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Wouter Davidts, Art Factories: Museums of Contemporary Art and the Promise of Artistic Production, from Centre Pompidou to Tate Modern

Wouter Davidts, Art Factories: Museums of Contemporary Art and the Promise of Artistic Production, from Centre Pompidou to Tate Modern

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Published by Val Ravaglia
From Fabrications, Vol. 16, No 1, June 2006
From Fabrications, Vol. 16, No 1, June 2006

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Published by: Val Ravaglia on Oct 31, 2013
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Art Factories: Museums of Contemporary Art and the Promise of Artistic Production, from Centre Pompidou to Tate Modern
Wouter Davidts
In 1966, the Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers made the sculpture entitled
 Building (Les Yeux).
 It consists of a structure of four iron bars and five floors made of different glass plates, loaded with a collection of jam jars filled with cut-out images of eyes. Relative to similar gazing structures of that year, such as
 La camera qui regarde
 La Tour visuelle
 Building (Les Yeux)
 is undoubtedly the most architectural. It reads as a model of a modernist structure, almost  paraphrasing Le Corbusier’s
 project. However,
 Building (Les Yeux)
is no direct translation of the modernist paradigm of
machine à habiter 
. As the title suggests, it acts as a total “seeing device”, as
une machine à regarder.
 Broodthaers’s building embodies the promise of total transparency and multidirectional visibility. It has no exterior, and its floors are made of glass. The centrifugal gaze of Jeremy Bentham’s model of the panopticon is transformed into an omnipresent spatial condition: one is not only constantly seen, one  permanently sees everything, in every direction and from every possible  position. Such comprehensive visibility makes any place in
 Building (Les Yeux)
 interchangeable and the gaze radically unspecific. The seeing device is so indeterminate that, ultimately, there is nothing to see. Broodthaers’s work is consequently not only
machine à regarder 
 but, above all –following Baudrillard’s description of the Centre Pompidou –‘une machine à faire le vide’ or a machine to generate emptiness.
 It presents us with the mere promise of absolute presentation, suggesting that the pledge for total surveyability is a complete nightmare: it produces nothing but a pellucid vacuum.
 Building (Les Yeux)
 can be read as a critical anticipation of those architectural projects that pay tribute to the ideology of total flexibility and transparency. With its boxlike volume, large plateaus and rigid carcass, the sculpture shows remarkable affinities to one of its most famous referents, the Centre Pompidou of Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers.
Figure 1, overleaf, top: Marcel Broodthaers,
 Les Yeux (Building)
 La Tour Visuelle
, 1966. Source : Susana Martinez-Garrido (ed),
 Marcel Broodthaers
, Madrid: Ministerio de Cultura, Museo Nacional Reina Sofia, 1992, p 86. Figure 2, overleaf, bottom: Renzo Piano & Richard Rogers,
Centre Pompidou
, Paris, 1977. Source:
 Architectural Design
 47, 2, 1977, p 111.
 Vol 16, No 1, June 2006
Art Factories
Centre Pompidou (1977)
It’s a real monster. But I think a good monster. Basically, it’s not at all a bad idea.  –Pontus Hulten
When the project for a large cultural macro-organism in the centre of Paris was drawn up in 1970, the concept of a classical building was wilfully abandoned. The competition brief for Le Centre National d’Art et Culture Georges Pompidou asked for an integrated cultural infrastructure or framework. The winning design had to propose a solution for the unpredictable development and hence spatial and exhibitionary requirements –of the contemporary work of art, and express the image of a popular and iconoclastic art institution. The key concepts of the architectural programme are flexibility (
) and porosity (
 The centre needed to function as a living organism, to grasp the  present and to stimulate contemporary artistic production. This generated demand for a supple architecture embodying the unlimited and perpetual  possibility of anything, anywhere, at any time. The concept of delimitation is therefore constantly and deliberately weakened in the ‘Architectural Program’: the notion of a room or gallery (
) is replaced by the less determinate concept of space (
 Although the necessary area requirements for certain primary functions are precisely indicated, the  programme anxiously avoids any further formal or spatial specificity. While the museum section of the ‘Architectural Program’ states the necessity for a series of galleries, facilitating a chronological exhibition scheme, it then explicitly refrains from determining the design of these galleries. The galleries need to be ‘as flexible as possible’ in order to allow ‘any possible mode of presentation’.
 The interior of the Centre was imagined to surmount every spatial –and, by extension, institutional –division or demarcation by means of an architectural continuum, an agglomerate of spaces and surfaces. When the design of the architects Piano & Rogers was awarded the first prize in the competition, it was praised by the jury for having met the desire for a functional, flexible and polyvalent construction.
 The high-tech framework with its stack of large open platforms effectively evoked the institutional agenda of topicalization, democratization and demystification. The structure promised to allow both anticipation of and adaptation to the changing and unpredictable needs, means, and tastes of future users. This belief was further enhanced by the standard rhetoric of the architects, describing the building as ‘a giant meccano set’ that would take a stand against the ‘traditional static transparent or solid doll’s house’.
 In the Centre Pompidou, the marriage between architectural and institutional flexibility was to be fully attained. The successful evocation of this  promising image can undoubtedly be traced back to the fascinating synthesis of different architectural idioms of flexibility that the building achieves, made evident by the three different metaphors that continually reappear in descriptions of both the institution and the architecture: the machine, the factory, and the supermarket. This diverging vocabulary represents the ambiguity of the Centre Pompidou’s strategies for architectural and institutional flexibility.

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