Thinking outside the white box

From the beginning, the Palais de Tokyo seemed an ill-fated art museum. It opened in 1937 as part of the last great Paris arts expo (the one where the facing Nazi and Soviet pavilions were both awarded gold medals). It then became a museum of modern art under the shadow of the Vichy regime. In subsequent years it limped along, enduring various misfortunes (including the collapse of a glass roof in a room devoted to Le Corbusier). Then, for the last couple of decades of the 20th century, it lay empty. The classical/Deco hybrid Palais de Tokyo was a building constrained by its style, its history and its confused spaces.

The Centre Pompidou, which opened in 1977 (designed by two young superstarchitects-to-be, Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano), was intended to be everything that the Palais de Tokyo was not. Modern, colourful, high-tech, open, full of fluid free space, it was an expression of the spirit of 1968, its brash, bright sci-fi architecture a slap in the chops to the stone-clad faux monumentality of a temporary pavilion designed to look like a classical temple of the arts.

But while the Pompidou’s populist-democratic tubed escalator has been shut to the non-paying public and its modernism looks naively utopian, the Palais de Tokyo reopened as a dystopian ruin, a cavernous rough, tough streetscape as grittily urban as the banlieues but as wittily urbane as the gallery-pocked Marais.

The Palais was relaunched in 2002 and quickly became a Paris institution. Its architects, Lacaton & Vassal, had stripped off the crumbling plaster, exposed the concrete bones of the columns and ripped out extraneous ceilings and walls to leave a ground floor of galleries that were raw and accommodating. Artists felt able to interfere with the structure, to make big statements or intimate gestures, to draw on the walls and to react to a fabric that was tough enough to take it. Now, Lacaton & Vassal has come back to expand the gallery (more than tripling its space from 7,000 to 22,000 square metres) up to a vast, bright first floor and down two levels into a stygian world of spalling concrete and dark, decaying spaces. It now claims to be the largest space for contemporary art in Europe. I had difficulty believing it – until I saw it – though I think they mean it is the continent’s largest Kunsthalle, a space with no permanent collection. But I have no difficulty in accepting that it is perhaps Europe’s finest space at this scale.

The architects have smashed through into a huge basement that has been empty for decades. Apart from new industrial metal stairs and lifts, they seem to have added nothing. Instead they have gone around opening up walls, leaving openings with ragged, exposed brick edges and scraping off plaster to expose rusty steel and crumbling concrete.

The result is a dense landscape of dark recesses and unexpected spaces, a complex labyrinth which, with sudden noises from film and sound installations echoing around in the pervading darkness, can be quite unsettling. It is the opposite of the white box, a background as loaded, redolent and textured as you could imagine. It feels like descending into the sewers of the city, as if you were beneath, rather than beside, the Seine.

At the lower level, a perfectly preserved cinema from the original building had been blocked up since it was opened (apparently the projector windows didn’t line up with the screen) and has been revealed like a tomb reopened – its original minty green paint peeling but still almost intact. The three other cinemas here reflect the fact that it was the first museum of art to incorporate film to this extent – in fact it briefly became a museum of moving image, another plan that fizzled out.

The museum’s director, Jean de Loisy, describes the building’s underworld as “a chthonic grotto – Piranesian”, referring to the 18th-century Italian artist’s Carceri series: dark, troubling etchings of fantastically imagined monumental prisons. But he also, paradoxically, describes the spaces as something very free, where walls disappear and the building allows you to get lost in it and make your own discoveries. Unlike other galleries, which dictate a route through pristine spaces, this one is anarchic, leaving the visitor free to impose their own patterns and routes. In its own way, it also represents a pivotal shift in patronage. Although the €20m works were funded by the state, the gallery’s budget is only 50 per cent state funded, which is low for a French institution and which gives it considerable and unusual freedom.

The new Palais is a building of layers, of strata. Each layer has its own unique light (or darkness) and from peeling paint to pencilled scribbles of graffiti and builders’ notations, from strip lights screwed into raw brick to impeccable Deco ceiling details suspended under exposed cables, it is an endlessly intriguing narrative of decline and resurrection.

From the brilliant top-lit galleries of the upper floor, with their industrial-scale glass roofs that look more like factory than gallery, to the bookshop caged in mesh like a dangerous animal, right through to the brutalised concrete darkness of the basements, this is a viscerally memorable experience.

The appropriation of industrial space to accommodate art is nothing new, but the repurposing of arts space to resemble post-industrial decline was surprising and brimmed with artifice and theatricality. Yet it has endured and artists have welcomed the opportunity to work with a less precious fabric. There is such complexity and depth in the building that even bad art is made to look interesting. But the good stuff – and most of it here is very good indeed – is mesmerising. And if you just can’t bring yourself to leave, you don’t have to. The gallery is open till midnight and, when you are finally thrown out, you can retire to its own neighbouring nightclub on the Seine. It is as good a gallery as there is – why leave?

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