Ancient Metz gets back to the future

by Mike.Martin

Metz is one of the prettiest towns in France, but short on culture – until now. The Centre Pompidou-Metz museum will bring a touch of modern excitement to the medieval town

Metz has always been an attractive town to visit if you’re doing a tour of the Lorraine region, but has always seemed slightly dull compared with the attractions of its handsome neighbours – the gorgeous Art Nouveau of Nancy, the Champagne houses of Reims and, of course, the sumptuousness of Paris. Metz is pretty to walk around, with its impressive German Empire buildings, parks and bridges across the Moselle River, but the problem comes when you want to actually do something – even the theatre seems permanently closed.
That’s all about to change, however, with the opening of the Centre Pompidou Metz, an outpost of the famous art gallery in Paris, the National Museum of Modern Art. The original, built in the 1970s in the Les Halles area of Paris, caused a sensation when it opened. Architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers put the ‘insides’ – the ventilation, water pipes and electrics – on the outside of the building. Its white, red and blue pipes became iconic, and the ride up the escalator at the front of the building gives one of the great views of Paris.
Its collection is one of the most exciting gatherings of modern art in the world – it has thrilling paintings by Warhol, Bacon, Kandinsky, Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Brancusi, Dada, and many more – too many, apparently. The Museum has 59,000 works, but can display only 850 at a time – which is where the sleepy town of Metz comes in. The town is about to get an outpost of the Modern Art museum, in a building that could make as much of a stir as the original did in the 1970s.
The Centre Pompidou-Metz will look something like the sail of a ship attached to a giant ice cream cone – a larger version of the Grandstand at Lord’s in London, to give you an idea, by architects Shigeru Ban and Jean de Gastines. If you are in Metz before it opens in the winter of 2009, you can visit an information centre in the Amphitheatre district, where you can see an architect’s model. Even that has already had 61,000 visitors, partly because it has a smattering of the art from the Pompidou Centre that will eventually go into the Pompidou-Metz.
The Centre Pompidou-Metz will satisfy the need to provide wider access to the Musée National d’Art Moderne’s collection. The exhibitions in the museum will never be fixed: they will be regularly changed, and the distinction between permanent and temporary exhibitions will be abolished. Long-term hangings (renewed at least every two years) and temporary exhibitions will be displayed alongside one another and reinforce one another. Someone who visits the Centre Pompidou-Metz every two years will never see the same works twice.
Just a glance through some of the art sets the pulse racing: there is the elegance of Brancusi sculptures, the mighty power of Picassos, and the sheer strangeness of the surrealists Magritte and Salvador Dali. Seeing them squashed into the Paris space was almost overwhelming, so the Metz building will be a welcome addition. It will have themed rooms, and should be much fresher on the eye than the vast Paris version. It will also have a lecture theatre and room for concerts and readings. The good people of Metz will never have seen anything like it.
It’s exactly what Metz needs to kickstart its tourism. Up until now it has boasted one fairly shabby museum, the Musee d’Art et d’Histoire, which gets desperate visitors who have had enough of walking the streets. It’s terribly laid out, lurching from Roman times to the Middle Ages, but to be fair there is the impressive remains of a Roman bath discovered in 1935. No signs are in English, and you have to have a strong sense of French history to make any sense of it all. Even the building itself is a mishmash, housed in a 15th-century granary and 17th-century convent, and the lighting is very poor in places.
It’s a shame, because Metz is an attractive town to actually walk around. The cathedral Saint Etienne is a fantastic sight lit at night, and the walk along the river and onto the tiny island Place de la Comedie is worthwhile, with its collection of 16th-century houses and cottages. The parks, too, are very colourful and immaculately cared for – typical in a French town.
Accommodation in the town is basic but reasonable, the Hotel Moderne is in a beautiful building and the Hotel Terminus handy for the train station. The station is worth finding too, not for any architectural beauty but for its excellent links to other towns – Nancy, Reims and Paris are a cheap and quick train ride away.
Metz has never been a particularly cool or exciting place to visit, but the new museum will bring some much-needed vitality to this town. It will be fascinating to see how it is received, but visitor numbers are sure to be spectacular. Art is the new rock'n'roll.