About play, art, architecture and education . Interview with Isabelle Frantz, Project Director at the Centre Pompidou

Isabelle and I met in December 2014 at La Villa Noailles, an amazing art centre in the south of France, whilst both of us were conducting workshops for children. She was focused on Calder's mini circuses, and I was exploring Baking and Architecture.
Since then, we became friends and initiated a rich exchange and collaboration centred around using creative and playful methods to engage children with architecture and art.
Thus far, we have designed eight different projects for the Centre Pompidou, with the latest one being an adaptation of Happy Squares based on the iconic colourful pipes façade of the Centre Pompidou building in Paris. This workshop on the move in the Parisian region, challenges children to build mini architectures and playfully recreate the patterns of the Centre Pompidou's colourful pipes.

Isabelle has been working at the Centre Pompidou since the 1990s, and what I admire about her is her determined passion for discovering high-standard, innovative, refreshing, and accessible ways to bring art and children together.

As this collaboration has been a great source of learning and inspiration for me, I've decided to share an interview/discussion we had about her experience and knowledge of children, play, and creativity, her perspective on architecture, and even her thoughts on Happy Squares!
At times, I found this discussion quite touching and I am very grateful for her sharing.


What led you to work with children?

« I have many siblings, and we have always been close to each other. Like many teenagers, I did a lot of babysitting, and I was also part of a non-religious scout movement where I facilitated groups for many years, starting when I was 16. I even earned my BAFA qualification. I enjoyed the aspects of sharing, being together, proposing activities, and creating group dynamics; I found my calling there.
I also had a passion for the arts, so after completing my A levels, I pursued fine arts at university. It was around that time that the field of mediation was emerging, and internships were being offered. I did a work placement at the Centre Pompidou and never looked back. I began as an activity leader and eventually became a project director. I had other opportunities along the way, but it has now been 37 years!
The idea that art can serve as a means of sharing, conveying values, reshaping the academic landscape has always intrigued me, which is why I chose to remain in public service. »

In your opinion, what is the best way to support children's creativity?

« On one hand, encourage them, and on the other hand, offer various approaches, including self-expression opportunities. Children are naturally creative when they are young. As they grow, differences may emerge depending on their socio-cultural environment.
It's a bit like food: if a child is consistently given the same food, they will eat it and not explore anything else. But if we expose them to films, books, painting, sculpture, exploration, play, sports, etc., they will broaden their horizons. Of course, they will develop preferences for certain activities, as each child is unique, but they will have a range of techniques at their disposal. I believe that it is the responsibility of parents, schools, institutions, and anyone involved in childhood to offer the broadest range of experiences possible to support their growth, nourish their curiosity, and cultivate a keen awareness of their surroundings. It starts at home, extends to school, encompasses the local community, the country they live in, and beyond. We must always begin with the child and build on what they already know, adapting as they develop their knowledge and desires. So, our role is to support, nurture, and most importantly, offer. We can't force them; we can only provide opportunities. »

What has been your favourite project at the Centre Pompidou?

« I don't believe I have a favourite project; it's always about the people we encounter. There are cherished moments within each project and elements that enrich me: moments when the audience, especially children, grasp the content and we, as facilitators, seem to fade into the background – it just works; moments when children smile, are joyful, and express their gratitude in their own way; the sense of camaraderie transcending cultures and languages.
Often, when I travel abroad, people ask me if French, Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese children are different. No, once children are liberated from their cultural and familial confines, they behave similarly after a while. A child remains a child: they play in the mud, jump in puddles, smell flowers, pick up a brush and paint a dot, follow the rules, and invent new ones. »

What do you pay attention to when designing an exhibition or workshop?

