Issue Number: 119
As the RA mounts an exhibition of the architect Richard Rogers RA, Deyan Sudjic profiles the family man with a passion for radically re-shaping our cities.
Architecture is not necessarily a young person’s game. Phillip Webb, the man who designed William Morris’s Red House in Bexleyheath, aged 28, once suggested that no-one should be allowed to build a house until they were past 40. With more experience, he would, he said, have managed to avoid the more obvious of his mistakes. Frank Gehry, like Louis Kahn, didn’t build anything of note until he was in his 50s. And Frank Lloyd Wright – somewhat surprisingly the architect whom Richard Rogers cites as one of his biggest influences, ‘an influence that I had to get over’ – was still working on the Guggenheim in New York until his death aged 91.
Richard Rogers RA, who is 80 this year, at his office in Hammersmith. He still cycles to work. Photograph by Richard Dawson. Rogers has managed to have it both ways. He was 38 in 1971 when he, his first wife Su Brumwell and Renzo Piano, won the competition to design the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the project that surely will be seen as his single greatest achievement. They won with an astonishingly bold and inventive idea: as Rogers’ written submission stated, it would be a building that would be ‘a people place’, a giant climbing frame, a building without a face, a building that could be anything and a building with the greatest view imaginable of the city all around. It turned out to be a massive shot in the arm for modern architecture at a time in the 1970s when it was under attack from all sides. But completing the Pompidou left him discouraged. ‘Except for Ada Louise Huxtable, in the New York Times, we had the most appalling press,’ he recalls. As he now says, it was only youthful innocence that drove him to try to do so much with so little experience.
As Rogers approaches 80, he is as busy as he has ever been. The Leadenhall Building in the City, the first true high rise designed by his firm, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, is cutting a razor-sharp slice through the sky, high over his nearby Lloyds building, recently listed by English Heritage. The experience has brought home how much building has changed in the past 30 years. ‘Lloyds was prefabricated, but it was done by hand. The Leadenhall Building really is made using industrial techniques.’ The firm’s World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre at the British Museum is underway and other projects are in the pipeline around the world, including a civic centre on the edge of Florence, the city in which he was born in 1933.
‘Richard Rogers: Inside Out’ at the RA’s Burlington Gardens gallery, is, Rogers promises, more about ideas than a conventional architectural exhibition. It explores city-making and politics, culture and people, and reveals some of the thinking that went into the Pompidou Centre, as well as less well-known projects.
‘I believe history judges us on the physical and social quality of our cities,’ says Rogers, ‘and this exhibition aims to explore the role of architecture both as a physical discipline and as a framework to interpret our wider society.’
Rogers is anything but a conventional architect, and architecture is not his only interest. He has managed to pursue several parallel careers. As a working Labour peer, he has been closer to the centre of political power in Britain than any architect in the past 50 years. He helped to shape Tony Blair’s policies on the built environment, in particular the idea of creating denser cities, and building on brownfield sites, not the countryside. He did his best to keep in check John Prescott’s more egregious planning ideas about demolishing swathes of Liverpool, and giving consent for some of London’s more unsightly new landmarks. He was close to Ken Livingstone in shaping planning polices for London; and behind the scenes had something to do with the Shard being prized from the hands of the commercial team working on the first studies, and subsequently entrusted to Renzo Piano.
It looks like an effortless and irresistible rise. But for Rogers it hasn’t felt that way. The most successful of architects retain a stubborn streak of insecurity. After the Pompidou, he had no work and considered a career in teaching in the US, where he did his postgraduate studies with Norman Foster. ‘If only I had known that I was going to get the Lloyds building, I wouldn’t have worried so much, but for a long time I really thought that it was all over.’
Then there has been the continuing friction with the Prince of Wales to deal with. There was the ‘carbuncle’ speech about the National Gallery extension. The Prince’s fire was aimed at Ahrends, Burton and Koralek, who won the competition for the Sainsbury Wing, but did not get to build their design. But it was Rogers’ scheme that had attracted his attention in the first place. Then the Prince came back to squash Rogers’ plans for redeveloping Paternoster Square, at St Paul’s; more recently, he blocked the Rogers plan for the Chelsea Barracks site by writing to the Emir of Qatar suggesting that funding it might not be the best of ideas. It is only now, with a Pritzker Prize and the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture under his belt, that he can feel more confident that the pipeline of work on which any substantial office depends is not going to dry up in the immediate future.
Rogers and his wife Ruthie run what can be described as a salon. The home that they carved out of two terraced houses in Chelsea, with its spectacular view over the Royal Hospital, its wall of Warhols, its Philip Guston paintings, and the shelves of ceramics made by his mother, is full of people and parties. (The planning consent for the conversion is rumoured to have been issued with a tongue-in-cheek note to the effect that there were to be no brightly coloured Pompidou-style pipes on the exterior.) It’s a place that you can find friends such as Alan Yentob and Alan Rusbridger, Tracey Emin RA and Jack Straw, Salman Rushdie and Marjorie Scardino.
It’s a circle that is a reflection of the way in which Rogers has learned to operate in the wider world, unlike so many architects, who devote all their energies to working within the architectural community. And it is a skill that has left its mark. He was the Chairman of the Tate trustees when Nicholas Serota was appointed Director, and when the gallery set off on its path to split in two, and build Tate Modern.
Rogers likes to say that he became an architect because he didn’t have good enough A-levels to follow his father to study medicine. Instead, after attending what he describes as a second-rate public school, and British national service in Trieste, the city of his mother’s birth, he squeezed into the Architectural Association, where his dyslexia did not count against him.
The Rogers family had lived for three generations in Italy until 1938, when his Left-leaning parents decided to leave the Fascist state for the security of Britain. After Rogers’ post-war army service, his cousin Ernesto, one of Italy’s most distinguished 20th-century architects, gave him his first chance to work in an architectural studio, and he realized that designing buildings was the right course for him.
As he has grown older, Rogers resembles more and more the Italian paterfamilias that his roots suggest. He was extremely close to both his parents until their deaths, and still is to his brother. He is intensely proud of his five sons. The tragic loss of Bo, the youngest, in Italy last year hit hard. So did the death of his wife Ruth’s partner at the River Café, the chef Rose Gray.
For Rogers, architecture matters a lot and family matters even more. It’s a sensibility that has shaped his work. He is famous for the way that his buildings celebrate technical precision and structural gymnastics. Certainly, he is fascinated by the possibilities that technology offers architecture. For him, those possibilities are not ends in themselves but rather he strives to put them to work for social purposes.