Issue Number: 115
The architect Richard Rogers RA talks about the importance of breaking down walls over lunch at the River Café with Sarah Greenberg.
Richard Rogers RA has made a career out of breaking the rules. So it comes as no surprise that he ignored the rules of this interview – to choose a restaurant near the RA – by inviting me to meet him at the River Café in Hammersmith, the celebrated restaurant owned by his wife Ruth that is next door to his office. ‘When I am in London I always eat here,’ he says. It’s easy to see why: this is arguably one of the best restaurants anywhere – a convivial, light-filled open space, serving simple, seasonal, inspired Italian food that anyone would count themselves lucky to eat every day. This diet, combined with cycling, may be one of the reasons that Rogers, now pushing 80, looks 20 years younger.
Richard Rogers RA at the River Café. Photo © Julian Anderson. ‘So what will you have,’ he asks. I take the ‘when in Rome’ approach and order what he is having – whole roasted red mullet, slashed and stuffed with lemon and bay, with cima di rape and tomato crostini – a burst of Mediterranean sun on a grey London day. To start, he has the insalata dicembre (roasted pheasant, prosciutto di Parma, chestnuts, Treviso lettuce, pomegranate and aged balsamic vinegar) and I choose my favourite seasonal speciality, puntarelle romana (wild chicory tossed in anchovy, chilli and herb vinaigrette).
Despite its current fame, the restaurant was not an overnight success, explains Rogers, as pomegranate Bellinis and a plate of perfectly grilled bruschetta magically appear: ‘It took seven years to wipe out the debt because no one knew where it was. So we had to change a negative into a positive – now it’s a destination.’
Changing a negative into a positive could be Rogers’ motto. Today he is one of the most successful architects in the world, yet as a dyslexic child, the son of Anglo-Italian immigrants to London who fled Fascism in 1939 when he was five, he didn’t learn to read until he was 11. ‘I was considered stupid. I tried to stay second from the bottom of my class rather than the bottom.’ He didn’t get any A-levels and says he still can’t draw particularly well. Nonetheless he made it into the Architectural Association, where he struggled until the fifth year, ‘when things finally fell into place’ and he won a prize that enabled him to pursue a masters at Yale.
After Yale, he supported himself by teaching – ‘there was no work in architecture’. Then, while still in his thirties, he and Renzo Piano won the commission to design the Pompidou Centre, their youthful radicalism embodying the spirit of late 1960s Paris. ‘Our mission was to create a civic meeting place for people of all colours and creeds, young and old, rich and poor.’ This commitment to creating meaningful public space still lies at the heart of Rogers’ practice. Burlington House was also, when it was built, a radical architectural statement – one of the first Palladian-style buildings in London, with a piazza-like courtyard. Does Rogers see it as a successful public space? ‘The Pompidou works as a public space because of its transparency – it attracts people from the outside to the inside. At Burlington House you are faced with a lack of transparency: you walk through the doors and it’s not clear where to go. You need to programme the space, to fill it with great lectures and events. I love being an RA but there is a tendency for the Academy to be clubby – a place for the boys (and girls). I think one needs to try to break down the walls.’
Rogers doesn’t like walls, real or metaphorical. His iconic Lloyd’s building, which received Grade I listing this year, famously has few walls, as its services and lifts are on the outside. As Lord Rogers of Riverside, he lobbies the Government to support greener, socially inclusive measures. He is currently trying to change the planning system to enable derelict industrial space to be recycled into sustainable urban development. He says architecture should be part of the National Curriculum and taught in secondary schools: ‘The physical environment is what we live in and it changes you. It brutalises if it’s a slum and it’s horrible, and it humanises if you’re lucky enough to live in a nice area. Architectural education should be basic to all education and it should broaden out: planning, landscape, art – all those elements should be part of architecture – at the moment they are all different professions.’
Despite his childhood setbacks and the infamous ‘carbuncle’ controversy with Prince Charles, Rogers’ success keeps growing, especially now that the firm is building so much in the Asia Pacific region, including a new harbourside quarter in Sydney. In London he is building the British Museum’s new World Conservation and Exhibition Centre, planned for 2014, which will have a green roof with beehives and nesting boxes on top.
What, I wonder, is his secret? ‘Problem solving is what architecture is about – I love problem solving. I see many ways of getting to a solution.’ I also notice that he says ‘we’ more than ‘I’ and seems to operate more like a team captain than a chief. During lunch he continually mentions other people: his wife Ruth and his children, as well as nearly all the people he has worked with, up to Graham Stirk and Ivan Harbour, the younger partners in his firm who will take it forward in the next generation. Before I leave he dog-ears a page in the catalogue of an exhibition in Hong Kong on his firm’s work: ‘This is important,’ he says.
The page is a manifesto: ‘We aim to produce work which is beneficial to society’ is a stated aim. Directors of his firm, including Rogers, earn no more than eight times the lowest-paid architect. Profits are divided between charity and profit share. Maternity and paternity leave are among the best in the country. Why is this kind of social cohesion in the workplace so crucial? ‘The benefit is that we have a slow turnover, we retain talent, nurture an ethos of collective responsibility and community. We pay the going rate plus bonuses – and we give more benefits than any other office. It’s about social responsibility and distribution of wealth. I’m an old lefty. I’ve never been interested in toys. I don’t need a private plane, I ride a bicycle and I’m happy. There’s a way of living without millions. And it pays.’