« Our guiding principle is to create and make, not just for the sake of creation, but to enhance understanding.
Beyond logistical constraints such as safety, space, or budget, I focus on inclusivity in the broadest sense. The project must cater to a diverse audience, offering various approaches because people react differently. We engage all five senses as a foundation. We propose content to see, touch, hear, listen, make, activities which imply move, jump, dance, etc… Smell, though more challenging in an exhibition, has been incorporated into our projects in the past. We multiply approaches, offer individual and collective content, take into account public with disabilities. We strive for inclusivity, even if it's not always straightforward.
I also consider the number and age of children involved. While our activities officially begin at age 4 for safety reasons, we think about how to involve very young children, accommodating siblings and families with multiple children. We aim to ensure that all children can participate simultaneously (although watching films does not count as an activity!).
It should be a place of experimentation, not prohibition. This necessitates careful attention to scenography, ensuring that what is allowed or not allowed is self-explanatory and does not require reading, particularly since we welcome children who may not yet read or who may not be fluent in French. We also anticipate the potential for children to repurpose devices in unexpected ways, even though we inevitably overlook some possibilities. Children are highly imaginative! So, while there are numerous constraints, creativity often emerges from those very constraints. »

Who is your favourite architect or architectural style?

« I'm not enough of a specialist to have a favourite architect. I love the Centre Pompidou itself! It is an extraordinary building that remarkably blends the indoors and outdoors, and its modernity has not failed over its 50-year history.
Through the Tadao Ando exhibition, I discovered that minimalist gestures can offer new perspectives.
More recently, with the Norman Foster exhibition, I learned that there have been efforts to incorporate environmental considerations for many years, leaving me to wonder why this isn't more commonplace.
One aspect that perplexes me is that sometimes, architects create exceptional buildings that do not integrate well with their surroundings.
However, the Centre Pompidou succeeds due to its Piazza and its towering presence. A building is somewhat similar to a sculpture.
During my visit to Shanghai, I was struck by the absence of urban cohesion, unlike the unity found in Paris. This realisation emphasised how our familiar environments influence our perception.
I have a preference for curves, so I am quite drawn to Franck Gehry's buildings, for instance. But what I appreciate most is the exterior envelope, like the Guggenheim in Bilbao or the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Boulogne, in contrast to the interior. At the Centre Pompidou, there exists a harmonious relationship between the inside and the outside.
I believe that a building's functionality should be considered within its architectural design, including circulation, as seen in the Guggenheim Museum in New York. It's not easy, and I'm no expert! »

But you have a lot to share even though you claim to have little knowledge!

« It's all thanks to you! My initial introduction to the Centre Pompidou's architecture was through you. It's similar to music or dance – you need keys. Perhaps I didn't possess those keys at some point, and that's what's remarkable about this work: little by little, we acquire those keys. »

What do you like about the Centre Pompidou's architecture?

« I appreciate the transparency and the connection it establishes between the city and the interior. For me, it embodies Georges Pompidou's vision: a building of its time, dedicated to a vibrant form of art, an ambitious interdisciplinary project. When I enter, I see the city, I am in the city, I am in the museum, and the terraces are open and returned to the public. I believe that this building has fulfilled its functions, and its architecture aligns with the project. This holds great significance. »

Thank you. We rarely find the time to discuss these topics.

« Indeed, that's true. This is what I admire in your projects and in our collaboration. With your projects, you strive to listen to others, to get as close as possible to their experiences, and then, things tend to fall into place.
Regarding the Happy Squares, some children may struggle with the connectors (due to their extensive video game exposure), and sometimes things may not go as planned, but they simply need to observe, to experiment. Eventually, they grasp concepts, become aware of various aspects, and become excited.
To me, it's genuinely fascinating to begin with experimentation, something physical, the act of creating, and then delve into what works, what doesn't, why, how, what can and cannot be done, what constitutes modular architecture, etc., based on their feedback.
I often compare my profession to that of a gardener and weaver. I sow the seeds, and growth may or may not occur, be it in a day or a year. I weave connections, I attempt, I pull a thread. If they say something, I try to pick up on it. I resist the idea of writing comprehensive instruction manuals or scenarios from A to Z because then it becomes close to a theatrical performance: you are no longer attuned to your audience; you recite your lines and may miss something important. I prefer it when we have elements to work with and can adapt to what a child says. This approach demands time, practice, and attentiveness. It also requires a willingness to admit, "I don't know." As my colleague Catherine says, "You have to learn to unlearn." One must accept being led by the children and navigating alongside them. That's why I want to continue conducting workshops myself from time to time. I don't want to lose that ability; I believe it can be lost quite quickly. »