Before spending five years of my life studying the bones of a building, how it functions and what it takes to build one, I was once a tourist. A visitor to a different city, looking at some of the most iconic structures built there decades ago with a gaping mouth and wide eyes peering at it through the lens of a camera, fingers clicking away to capture countless pictures. Studying architecture though, stole some of the magic out of these moments.
After years of critiquing each other’s work, getting critiqued on your projects and even studying internationally renowned structures, one tends to get used to picking out flaws. While everyone sees twinkling lights and beautiful shapes, you will find an architect wrinkling their nose for the most trivial things like maintenance, cleaning and repair, and sometimes even wasted space.
These were the thoughts that swirled in my head on my second trip to Paris, this time a fresher architect, ready to refresh the memories I made the first time in this beautiful city.
The Centre Pompidou
The centre Pompidou is a very controversial yet beloved landmark in the city of Paris. Though this cultural centre can never overshadow the Eiffel Tower, it has created an identity for itself. Housing the “Bibliothèque publique d’information” (Public Information Library), a vast public library; the Musée National d’Art Moderne, the largest museum for modern art in Europe; and IRCAM, a centre for musical research, it had to represent its hosts well. Hence the design was such that all the services were placed on the exterior of the building, completely exposed and painted in vibrant colours.
This structure completely contrasted its site context which primarily consisted of Gothic and Haussmann architecture with intricate decorative motifs, mansard roof and neutral coloured stones. It did not belong there and yet it is beautiful in its own right.
Having visited the structure twice, once before stepping into this profession and the second visit having taken place after, my thoughts contrasted quite a bit as well. On my first visit, we spent 30 mins marvelling at this futuristic building in the middle of this historic city, reading up on it too. The second visit is when it got interesting, as we spent hours studying where the pipes went, how they connected and figuring out the window washers got to the internal areas.
The louvre is another example of controversy in Parisian architecture. This glass pyramid that shelters some of the most beautiful paintings in the world, is an artwork in itself. Yet its beauty did not deter the critiques.
During my first visit, I did not bother to visit this museum. What I wanted to look at and click pictures in front of, was right there in the plaza, perfectly reflecting the afternoon sun. Except, it was under renovation. Despite being disappointed in the experience and lack of pictures I did not notice then that the renovations were not the set up for an event, an exaggerated process that takes longer than necessary due to the limited space.
The museum, when I finally got to it, was an interesting maze of displays and exhibits, guiding the people perfectly through the original historic building is hidden by this shiny new gem that is usually mistaken for the louvre.
Paris, the city of love and lights, everyone talking about the romantic walks along the Seine, the bistros serving delicious food while the Eiffel tower peaks at you from between two buildings. The city has a charm that cannot be questioned and yet instead of focusing on that, I saw the narrow alleyways that could turn dangerous, the monotony of the streets that all look the same with occasional breaks and the plazas that could barely contain the crowds that frequent it.
We can negotiate planning and the placement of the city itself.
Travel is an essential part of everybody’s lifestyle, whether it is to get closer to nature, immerse oneself in a foreign culture or explore history. Architecture plays an integral part in all these aspects. Maybe it was a part of growing up or just the unfortunate side effect of this profession, Paris did not feel as perfect as it once had.
I sometimes crave that positive outlook that I once possessed, but now I have a realistic view that appreciates that true beauty is not perfection, but the beauty something possesses despite its flaws.
As an architect one may be inclined to draw their eyes to the flaws of a place that is being marvelled at by thousands around you, no one can better appreciate the efforts and engineering brilliance it took to realise the designer’s vision. What others fail to see is the countless hours of sleep sacrificed, sheets torn and problems faced to turn a sketch into reality.