Lloyd's of London
Lloyd's of London © Janet Gill

“Architecture,” said Lord Rogers of Riverside, speaking at an event at the UK Houses of Parliament last week, “is always political.” It’s hardly a strikingly original point yet it’s one you rarely hear. At the same time, architecture is something you rarely hear anything about in the Palace of Westminster. And there, encapsulated, is the particular achievement of Rogers, whose 80th birthday is celebrated by an exhibition opening at London’s Royal Academy this week. He has spoken for architecture and cities at the highest level for decades, profoundly shaping the public debate about what constitutes a liveable, civilised city.

Rogers went on to talk about the Greeks. “The Athenians,” he said, “had an oath for someone who was about to become a citizen. They had to swear that ‘I shall leave the city not less but more beautiful than I found it.’ ”

The question, then, must be, will Rogers leave his home city, London, more beautiful?

It isn’t an easy question to answer because some of his biggest schemes in London are still under construction, because his best and most important building is in Paris, and because, you could argue, his contribution to London life is only partly about architecture. The other, more abstract part of his contribution is about the quality of urban life – or, in a very English equivocation, about the discussion of the possibility of a civilised urban life.

Rogers was born in Florence to a doctor father and a potter mother. In 1939 his parents fled to Britain, where Rogers was sent to boarding school. It was a harsh transition but Rogers survived well enough to go on to study architecture at the Architectural Association and, later, planning at Yale; his interest in the field was inspired by his father’s cousin, the modernist architect Ernesto Rogers.

Hampered in his studies by dyslexia and a self-confessed lack of ability in drawing, Rogers was an unlikely architect yet, from the beginning, he embarked on a career that would compensate for those deficiencies by carefully choosing collaborators and working in teams. First, in the early and mid-1960s, he worked with his contemporary Norman Foster and their respective wives in Team 4, designing a house for Rogers’ parents-in-law in Cornwall (they sold a Mondrian to pay for it – it wasn’t enough) and another for Rogers’ own parents in Wimbledon.

After only four years Team 4 split and Rogers joined forces with Italian architect Renzo Piano. Together they entered a competition for the Centre Pompidou, something Rogers was initially reluctant to do. Pompidou was the Gaullist prime minister who had fiercely suppressed the Paris riots of 1968, a reactionary figure commissioning a grand projet as a very public monument to himself. Piano talked Rogers into it and they won an unlikely victory. The building, well-explored in the Royal Academy show (including the rarely seen original competition submission drawing and a wonderful Lego model) was radical, shocking and brilliant.

Sited in the Marais district of Paris, overlapping Les Halles, it absorbed some of the language of its neighbours, the iron and glass market halls, in an exposed steel frame. Services and air circulation ducts were brought to the outside, leaving the interior free and flexible. The idea was not to set an agenda but to be able to respond to changes in media and culture, to create what British architect Cedric Price had called a “fun palace”. Rogers describes it as a “cross between the British Museum and Times Square, a space not a building”.

Richard Rogers
Richard Rogers © Getty Images

While it was the garish colours of the tubes and the exposed structure that dominated the headlines, the real nature of its radicalism was in the architects’ decision to give over half the space of the building to a public piazza. In retrospect, Piano has said they were able to propose this act of public generosity because they didn’t think they’d win.

The Pompidou was a genuinely public building, open, accessible and adaptable. Its inside-out-ness became Rogers’ trademark, the tubes and braces, the pipes and pods, and he was memorably parodied on the satirical TV programme Spitting Image with his guts throbbing on the table in front of him.

The Centre Pompidou proved expensive to maintain, less flexible than was intended and now much less accessible owing to increased security, but nevertheless sends a tingle of delight down the spine every time its tubes loom into view amid the conservative Parisian mansards. The erection of a few colourful fake tubes outside the back of the solidly classical Royal Academy is a light-hearted way of underscoring quite how recognisable the building remains.

