Collectors: Richard Rogers 28.06.13

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Richard Rogers has always urged people to consider the dialogue between structures in a cityscape, rather than just individual buildings – an interest that can be traced back to his mother’s arrangements of ceramic pots that occupy a central space in his home

Richard Rogers' home in Chelsea is unusually bare. The art and pre-Columbian artefacts that would normally decorate the double-height central space of the converted town house are missing. There isn't even any furniture. The dean of British architects – Lord Rogers of Riverside since 1996 – has been having his wooden floors replaced, and everything was removed while the work took place. Now the new floors are down, the only possessions of his that have returned to their rightful place are a collection of 20 to 30 simple pieces of off-white pottery, prominent on a low shelf.

These pots were cast by Rogers' mother, Dada Rogers, over a 20-year period in the middle of the 20th century. "We were brought up in a modern household," says Rogers, who was born in Florence in 1933 and has lived in England since 1938. "We used to say that England suffered from 'the shock of the new' after the wars. I didn't have that – we had Picasso prints on the walls and whatever else."

"[My mother] thought beauty was an intrinsic part of life – she was brought up with that idea. I remember going with her to the first Picasso show at the V&A just after the war, and I remember the outcry that exhibition got in England – all these statements about 'my donkey could do better than that with his tail'. She didn't have to go through that, I didn't have to go through that."

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His mother started casting the pots when Rogers left home to live with Su Brumwell, his first wife and an early architectural collaborator. She made pots for the couple, he says, as a kind of substitute for home, now that he was no longer there. Plain in form and naturally varied in texture thanks to their distinctive clay, the pots are steeped in the modernist milieu of Rogers' childhood home, where the guest book resembled a Who's-Who of mid-century British art. "We were friends with Bernard Leach, the great British potter of the post-war period, who had worked for years in Japan at the feet of the masters there, so in a sense there was a continuity [with his work]," Rogers says. "She was also very friendly with [sculptor] Barbara Hepworth and [painter] Ben Nicholson and so all these things you can see in the pots indirectly." But in particular they are reflective of the austere still lives of Giorgio Morandi, a favourite of Dada's.

Dada sometimes put the pots to practical everyday use, for instance for serving sugar, and Rogers has previously used them as vases for flowers, but they are mostly sculptural – and architectural – pieces. "She saw them as villages, she talked about clusters, and Italian mountainside villages, the San Gimignano type of situation," Rogers says, naming the archetypal Tuscan hill town, famous for its towers. Here, of course, the reader may nod knowingly. Aha! Those Tuscan villages, a memorable rhetorical feature of the "urban renaissance" of the late 1990s and 2000s – an ideology that still shapes British cities, and which Rogers presided over like no other architect, via his work with the Urban Task Force and as adviser to former London mayor Ken Livingstone. Could those ideas – high-density city-centre clusters, Continental patterns of urban life – have had their genesis here, collecting and arranging home-made ceramics? Have the pots influenced Rogers' work as an architect? "I've been looking a lot at this question of influences and references," Rogers says, "and there's a mythology that you go to Siena and then you make the Pompidou piazza slope. It doesn't work like that. You have some ideas, you get people to move, you put in a slope – and then you recognise this as Siena, which was of course at the back of your mind all the time, though you're not copying it. There's a vast wealth of references back there."

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Perhaps not a direct influence then, but certainly a common thread of interest. "Certainly, the interrelation between these pots [relates directly to] what I talk a lot about – which is really the importance of tall buildings is not the buildings but the space between the buildings. I spend a lot of time talking to people and saying, stop looking at the single building and look at the cluster, the dialogue between the buildings and the spaces in between, and that's the more subtle part of cityscape."

Although there were "one or two" exhibitions of the pots, they were never made for sale or show, but simply as gifts for the family. "She got great enjoyment out of it," Rogers says. "It was unbelievably difficult to get this clay – this white stone clay is very inconsistent and you only have to get it from the wrong part of the field or get it cooked a little wrong and it shows immediately. It's delicate stoneware."

Even over 20 years, not many pots were made, and Rogers estimates he has about ten per cent of the total. Every week he would visit his mother and often watched as she worked at her wheel. "We'd tease her because she was so slow and made so few pots, and we'd try to encourage her to make more," he recalls. "And now all the kids – my brothers and my own children and my brother's children – have all got some." So he never feels like adding to the collection? "It all belongs to the kids and I wouldn't want to do that!" he laughs. "I'm happy with what I've got."

On their own, the pots are impressive but a little sombre in the white emptiness of the bare living space. "They dominate now because the house is empty," Rogers says, keen to point out that this isn't their normal context. "There are usually very powerful paintings along here – they usually pay homage to these great masterworks." But still, they are clearly at the heart of the house. "It has a slightly religious relationship ... an altar to mother and an altar to modern art."

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Some of Rogers' pottery collection will be exhibited as part of Richard Rogers: Inside Out at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, from 18 July to 13 October 2013.

 

Words

Will Wiles

 

Image

Peter Guenzel

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She saw them as villages, she talked about clusters, and Italian mountainside villages

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