U.S. News

At new French museum, the building steals the show

ANGELA DOLAND|Associated Press Writer

It's France's newest architectural wonder, and it looks something like an enormous white floppy sun hat. Or a giant swimming manta ray, or maybe an alien spacecraft.

The new Pompidou Center art museum in the eastern French city of Metz has generated a big buzz in the architecture world, largely for its complex free-form roof. When it opens to the public this week, the strange and arresting building will likely overshadow the Picassos, Dalis and Warhols it is exhibiting.

The building is all the more surreal for its setting amid the stern gray clocktowers and church steeples of Metz, chosen for its strategic location near France's borders with Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium.

Reporters got a preview of the museum, an outpost of Paris' Pompidou Center for modern and contemporary art, on Monday, two days before the opening.

Even many of those who find the exterior absurd will appreciate the galleries and how they interact with the art. On the ground floor, a hanging mirror reflects a maze of small, roofless rooms, giving art-gazers a contorted, ever-shifting view of the floor plan and art in other rooms.

The Pompidou Center is the first Paris museum to embark on what authorities call "cultural decentralization" — setting up art centers in unlikely areas outside the capital, with its hordes of masterpiece-worshipping tourists and savvy locals. The Louvre is also set to open a branch in the northern former mining town of Lens in 2012.

The Pompidou Center had a bumpy journey to Metz, a military town off the tourist circuit that has changed hands between France and Germany throughout history. The opening is several years late, and the planned budget has doubled to reach euro69.2 million ($90 million).

The roof, with its wooden frame covered over with fiberglass and teflon, is the tour de force. Supported by external pillars, it hangs over the building without touching the tops of the walls, letting outside air flow in. Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, who teamed up with Frenchman Jean de Gastines, based the roof's framework on the woven cane patterns of conical Chinese hats.

Since the new museum's three galleries are housing artistic treasures, there was extensive testing to make sure it could keep out the elements. Models were put in wind tunnels, pounded with snow and frozen.

The building also includes an obscure, built-in homage to the original Paris Pompidou Center, a similarly daring building famous for its exoskeleton and multicolored piping that was designed by Italian Renzo Piano and Briton Richard Rogers and opened in 1977. The new building's spire is 77 meters tall.

The museum, which also includes an auditorium and a restaurant, is designed to showcase mostly art on loan from the main Pompidou Center in Paris. The opening exhibit is called "Masterpieces?" and it includes nearly 800 works of art by artists including Matisse, Picasso, Kandinsky and Miro.

President Nicolas Sarkozy is to visit on Tuesday, ahead of Wednesday's opening, which launches five days of free celebrations for visitors.