Few architects can bear to be criticised, but why is Rogers so very thin-skinned?by Gavin Stamp / December 10, 2017 / Leave a comment
On the front cover of this autobiography-cum-polemic, Richard Rogers is depicted, arms folded, gazing out of the frame with half-closed eyes, looking visionary. “This is an essential book for anyone interested in our human future,” writes the sculptor Antony Gormley on the bright-pink back of the dust-jacket. Inside, many of the pages are bright yellow. Perhaps it is a mercy that the cover photograph is black and white, for the author is given to wearing trademark bright lime-green shirts enhanced by orange braces. “If a colour is beautiful,” he explains, “it will go with another beautiful colour.”
Rogers, elevated to Lord Rogers of Riverside in 1996, is perhaps the best known living British architect. Indeed, along with his former professional partner, Norman Foster, otherwise known as Baron Foster of Thames Bank, he was the first of the “starchitects,” the growth of the cult of celebrity coinciding with the huge success of their careers as creators of striking “high-tech” buildings. Along with Renzo Piano and a team of young and enthusiastic designers and engineers, Rogers won the competition for the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1971. His practice went on to design the new building for Lloyd’s of London, which opened in 1986. Important recent commissions include those for the Bordeaux Law Courts, Terminal 4 at Barajas Airport in Madrid and Terminal 5 at Heathrow. The Richard Rogers Partnership is now Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, and was responsible for, among other buildings, the excellent new cancer centre at Guy’s Hospital.
I approach anything to do with Rogers with a degree of caution, however. When Stewart Brand, in the original 1994 American edition of How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built, alleged that Lloyd’s required “endless corrective surgery,” Rogers’s lawyers threatened to sue. Viking cancelled the proposed British edition, and in the book that eventually appeared all references to Rogers were omitted. When Selwyn Goldsmith, author of Designing for the Disabled, criticised a house by Rogers in the Architects’ Journal, the great man visited him in hospital to object. My own first (pseudonymous) article about Rogers appeared in Tatler in 1984, after it had been enhanced by Jonathan Meades, the commissioning editor, whose observations caused even more offence than mine. In consequence, the second Mrs (now Lady) Rogers angrily asked me to leave a party—one which they were not actually hosting.
Almost all architects cannot bear to be criticised, but why so very thin-skinned? This paranoia may possibly stem from insecurity. This book was written with Richard Brown, just as all Rogers’s earlier books had co-authors. This is because of his dyslexia, of which there is nothing whatever to be ashamed. He also confesses that “my drawings are notoriously bad,” but that is no barrier to architectural success either. Modern buildings are immensely complex and cannot be the work of a single individual, so it is no surprise to read that “I have always been happiest working in a group.” Even so, this does raise the question as to what it means when it is stated in a newspaper or on television that, say, the Lloyd’s building is “by” Richard Rogers.
So-called “high-tech” architecture is made of steel and glass, employs prefabrication, exposes structure and makes a fetish of the external visibility of services, ducts, pipes and lifts, often brightly coloured. This is all, in theory, to allow large, uncluttered internal spaces. It reflects an approach to architecture pioneered by the 1960s Archigram group and influenced by the ideas of Cedric Price, the maverick designer of the Snowdon Aviary at London Zoo. Rogers and his associates continued this experimental way of thinking and building, so that, as he records, when towards the end of the project the chairman of Lloyd’s “asked me, ‘Why didn’t you tell me the building was going to look like this at the beginning?’ I answered honestly, ‘I didn’t know it would.’ This wasn’t flippant, but a reflection of the way that design translates into reality.”
What is absent from Rogers’s discussion of architecture is any recognition that this is only one approach, which might not always be appropriate. Different building types and sites might require other solutions, and it is not always desirable to have a building that says “Sod you!” to the public, as the then President of the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) said in 1982 in praise of Rogers’s proposed scheme for the National Gallery extension.
Like so many committed modernists, Rogers dismisses exercises in historical styles as “pastiche,” (a meaningless term bandied about by the historically ignorant) without proper recognition that, with any style, what matters is whether it is handled well or badly. As for the building that eventually rose in the corner of Trafalgar Square, in the end designed by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Rogers thinks that it “has no connection to today.” But who is he to say?
What is interesting is that the newer buildings by the Rogers practice no longer have pipes and lifts hanging out on the exterior. A good example of the change is the highly sophisticated new steel-framed tower in Leadenhall Street (the so-called “Cheesegrater”), with its sloping front and services concentrated within its vertical rear elevation. Rogers describes how this building—in which his architectural office is now located—is “the result of a fundamental rethink of the modern office building,” but will not of course admit that Stewart Brand might have had a point.
It is difficult to disagree with the polemics in A Place for All People. “Architecture is inescapably social and political. I have always believed that there is more to architecture than architecture”—as did any architect in the Arts and Crafts tradition. “Climate change is the single most important danger facing mankind, and we have little time to act.” Agreed. As for Rogers’s ideas about the “Compact City”—the need to increase density for better, energy-efficient public transport, to build on brownfield sites, to build well—these are common sense ideas, but scarcely novel. A repeated concern is to create or encourage public spaces. The problem is that Rogers’s vision, of Continental-style piazzas in the manner of Barcelona or Florence, may not always be suitable in London.
The most rewarding part of the book is autobiographical. Rogers was born in Florence in 1933, the elder son of Anglophile left-wing Italian parents who moved to Britain five years later. Being brought up in wartime Britain was much less comfortable. His experience of English schools was disastrous. He was thought to be stupid because of his dyslexia. The story of his struggles to overcome this and eventually—despite the absence of formal exam qualifications—to be accepted by the Architectural Association is impressive and moving.
