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POMPIDOU CENTER GETS A FACELIFT

Scaffolding on the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris? Well, who would notice? For a good many Parisians, France's leading modern art museum has always seemed to be under repair, as if the pipes, tubes and ducts that cover its exterior were forever waiting to be hidden by a more conventional facade.

Not so, of course. The architects Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano designed it that way - as a jarringly modern counterpoint to the 18th- and 19th-century Paris that surrounds it.The only problem is that, barely 18 years after its opening, the unusual inside-out building already needs a face lift. Paint is peeling, there are signs of rust, and in general the museum looks older than it should. So gray scaffolding has indeed now gone up beside the northern and southern ends of the center, marking the beginning of what will be an $80 million renovation of the entire structure. The building's exterior and main plaza should be ready for the center's 20th birthday early in 1997. Work on the inside will then follow.

In a city with churches, palaces and museums dating back hundreds of years, the need to repair the Pompidou Center so soon after its inauguration has of course sparked all sorts of unflattering remarks about the quality of modern architecture and engineering. But French government officials have an appealing explanation. The center, they say, is a victim of its own success. It was designed to receive 8,000 daily visitors, but it now averages close to 26,000. Last year it had eight million visitors, almost twice as many as the Louvre.

What is most interesting about the center is that it serves as a sort of art supermarket. It usually has a "special" on offer - until tomorrow, it is a magnificent retrospective of the work of the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi. But at any one time, it also has half a dozen other exhibitions as well as music, movie and lecture programs. And the sloping plaza beside its main entrance is alive in summer with musicians, "instant" portrait sketchers, acrobats, conjurers and street peddlers.

Simultaneously, the exteriors of the center will be treated for rust and repainted. During this 22-month stage, the museum itself will continue operating normally.