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It was announced last night that Richard Rogers is the recipient of this year’s Pritzker Prize, architecture’s richest and most prestigious award. An extraordinary year has also seen him collect the RIBA Stirling Prize and the Golden Lion at the Venice Architecture Biennale.
“It was a wonderful surprise,” he told me. “It’s been a good year.” No kidding. There is nothing left to win.
Rogers, who gained his reputation through the radical High Tech Pompidou Centre in Paris (where there will be a retrospective of his work in November) alongside Italian architect Renzo Piano, has been a major figure in international architecture but in recent years has seen his practice explode into one of the world’s most visible and successful architectural brands.
The completion of the hugely well-received and enviably efficient Barajas Airport in Madrid (for which he won the Stirling Prize), the Welsh Assembly building in Cardiff and the commission for Tower 3 at New York’s Ground Zero are the icing on a cake that also comprises the gargantuan £4bn Heathrow Terminal 5 (open to the public in one year) and three more major schemes for New York; the Javits Convention Center, a linear park along the East River and a $1bn development in Queens.
More than any other architect, Rogers has made architecture a part of the cultural and political agenda. Referring to himself, with a broad grin, as “an old leftie”, his long engagement with the political scene has brought frustrations but has also seen architecture rise up the agenda. He sits on the Labour benches in the House of Lords and famously receives £1 a year as the head of the Greater London Authority’s Urban Task Force, an outfit that has slowly seen his key concerns, from the improvement of public space to increased provision of affordable housing and the creation of mixed use developments, become standard practice.
Most architects are cynical (or cowardly) about politics, maintaining distance for fear of controversy. I ask him whether he feels his political stance has helped or hindered his career. “Architecture is political,” he says. “To build anything you have to win round the client, the government, the council and the people. As someone who arrived in Britain in 1939 [his parents fleeing Mussolini’s Italy] you could say my roots are political and I enjoy it. I also feel there is a genuine move towards the urban renaissance which I’ve been working at for a long time. Cities still give me my greatest pleasure.”
Now that the government is catching up with his thinking and he is sketching out plans for some of the most visible projects in the world, does he feel he has become part of the establishment? “I’ve never felt like I was,” he says. “But with all this you have to begin to wonder. Let’s say that I’d like to try and use the influence that I have.”
Rogers, at 73, is not among the oldest winners of the Pritzker Prize and it is no sign of career twilight. Piano won the prize in 1998 and has gone on to become the international choice for safety and taste, Frank Gehry, originator of the Bilbao Effect, won in 1989 and Oscar Niemeyer, architect of Brasília (100 next year), won the following year. But it is also a significant time for Rogers as his practice prepares to confront the issue of succession squarely with a name-change to Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners.
Rogers is also, remarkably, the third British architect to win the award in a decade. Zaha Hadid (the first and only female recipient) won in 2004 and Rogers’ former partner Norman Foster won in 1999. It has been a good run for one of British architecture’s most endearing and enduing figures and for British architecture itself.