Playfulness remains the keynote of the Paris Pompidou Centre, both inside and out, writes John Kelleher
The Pompidou Centre has always been a raffish rogue, a candy- coloured clown of a building which still has the power to shock more than 20 years after its creation by British architect Richard Rogers and his Italian partner Renzo Piano.
They went over the top with their post-modernist design, plotting a technicolour eruption among Parisian sobriety, never expecting to see it built. Since it was opened in 1977, Paris and millions of visitors have taken this modernist masterpiece to their hearts.
The French National Museum of Modern Art that it houses has become the most visited art collection in France, out-pacing the labyrinthine Louvre, which is close by, the coolly elegant Musee d'Orsay and smaller gems like the Rodin or Picasso museums.
After a recent brief absence behind cages of scaffolding, the Pompidou has emerged somewhat revamped, with some losses and some gains. Playfulness remains the keynote. As well as all those pipes and ducts painted in dayglo colours, visitors can now admire a giant golden flowerpot on a plinth amid the street entertainers and, to one side, Niki de Saint Phalle's wonderful water-spouting sculptures.
The first thing to say about a visit here is that children are in for a greater delight than ever. The gallery has benefited enormously from its reorganisation.
A terrific treat is the view over Paris from the roof of the centre and from the plastic-encased escalator ride to the summit. To really get the most from the view you must eat in the excellent - if pricey restaurant on the roof.
Certain parts (but not all) of the building still remain free: the vast central arena, the children's centre, design exhibits on the ground floor and the reference library. Though be prepared to endure crowds here.
However, the main attraction for teachers and school groups is the modern art - and there is acres of it. Comparisons with London's Tate Modern are inevitable. The Pompidou's collection is bigger - the largest in the world - and a richer representation of 20th-century art.
The Tate Modern offers occasionally bewildering juxtapositions (perhaps to cover gaps in its works). While this is fun, the Pompidou's cllection has a chronological order which makes the story of modern art easier to follow.
It is a long, wearying trek from a bold Rousseau painting that starts the journey of discovery, to the art objects of our fin de si cle. Shortcuts are crucial for even the most energetic school group.
One route through is with the help of a hand-held audio guide, that is available in English. You key in the code of selected works and it gives a description. Most of the main works are featured.
The early rooms offer a journey into abstraction in painting through the world of Picasso and Braque (play spot the difference - it takes a good eye), through all the great art movements of the troubled mid-20th century to the abstract expressionists and beyond. Delights en route include Dadaism, surrealism, pop art, op art (optical art) and kinetic art. That's all on the top floor.
For the young it's more entertaining downstairs among the provocations of the past two or three decades, with ideas about art exploding in all directions.
Here is art you can climb into, and installations involving whole rooms such as Jean Dubuffet's Winter Garden. Or you can gaze in dread at the work of the surrealist Dorothea Lange, where the furniture in a sitting room mutates into nightmarish animals.
Video art, odd objects, weird assemblages and much more are all on show. Not just young British artists taking practical jokes as a starting point for their work. Profound? It is hard to tell, but there is a lot of fun to be had in studying art these days.
Centre National d'Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, Plateau Beaubourg, 4th arrondissement, 75191 Paris.
Tel: 00 331 44 78 12 33.
www.centrepompidou.fr Metro: Hotel de Ville, Rambuteau or ChateletLes Halles. Open Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays 12-10pm, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays 10am-10pm. Closed Tuesdays and May Day.
Admission: free for under 18s;free on Sundays 10am-2pm; 30 francs adults, 20 francs 18-24 years. School group visits in English must be booked at least one month in advance. Fee is 400-700 francs depending upon the size of the group.
Booking tel: 00 331 44 78 40 54.
French Government Tourist Office, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL. Tel: 0891 244123 www.franceguide.com