Pompidou Centre - A Marvel in Steel

How often does one witness a life-altering idea put into practice, such that the act is termed as rhetoric, an unabashed expression of raw sculptural sense attributed to some simple commissions? Well, not every day. In Pompidou centre, Paris, we have an eminent physical artefact, to wonder, to out rightly reject, but never to ignore. Let us take a journey through it.

Source: Alamy

The industrialized world and the subsequent way of life is an exemplary expression of the development of structural steel, the building material, and the fabrication industry’s expansion percolating into our everyday lives. The exploits of steel by the designers pertained largely to the creation of skyscrapers, large span structures such as bridges, factory sheds, etc. but the material largely remained out of the sight of your everyday user. In the latter half of the 1960s, in a design competition floated by the President of France, Georges Pompidou, for the construction of a cultural centre, the entry by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano broke the mould of convention, by designing an inside-out building as termed by the people.

The Design Component

©Janke Laskowski on Unsplash

The design as imagined by the architects from the onset was a unique piece, a house for modern and contemporary art and library, where the Parisians could visit without care, without restrictions imposed when entering the formal and daunting centres of Paris, one which could be theirs. The conceptual design showcased the importance of movement in the museum and the exposed skeleton to being the form of the building. The entry with its extreme constructivism and leaning towards high tech modernism caught the attention of all. The skeleton of the building showcases all of the mechanical and structural systems, also as an attempt to maximize the interior spaces of the museum and clear spans without interruptions.

The centre has six floors, each of seven meters floor to floor height, making the museum space free from clutter and adaptable to multiple configurations for usage. The service systems are painted in different colours to distinguish their functions, with the ventilation components being painted blue, stairs-elevator systems grey, plumbing and fire components green, electrical systems yellow and orange, and the elevator motor rooms and shafts as red. One of the most unique features is the zigzag diagonal escalator on the west facade, which leads the visitors to the top of the building while providing beautiful panoramic views of Paris.

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The Unique Structure

The different structural arrangements creating a complete open building, free of any obstacles was a challenge for the designers, a system where every force was taken in by the superstructure of the building frame. This radical idea, to be brought to reality, resulted into the creation of 14 portal frames supporting 13 traverse members of 48 meters span and placed around 13 meters apart. The incredible structure has moulded steel members of 8 meters length, the stirrup straps which are fixed to the post at each level of the building. The beams rest on the straps, transferring the load to the steel posts, and the structure is further balanced by the tie beams anchored employing stay plates. The steel structure weighs around 15000 tonnes, which is remarkable concerning the detail and amount of material required for the enormous spanning. The material’s tensile and compressive strength as well as flexibility and lightweight nature compared to other building materials remains the reason this structure became a reality.

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The Gerberettes and the Bracings

The structural design employed a system of large trusses resting on gerberettes, to achieve a span of around 160 feet for the structure. Gerberette was one of the most unique customized fabricated elements for the structure cast from steel and fabricated in Germany. This large hollow member itself weighed 11 tonnes. The aspect ratio of around 20:1 is maintained for the truss span, and the gerberette and its unique system allows for the skeleton to remain light yet structurally sound.

©MSMondadori on Shutter stock

The gerberettes are connected to the steel posts (which are fixed to the ground) by means of a pin, and the truss system rests on it from the inside. The pinning of the gerberette to the column would have created a possibility of its rotation because of the various forces acting on it. To eliminate the limitation, the gerberettes have been linked to an exposed steel structure to take back the force in tension, which is the prime characteristic of steel as a building material. This design detail, achieved an overall light visual structure as opposed to what would have been if the gerberettes and the columns would have been in a fixed connection. The façade reflects the building bracing, with steel cross bracing cables incorporated into the system, along with the other structural systems’ visibility to the bare eye.

©RGY23 from Pixabay

The Pompidou centre is an example of uniqueness attributed to ideas and realities, in a place with individually built extravaganza exhibited in every building of Paris. Materials speak the language of truth, and this sculptural artefact with raw space making and no fallacy or pretence propagates the cause of the truth that is in the built and architecture. The collaborative effort, the structure, and design as one process is a challenge it posits to designers, engineers, and every layman. It transcends your everyday material selection, its usage as art like no other, and one where marvel and wonder precede judgment.

- ©Y.Yukta