words Justin McGuirk
Richard Rogers is the most politically influential architect of our times.
It is a rare thing for an architect to have enjoyed such a close relationship with government, let alone to see his personal ethos turned into policy. As the nation tots up Tony Blair’s legacy, Rogers might well consider his small part in it.
“I don’t see much of a line between architecture and politics,” says Rogers, leaning back into a Le Corbusier armchair in his home off the Kings Road in Chelsea. At 73, Rogers is suddenly being showered with awards. His Pritzker Prize, the architecture world’s most prestigious, presented to him earlier this month, follows the Stirling Prize and the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale last year – “Pretty good,” he says. And while his career is clearly far from over, it’s not too early to raise the question of his legacy. Will it be the language of high-tech architecture, what Reyner Banham dubbed “functional gizmology”? Or will it be his influence on the urban policies of first Blair and then the Mayor of London? Will it be buildings wearing their guts or the idea of the compact city?
There is one thing that should be said about Rogers straight away: he put architecture on the political agenda. It is questionable whether “urban regeneration” would have so defined the last decade if it weren’t for Towards an Urban Renaissance, the report that Rogers, as head of the government’s Urban Task Force, drafted in 1999. The high priest of high-density living, he has preached the virtues of the walkable, sustainable city and death to suburban sprawl – and New Labour has listened. “This is the first government that has ever encouraged people to stay in cities,” he says. “Governments have always paid taxes to people to move out – to new towns or suburbia and so on.”
Rogers, the most important pro-city voice since Jane Jacobs, lives and breathes urbanism, and can reel off history, population numbers, density ratios and life expectancies, talking fast with rehearsed fluency but often in a mumble so that his words become a metropolitan blur. To him, cities equal culture, full stop. “Do you really want to be living in the suburbs with five cats, four dogs, a cabbage patch and five rooms?” asks Rogers. “Life has changed.” In fact, millions of people in this country do want to live in the suburbs, and there is a growing academic voice in favour of suburbanisation, but Rogers’ views have become the orthodoxy, certainly at a political level. Realists will argue that Blair and deputy prime minister John Prescott were only interested in the economic and social payoffs of density and a better built environment. But the point is that Rogers’ voice has been of national significance.
Rogers’ Georgian terrace house is partially hollowed out. He likes open, sociable spaces, and as such the house is a microcosm of his work, even though his wife Ruth likes to joke that he turned it into a barn. It is also, interestingly, a repository of American art from the 1970s. There are some Warhols and Twomblys, but mostly there are Philip Gustons – six paintings visible from the living room sofa alone, and plenty more upstairs. Guston, the avatar of angst, frequently represented himself as a noseless head with a giant eye. The amiable Rogers has the opposite face, leading with a statesman’s schnozz while the eyes recede into creases.
Rogers fondly recalls the night of Blair’s election. “I was at the South Bank shouting with joy when the right lost,” he says. And though he marched against the Iraq war he paints a rosy picture of the Blair years. However, the relationship hasn’t always served Rogers’ reputation so well. The Millennium Dome, the building with no purpose, became a symbol of the Blairite tendency to put image ahead of content, and was a favourite tabloid target for its much quoted £1billion budget – even though the actual building cost only £43m and was one of Rogers’ most problem-free constructions. Still, Rogers has been loyal to his convictions more than to a political party. He points out that before Blair he was advising the Tory Michael Heseltine. “So although I’m of the left, I’m a professional,” he says.
With his socialist leanings and the life peerage he received in 1996, Lord Rogers of Riverside may appear to be something of a contradiction. He is certainly prepared to look a long way back for the roots of his social conscience. Italian by birth (the great great grandson of an émigré Englishman) he suggests that perhaps it comes from his “strongly anti-fascist” father, a doctor. Or that perhaps it stems from the dyslexia that meant he was thought stupid in school. “My wish in life used to be to be second from bottom rather than bottom of the class, so it was a struggling type of situation, which made me conscious of some of the social aspects of communities.”
The rest of the story is well known. After studying at the Architectural Association and then Yale, under Louis Kahn, he joined up with Norman Foster to create Team 4. But it was with another partner, Renzo Piano, that Rogers hit the big time. Their hugely controversial Centre Pompidou in Paris gave birth to high-tech architecture and embodies the principles that continue to underpin Rogers’ work: open and flexible interiors with building services pushed to the edge, a public piazza and, of course, demonstrative engineering. Rogers now works at the scale of cities but the memory of that early project still haunts him. “When I look back I’m absolutely gobsmacked that we were able to build the Pompidou – in the end it nearly killed us.”
Three decades of success followed, but it is Rogers’ more recent work for the Mayor of London that will define his legacy. In spirit he has been much closer to fellow leftie Ken Livingstone than to Blair. Incredibly, Livingstone now spends as much time with Rogers’ Design for London team as he does with the senior management of either Transport for London or the Metropolitan Police. That in itself is a huge achievement. “Richard just pushed himself right up there to being with the really big services,” says Livingstone.