After the completion of the Centre Pompidou in 1977 came a two-year hiatus, followed by the building that was to become Rogers’ defining work in London. The Lloyd’s Building was a very different kind of commission. Designed for the insurance group, this was every bit as inaccessible and exclusive as the Pompidou was open and inclusive. Lloyd’s, too, is a brilliant building that became, in 2011, the youngest to be Grade I listed for conservation (the same level of protection as St Paul’s Cathedral). Rogers created a sculptural, steely structure that mediates between the filigree Victorian cast iron and glass of nearby Leadenhall Market and the corporate slickness of the city. But it is quite clearly in its language a machine for making money, a curious monument for a socialist architect dedicated to the public good.

Now, almost three decades after Lloyd’s was finished, Rogers is building large in his home city. But what is he building? There is One Hyde Park, billed as the most expensive apartments in the world, but almost entirely absent from the exhibition. Then there’s NEO Bankside and Riverlight, two “luxury” Thameside apartment blocks. Not much sign of these at the RA either.

This reticence is understandable. Rogers has spent a lifetime attempting to make cities more liveable and equitable but, after the Pompidou, what are the landmarks? The Welsh Assembly or the Bordeaux Law Courts are fine buildings but their architectural metaphors of transparency and accessibility are rather obvious. Back in London, the misconceived Millennium Dome was a building looking for a use that was eventually converted into a corporate arena. There was also, it is true, Madrid-Barajas airport’s Terminal 4 and Heathrow’s civilised Terminal 5.

And now there is the Cheesegrater, 122 Leadenhall Street, the vast wedge of a City skyscraper that now eclipses his own neighbouring Lloyd’s Building. Rogers’ most visible contribution to London this decade will be another symbol of City finance, just as his Pompidou collaborator Piano’s Shard is a symbol of the City’s southward spread.

If he has a London legacy it has been his longstanding advocacy of the riverside as a lively public amenity. Both banks of the Thames have been slowly opened up and transformed – although the architecture that lines them remains mostly poor.

Centre Pompidou
Centre Pompidou © David Noble

One of the most intriguing themes here might have been the barely concealed sense of competition between the former partners, Foster and Rogers. There is a set of coloured pencils on display fondly inscribed in Foster’s own hand as a 70th birthday gift but beyond that there is very much a sense of parallel careers.

Both architects enjoyed early success with blockbuster commissions abroad (the Pompidou and HSBC in Hong Kong respectively). Rogers proposed in 1986 that Trafalgar Square should be pedestrianised but it was Foster who achieved it two decades later. Foster built Beijing’s vast international airport while Rogers was struggling with the planning process at Heathrow. Foster’s 30 St Mary Axe, aka the Gherkin, was for a long time the City’s most brilliant tower, now the Cheesegrater obscures it.

The comparison is also useful in understanding exactly what Rogers’ legacy might be. Foster has always been very much the centre of his practice, an incisive, cool presence, relentlessly in control. Rogers has always assiduously credited his collaborators and is at his best in a team. Most architects have difficulty in thinking through succession yet Rogers changed the practice name to Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners in a frank acknowledgment of collaboration, and the firm’s charter means no individual, not even Rogers, owns a share.

Architecture may be political but architects, despite (or perhaps because of) their experience of juggling various interests and constituencies, tend to avoid it. Rogers has waded in and his contribution has made a real difference. His ideas on density, on the value of public space, on sustainability and brownfield regeneration and public transport have become mainstream yet it is important to remember that before he entered public and political life there was almost no discourse on urbanism. The city had, instead, been handed over to bureaucrats (as it has now to big business) and his ideas – notably in the still influential 1999 report Towards an Urban Renaissance – were critical in wresting it back for the public.

The biggest room in the RA exhibition has been made into a kind of amphitheatre, a forum for public debate. It is an emblem not necessarily of an architectural genius but certainly of a generous architect – and the show is all the more enjoyable for it.

‘Richard Rogers: Inside Out’, Royal Academy, London, to October 13, www.royalacademy.org.uk

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