There’s more than one Richard Rogers. There’s Baron Rogers of Riverside, peer of the realm, Richard Rogers, outspoken critic of royal patronage and Richard Rogers, government policy adviser. And then there’s Richard Rogers of Rogers, Stirk Harbour + Partners, a 200-strong architectural practice with projects all over the world.
This current exhibition – coinciding with his 80th birthday – suggests an attempt to peel back some of these guises to reveal the person beneath the titles. Inevitably though, it is as much about myth building as it is about myth busting.
As you enter, you’re struck first by the eye-popping colours of the exhibition design by Rogers’ son Ab, and then by the mellifluous voice of Rogers himself, which floats across the room, enveloping visitors in expansive, yet contradictory, definitions of architecture. Architecture, the voice says, is about scale, the scale of the human hand. But it is also about adaptability and change. And then it’s about Florence and Siena, cities almost defined by their lack of change.
Architecture, according to Rogers, is zip-up, zip-down, extendable, compact, ancient, modern, sustainable and futuristic all at the same time. He’s not wrong, exactly; it’s about all these things, but surely not at the same time and not in the same sentence.
Along with the voice-over, the exhibition’s first room lists all of Rogers’ collaborators. It details his admirable business structure too, based on fair distribution of profits, collaboration and teamwork. But this is also emphatically an exhibition about Richard Rogers, not John Young or Ivan Harbour or any of his other partners. Somehow, Rogers manages to both deconstruct the myth of the singular artistic genius and reinforce it at the same time. So, the exhibition includes Rogers’ report card from the AA, failing him in every module, as well as photographs of him in the US on a prestigious scholarship to Yale (where he met Norman Foster).
credit Manuel Renau, courtesy of Aena and Manuel Renau
Then there is the work, which is still good but was once truly remarkable. The Pompidou and Lloyd’s buildings are terrifying, exhilarating, beautiful and strange structures. One supposedly democratic and wearing its counter-cultural influences on its pop- coloured sleeves; the other a sinister establishment monster clothed in steam-punk constructivism.
In both cases – most unusually for architecture – the built result is far stranger than the original drawings. Both buildings got more extreme as the project advanced, certainly in the case of Pompidou, where for all their radical chic, the competition drawings bear no hint of the billowing, bowellist pipe work that would engulf the final object, like an art gallery being eaten alive by its services.
This runs counter to the usual myth of architectural production, where the initial vision is watered down as it travels through the compromises of teamwork and value engineering. Along with the question of where these forms come from, there is the equally interesting one of how Rogers persuades otherwise conservative clients to build them.
Persuasiveness seems to be a key component of Rogers’ armoury. There are revealing clues all around this exhibition, most notably in the copies of his correspondence with politicians of various hues. It was his relationship with New Labour that proved crucial though, leading to John Prescott’s invitation to write the Urban Task Force report, which has exerted significant influence on the shape of cities since.
The UTF’s call for dense, compact cities as opposed to suburban sprawl had much to commend it but, like almost anything to do with New Labour, it was in thrall to the market. So the “Urban Renaissance” that it heralded has led to too much crass over-development of our city centres.
For Rogers, commercialism can always be offset by public space, applied as a kind of panacea. The drawings and models for his projects inevitably depict such spaces swarming with people engaged in spontaneous acts of civic democracy.
The Leadenhall building (nicknamed the Cheesegrater) currently rising up in the City, typifies this Faustian pact. The exhibition blurb states that the piazza at the building’s base “blurs the distinction between private and public space”. It is typical of such boosterism that nobody mentions the reinforcement of such distinctions that takes place in the 48 storeys above.
So that’s Richard Rogers and also, perhaps, the essence of architecture: a compromise but sometimes a spectacular one. Rogers’ particular genius may be in his ability to appear reasonable, plausible and all things to all men – and to pull off something wholly audacious at the same time.
credit courtesy of estate of Janet Gill, Rogers, Stirk + Harbour
Richard Rogers RA: Inside Out, Royal Academy, London, Until 13 October.
David Noble, courtesy of Rogers, Stirk + Harbour