Rogers set up the Architecture and Urbanism Unit (now Design for London) for the Greater London Authority in 2001, although his fingerprints were all over the city even before then. He was instrumental in the pedestrianisation of the South Bank and Trafalgar Square, he has increased housing density in the capital (London has less than a quarter of the density of Barcelona), drawn up coherent guidelines for street furniture, formulated the “green grid” scheme of connected parks in east London, overseen the Olympics masterplan and most recently developed the Mayor’s 100 Public Spaces initiative – a programme of small-scale but significant interventions across the city. What is so impressive about these achievements is that Rogers has no formal power. As the urbanist Saskia Sassen puts it, “He has had a level of determination and conviction that is absolutely unusual,” adding, “I think he will be seen as one of the few great architects who understood the notion of cityness.”
The Mayor himself gives Rogers full credit for his own vision for London. “The urban task force report landed on my desk just at the time when we were starting to draw up our manifesto – and we just stole the lot,” says Livingstone. “Everything that’s going wrong or right with my administration in this area is down to him.”
In turn, Livingstone has an ally in Rogers. “I think Ken should have much more financial power,” says the architect. “In fact next week when I’m in the House of Lords I shall participate in this whole question of giving Ken more power.” This is the work of a man who claims to have more faith in cities than he does in nations, a view that smacks of Renaissance Italy. “I come from a city state, I was born in Florence,” he says.
In fact Rogers has elicited criticism for his Mediterranean ways. With his constant spiel about Barcelona and Italian-style piazzas, some have felt that London’s intrinsic character is being given a Continental overhaul, except that where in Italy a piazza probably has a church on it all we get is a Starbucks. Other than in its parks, London has never privileged the idea of the public realm. Nor has it ever entertained grand plans, preferring to pragmatically make do and let private interests prevail. The combination of Rogers’ European tastes and the Mayor’s uncompromising style is changing that. Like his opened up house, Rogers’ urban policies seem to stem from a desire for sociability, so that even the dreaded commute becomes a social event. “Over 90 per cent of people in the City of London come by public transport. That type of situation persuades people to either walk or at least shed the car, which of course encourages people to meet people,” he says.
“London has never been better in the nearly 70 years that I’ve lived here,” says Rogers, as you might expect him to. “It’s more vital, there’s more street life, there’s more things to do.” But he concedes that Livingstone’s successes are partial. How can it cost £4 to go one stop on a semi-functional Underground system? Unbelievable, unbelievable,” replies Rogers, who eschews the Tube for his bicycle. In turn, not everything Rogers has built in London has been exemplary. His K2 office block next to the Tower of London looks like a soulless server farm – even his mate the Mayor confesses that it’s “horrible”.
Rogers’ London masterpiece, the Lloyd’s building, is down the road in the City, next to Foster’s “Gherkin”. The former partners, now twin pillars of the British architectural establishment, are very different – the one wearing his political conscience on his sleeve, the other a corporate svengali. Rogers earns £1
a year as head of the Urban Task Force. Similarly, his practice is organised as a charitable trust in which he, as chairman, can only earn nine times what an entry-level architect earns. Foster, meanwhile, presides over a 1000-strong practice and pays himself in the millions. “He’s more interested in power,” says Rogers, adding, “He’s a good friend of mine. But we compete … I swear when he wins.”
Perma-tanned and Continental, Rogers prioritises lifestyle. This is evident from his practice’s relaxed and sunny offices on the Hammersmith riverbank, next door to his wife’s famous restaurant. Earlier this year he prepared the ground for his eventual successors, Graham Stirk and Ivan Harbour, changing the practice’s name to Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners. “Having spent a lot of time building this up, I wouldn’t mind trying to see that it goes beyond my limited number of years,” says Rogers. He describes the development as “a tremendously exciting regeneration” – that word again. “If we look at the restructuring of the office and the choice of work we have at the moment, it’s certainly the best period of my life. For the first time we can really work on that which we think we can do best.”
Currently that includes Heathrow Terminal 5, a monster of a building designed to accommodate 35 million passengers a year. With its 156m span, the longest in Britain for a public building, it maintains the connection that Rogers has always had to the great Victorian engineer-architects – Brunel would be proud. The 30 or so other projects the practice is working on range from World Trade Centre Tower 3 in New York to a little Maggie’s Centre five minutes from the office down the Fulham Palace Road.
Rogers has already earned his place as one of the great British architects of the 20th and 21st centuries, but his accumulated architecture is neither as rare nor as significant as his political will. He has patiently laboured through the bureaucracy of the political process to imprint his vision of what a city is and he is already seeing that vision starting to be realised. “Rogers’ policies are wired into the way the city is running now,” says Sassen. And Livingstone agrees: “Long after we’re dead the legacy of what we’ve put in place will carry on being built.”