. This only underlines the disgrace of it. Whole streets had to be demolished to make room for the Centre Pompidou, which in itself has no real façade, creates behind itself a bleak assemblage of tubes and wires that is the very negation of a street, and presents to the plaza in front a kind of improvised climbing frame whose claim to be architecture is based largely on the opinions of those who designed it — Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano and Gianfranco Franchini. From no angle does the Centre fit in with its surroundings, nor did it ever occur to its architects that it should do so. It is an ostentatious blemish, a self-conscious parody of a domestic appliance.
It saddens me that this was the first major public work by a British architect in France. It saddens me more that Richard Rogers went on to gain commissions on the strength of it, inflicting the inside-out monstrosity of the Lloyds Building on London, and going on to become the architect hero of Tony Blair’s materialist utopia. To me it is obvious that buildings in a city should fit into a continuous fabric, and that this can be achieved only by discipline, modesty and respect for the past. But the world now abounds in architects who have absorbed the lesson of the celebrity culture, which tells them that the first principle of aesthetics is not to fit in but to stand out. The simplest way of standing out is to follow in the footsteps of the graffiti artist and find something to desecrate.
To spoil something beautiful, and then facetiously describe the result as an artistic innovation, is to jump all at once into the centre of the stage.
Sir Roger Scruton is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.