Tonight, Baron Richard Rogers of Riverside will pick up a cheque for $100,000 (£51,000; €74,000) and the bronze medallion that represents architecture’s richest award – the Pritzker prize. It has been a long time coming.
Lord Rogers, 73, born in Florence but resident in London since his parents fled fascism in his childhood, has become one of world architecture’s most recognisable, vocal and respected figures.
A committed modernist who has never questioned the radical expression of technology and construction, and who has faced bitter opposition to many of his works only to find them profoundly loved once completed, he is also perhaps the most articulate defender of the city as the pinnacle of civilisation.
Lord Rogers began his career in practice with Norman Foster, whose slick, sleek works have been the twin pole of Lord Rogers’ more visceral architecture since they split through lack of work in the late 1960s.
Lord Rogers scored a spectacular coup in the early 1970s with Italian architect Renzo Piano when they won the competition for the Centre Pompidou in Paris with an astonishing sci-fi pile – a complex blend of oil-rig, fun-palace and space station. It was designed as a democratic structure, its circulation snaking along the outside of the building in glass tubes so that the experience of the city without became the raison d’être, while the floors were left clear of the routes and services that were also stacked up around the facades.
It was the most hated building in Paris, possibly the world, while under construction. Yet when it was completed in 1976 it became an instant hit – one of the landmarks of post-war architecture and one of the most urbane and sophisticated contemporary museums.
His next hit, London’s Lloyd’s building, transferred that sense of buzzing technology and openness to the then stuffy City of London. Its stainless-steel guts and glass elevators rose seamlessly next to the iron and glass engineering of Leadenhall Market. It remains one of the City’s most striking structures, matched only for intelligence and elegance by his erstwhile partner Lord Foster’s nearby Gherkin.
In spite of a constant flow of international work (although very little in the UK), Lord Rogers re-emerged with a deluge of striking new commissions. These include the new Welsh Assembly building in Cardiff, Barajas Airport in Madrid and the new Terminal 5 building at Heathrow, as well as projects as diverse as low-cost housing in Milton Keynes and New York’s Javits Convention Center. He is also working on one skyscraper on the Ground Zero site in New York and another, the “Cheesegrater”, in the City of Longon near his Lloyd’s building.
Lord Rogers has been an important voice politically as well as architecturally. In the 1980s, he sustained vicious criticism of his work from many, including the Prince of Wales, and he was memorably parodied on the British TV programme Spitting Image with a puppet that had its guts hanging outside its rubber body.
But his elevation to the House of Lords in 1996 saw him develop a parallel career as design’s most vocal – often only – political champion. His agendas of civilised cities and generous public space, of decent housing, increased density on the European urban rather than the Anglo-Saxon suburban model, and environmental awareness all became engrained in the political agenda so what once seemed radical now looks mainstream. He remains a solid advocate of the civilising power of architecture.
His advocacy is helped along by his famed bonhomie. The canteen in his office (by the Thames on the site of a former refinery in Hammersmith) became the River Café, London’s most esteemed Italian restaurant run by his wife Ruth and Rosie Gray, which is one of London’s most important networking venues, also spawning Jamie Oliver, the celebrity chef. No Lord Rogers, no better school dinners.
His breathtaking Chelsea house, a terrace with its interiors stripped out to reveal a vast, pure volume relieved only by industrial materials and a huge Warhol, still hosts the finest parties with the best canapés.
Yet in spite of his joie de vivre and good living, Lord Rogers has remained, in his own words, an “old leftie”. His practice (Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners) was recently rebranded to include his younger partners and the highest paid staff are limited to an income of no more than six times that of the lowest paid, while a percentage of profits is assiduously fed back into charities of the staff’s choice.
Lord Rogers has never become a “starchitect” or sought the limelight for himself except through his extraordinary buildings and his passion for social justice. He is a rare survivor of an age of modernism that saw architecture as a catalyst for a better life for the bourgeoisie and the masses.
Perhaps this lack of cultivation of the star system is the reason why he has had to wait so long for the Pritzker. He is surely one of its least controversial and most deserving recipients.