By Associated Press Writer
updated 5/10/2010 9:44:17 AM ET 2010-05-10T13:44:17

It's France's newest architectural wonder, and it looks something like an enormous white floppy sun hat. Or a giant swimming manta ray, or maybe an alien spacecraft.

The new Pompidou Center art museum in the eastern French city of Metz has generated a big buzz in the architecture world, largely for its complex freeform roof. When it opens to the public this week, the strange and arresting building will likely overshadow the Picassos, Dalis and Warhols it is exhibiting.

The building is all the more surreal for its setting amid the stern gray clocktowers and church steeples of Metz, chosen for its strategic location near Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium.

Reporters got a preview Monday, two days before the opening, of the new museum, an outpost of Paris' Pompidou Center for modern and contemporary art — whose offbeat design caused a ruckus when it opened more than 30 years ago.

Even many of those who find the exterior absurd will appreciate the galleries and how they interact with the art. On the ground floor, a hanging mirror reflects a maze of small, roofless rooms, giving art-gazers a contorted, ever-shifting view of the floor plan and art in other rooms.

The Pompidou Center is the first Paris museum to embark on what authorities call "cultural decentralization" — setting up art centers in unlikely areas outside the capital, with its hordes of masterpiece-worshipping tourists and savvy locals. The Louvre is also set to open a branch in the northern former mining town of Lens in 2012.

In Metz, the "main goal is to find a way to share the most contemporary art around with the widest possible audience," Alain Seban, the president of the Pompidou Center, told The Associated Press.

The museum had a bumpy journey to Metz, a military town off the tourist circuit that has changed hands between France and Germany throughout history. The opening is several years late, and the planned budget has doubled to reach €69.2 million ($90 million).

The roof, with its wooden frame covered over with fiberglass and Teflon, is the tour de force. Supported by external pillars, it hangs over the building without touching the tops of the walls, letting outside air flow in to the entrance hall.

The architects, Shigeru Ban, Jean de Gastines and Philip Gumuchdjian, wanted the building to be inviting and open to the outside world. The vast entryway "is like a train station — before you go to the train, there's a kind of semi-outdoor space," Ban said.

The galleries, however, are sealed off, protecting the art from the elements. There was extensive testing to make sure the building could withstand intense weather — models were put in wind tunnels, pounded with snow and frozen.

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The building also includes an obscure, built-in homage to the original Paris Pompidou Center, a similarly daring building famous for its exoskeleton and multicolored piping that was designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers and opened in 1977. The new building's spire is 250 feet (77 meters) tall.

The museum, which also includes an auditorium and a restaurant, is designed to showcase mostly art on temporary loan from the main Pompidou Center in Paris, which has 65,000 works and room for only about 2,000 at a time.

The opening exhibit is called "Masterpieces?" and it includes nearly 800 works by artists including Matisse, Picasso, Kandinsky and Miro and probes the nature of great works of art.

President Nicolas Sarkozy will visit Tuesday, a day before the opening, which launches five days of free celebrations for visitors. After that, admission is €7 (about $9), though it's free for anyone under 26.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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