THIS short, informative and entertaining book describes the gestation and birth of Paris's main modern cultural center from 1969, when it was a mere gleam in President Georges Pompidou's eye, to its official inauguration in 1977. The author, Nathan Silver, an architect and architecture critic in London, refers to "The Making of Beaubourg" as the "biography" of a building, and he mentions that the book was written more than 10 years ago and its publication "postponed" until now. No explanation for the delay is offered. Yet the story of the origins and realization of this acutely controversial monument actually proves more interesting with a decade's hindsight, since public outcry about it has largely died down and Beaubourg's eminence on the architectural and the cultural landscape of Paris is secure.
What proves most intriguing in Mr. Silver's swift-paced narrative is the number and variety of the people who were vitally involved in this vast, costly undertaking and the multitude of pressures, crises and unforeseen twists and turns that characterized the building of Beaubourg -- or the Pompidou Center, as it is officially but less commonly called -- from its conception to its opening and beyond. The cast of characters ranges from central protagonists like the two main architects, Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, whose practice had been not in Paris but in London and Genoa, and their counterparts from the global engineering firm Ove Arup to an array of experts in fields as diverse as fire safety and the philosophy of color to an army of specialist contractors, Government officials and assorted cultural bigwigs.
The frequently nightmarish succession of hidden technical problems, severe budget cuts, political uncertainty (Valery Giscard d'Estaing was elected President after Pompidou's death in 1974), group infighting, lawsuits and unabating public criticism makes a surprisingly gripping tale. The facts are presented without too much specialist detail or jargon, and in the end -- whether one admires Beaubourg as a building with all its innards on the outside and as a cultural center or not -- one can only admire the conviction and fortitude of the people who brought it into being against odds that were clearly all but overwhelming.
Perhaps the most appealing part of this narrative is the point at which the then little-known firm Piano & Rogers learns that out of the 681 designs submitted, the international jury set up for Beaubourg has chosen its plan. The young architects and their partners from Ove Arup have barely assimilated the news before they are spirited away to meet Pompidou at the Elysee Palace. "They were shown into the reception room," Mr. Silver recounts. "There were five very low elegant chairs facing a huge desk, behind which was a large and quite high chair. . . . Pompidou came in briskly and sat down in his thronelike chair behind the desk. His audience agreed later that they all noticed the same thing: the soles of his shoes were polished." Pompidou appeared equally fascinated with what the young winners, unprepared for full French honors, were wearing: an array of denim, baggy tweed and flower-power shirts, as well as one unforgettable red Mickey Mouse sweatshirt.
After a round of elegant receptions and much flattering attention, the winning team began to encounter the kinds of unexpected difficulties that were to dog them all the way until completion date. Communication was an early problem, given the little French they had among them, although the language gap also proved a boon because it insulated them during a crucial initial period from demoralizing criticism. Quarrels over fees and schedules and misunderstandings of every kind, against a background of shifting political interests, meant that the project might have been taken bit by bit out of the winners' hands. With impressive resourcefulness and not a little help from their skillful French allies, the British-Italian-Danish team made it to the homestretch. And even then there were plenty of hair-raising episodes, such as the huge piazza in front of the center not being paved until 48 hours before the inauguration.
Today Beaubourg appears as inevitable a part of the Paris landscape as the Eiffel Tower, which created much the same brouhaha in its time. Now that this versatile cultural center ranks as one of the great tourist attractions of Europe and exudes the authority of a 20th-century Louvre, it is useful to remember how precarious and bitterly contested a project it was less than two decades ago.
Photo: An entrance to the Pompidou Center in Paris. (FROM "THE MAKING OF BEAUBOURG")