The account of Rogers’s early partnership with Foster, Su Rogers (his first wife) and Wendy Cheeseman in the 1960s, taking years to build impractical but earnestly progressive houses for parents and in-laws, is rather less rewarding. What is gripping, though, is the story of how Piano and Rogers and their team managed to overcome the xenophobic opposition of the French cultural establishment to get the Centre Pompidou built, largely as intended.
Then followed Lloyd’s and success. And so any sympathy for Rogers is soon dissipated by the ease with which he relates his happy life and achievements, enhanced by relentless name-dropping. Rogers describes his Chelsea home without a trace of embarrassment. He lives in not one but two large stuccoed terraced houses in Royal Avenue, facing the Royal Hospital, which he knocked together and gutted, to create a gigantic “stainless steel kitchen”—or “piazza”—for entertaining.
It is difficult to square this prodigal domestic luxury with Rogers’s conviction that “our politics cannot be made a slave to the narrow interests of the super-rich,” let alone with respect for useful listed domestic buildings. “Georgian houses are almost a precursor to modern curtain-walled buildings… Behind the façade, you can put anything you like.” No you can’t: the carefully proportioned fenestration of a Georgian house reflects a hierarchy of internal volumes. He adds: “We moved the main entrance from a formal Georgian front door to an inconspicuous side door.” Why? Formal doors have a purpose. They say: this is the entrance, the way in.
Then there is Rogers’s cosy relationship with New Labour, which helped him get that life peerage from Tony Blair. Rogers insists on his “lifelong commitment to progressive politics” as well as his detachment from the “establishment,” claiming that he “agonised” over accepting the peerage. But this was an opportunity to have political influence, which he achieved through the Urban Task Force set up soon after the 1997 election by John Prescott. Perhaps because of Rogers’s pugilistic prowess when young—he was once a keen boxer—he confesses he was impressed by “the power of the Prescott fist.” There is no mention, however, of that politician’s support for the Housing Market Renewal (“Pathfinder”) policy, which resulted in the demolition of thousands of decent terraced houses in the north of England.
And then there is Rogers’s much-publicised spats with the Prince of Wales. It suits him to explain opposition to his projects merely by the heir to the throne’s “terrible misuse of privilege.” Back in 1984, when Charles first revealed his architectural prejudices in his Hampton Court speech, where he called the proposed National Gallery extension a “monstrous carbuncle,” Rogers says that he said to him afterwards: “I know you enjoy Wren’s architecture, but he was a modern architect in his time. By your logic, he should have built his extension to Hampton Court in a late medieval style to match the Tudor buildings, not in the restrained baroque style that he brought to it.” In fact, Wren did precisely that when he added Tom Tower at Christ Church, Oxford to harmonise with the older quadrangle.
A quarter of a century on, the Rogers’s firm prepared an overweening scheme, backed by the Qataris, for the redevelopment of the redundant Chelsea Barracks, just across the road from Wren’s Royal Hospital. This, he claims, was scuppered by the intervention of Charles, who “contacted the Qatari royal family privately to express his concerns and ask for an alternative plan. The Qataris pulled the plug.” This may well be true, but it ignores the fact that there was also strong local opposition to the scheme, which had already been cut down in scale by Westminster City Council, and which seems to have been minded to turn it down for planning permission anyway.
Rogers complained loudly, but he needn’t have worried. Like Gilbert Scott reusing the style of his rejected Foreign Office design at St Pancras, Rogers took elements of his project to the other end of Sloane Street and fitted it to the site of Bowater House in Knightsbridge. This is now the huge block of luxury flats known as One Hyde Park. Rogers claims that “compact cities mix uses, and mix people from all backgrounds, avoiding ghettoes of privilege or poverty,” yet One Hyde Park is the epitome of all that is wrong with London. Its windows are unlit at night, because its very expensive apartments are owned by obscenely rich tax exiles as investments and are therefore largely uninhabited. Oddly enough, neither One Hyde Park nor its developers, the Candy Brothers, are mentioned in this book.
In 2008, Lord and Lady Rogers appeared on the Sunday Times Rich List for the first time. Rogers immediately complained, arguing that his practice is owned by a trust, so that it was not possible to prove how much he was personally worth. Fair enough: the constitution of what was then the Richard Rogers Partnership states that: “Our Practice is owned by a Charitable Trust. No individual owns any share in the value of the Practice” and that “75 per cent of our profits are distributed to partners and staff… and another 20 per cent is donated to charitable causes every year…” This is commendable. It is also admirable that Rogers (unlike Foster) now acknowledges his partners, the present name of the practice reflecting the large contributions of Ivan Harbour and Graham Stirk.
Handsome, glamorous and stylish, Richard Rogers first achieved fame and success as an apostle of high-tech architecture. But there is more to designing buildings than coloured pipes and glass lifts. Now that British architecture has become more broad-minded, eclectic and subtle, he may now seem more like a dinosaur. For all his public pronouncements he has had comparatively little influence on the architectural and social problems we have faced in recent decades. And the book manages to come across largely as an exercise in self-congratulatory complacency and privilege.
Gavin Stamp’s books include “The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme” and “Gothic for the Steam Age: An Illustrated Biography of George Gilbert Scott”
A Place for All People: Life, Architecture and the Fair Society by Richard Rogers with Richard Brown is published by Canongate (£30)