WORLD REPORT PROFILE : Richard Rogers : BRITAIN’S VISIONARY ARCHITECT : The Pompidou Center’s designer dreams of cities full of public places, free of cars and regulated by world bodies.
Sir Richard Rogers is accustomed to controversy. He’s an architect.
Sipping a Campari at an outdoor table of a London cafe, the 61-year-old master builder pondered the challenges of coming decades and a crinkly smile spread beneath his hawklike nose and short-cropped hair.
“In 40 years, the population of the world’s cities has increased tenfold--from 200 million to over 2 billion,” he reflected. “They contain half of the world’s population. They contribute at least 75% of global pollution.
“But cities have become socially divisive and environmentally hazardous.”
Focusing on the city where he lives and works, he added, “I have spent much of my professional life struggling with London’s problems and dreaming of its opportunities.” He feels he has some answers.
“To Rogers,” says Deyan Sudjic, architectural critic for the Guardian newspaper, “cities are crucial for the continuation of civilized life.”
In recent lectures and papers, Rogers has described how large cities such as London can renew themselves as decent places in which to work, live and enjoy life. He argues from a humanist view that the design of city centers should not be left to market forces that seek quick returns. Rather, he says, city officials must plan for open spaces and buildings of human scale. Cities should group people of all economic classes near their workplaces rather than relying on commuting. Neighborhoods should have a mix of activities, he says.
But hard-headed critics say some of Rogers’ ideas are hopelessly visionary and idealistic. His proposals, they argue, fail to accept the political and commercial factors that govern the shape of modern cities.
Rogers is used to having his ideas questioned. It’s an occupational hazard, particularly in a country where the Prince of Wales and future king is an architectural critic.
Rogers’ buildings, like his views, have been widely praised and sometimes ridiculed. But often enough he has triumphed. Rogers has always been part pragmatist and part visionary. Two of his buildings--the Pompidou Museum Center in Paris, a pioneering example of the high-tech style completed in 1977, and the Lloyds of London headquarters here, finished in 1986--are unusual by any standard.
The structures are marked by large interior spaces of steel and glass surrounded by service machinery--open ductwork, escalators--which first startled and offended viewers, but are now more often acclaimed.
Now Rogers is busy designing buildings from Seattle to Shanghai, Berlin to Tokyo.
The base for his Richard Rogers Partnership, with 90 employees, is a remodeled warehouse on the banks of the Thames, a complex that includes his wife’s restaurant, the River Cafe.
Born in Florence, Italy, of Anglo-Italian heritage, Rogers came to England at the age of 6 before the outbreak of World War II. He studied architecture in England, then crossed the Atlantic with Su Brummel, his wife and fellow student, for Yale University in 1959. There he met sculptor Alexander Calder, critic Lewis Mumford, teacher Vincent Scully--all inspirational, he says.
America energized Rogers, particularly a visit to California, where, he admits, he anticipated vulgarity but found new directions in architecture. “The California experience was very influential,” he said.
After Yale, Rogers worked briefly for Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in San Francisco, before returning to England to set up practice as “Team 4” with Norman Foster, a fellow student at Yale, and their wives. They designed houses and small industrial buildings with spacious volume, finely detailed.
In the 1970s, after the dissolution of Team 4, Rogers teamed up with the Italian Renzo Piano, who shared his taste for radical applications of technology. They entered the French government’s competition to design a cultural center in Les Halles market area. Competing against 690 other entries, they won.
“We never thought we had a chance,” Rogers recalled of the sketches that became the Pompidou Center. “People hated the design at first. The press were against us. But it became a peoples’ place, a public domain, a cultural fun palace.”
The dramatic building with a huge adjoining square attracted people of all classes, and became one of the most popular places in Paris. With the completion of the Lloyds building, Rogers found commissions flooding in, and he was showered with honors and prizes.
Today, the Rogers Partnership is planning or finishing projects that include a terminal at London’s Heathrow Airport, a glass canopy for London’s South Bank arts complex, a headquarters for British TV Channel 4, Strasbourg’s European Court of Human Rights, part of central Berlin’s reconstruction, a master plan for the Shanghai business district, studies for low-cost housing in South Korea and skyscrapers in Tokyo.
Possibly because of his Continental heritage, Rogers believes that urban design must include squares, piazzas, parks, open spaces. “City squares are special,” he said, “People come to them to talk, demonstrate and celebrate, all of which are essentially public activities.”
In public design, Rogers says, he admires the French government’s support of architectural competitions.
“They hold open competitions for their public buildings and this encourages bright, young architects,” he said. Conversely, he argues that the United States is a difficult place for foreign architects to work. “There are strong ties between developers and their favorite architects.”
Some urban specialists complain that when Rogers turns from architectural design and offers solutions for big-city problems he veers into a dream world.
In essence, Rogers argues that cities are polluting themselves to extinction. In particular, he hates the effects of the automobile. He would like to see a return to a traditional structure of cities, with people living near their work, sharing a sense of community.
Toward that end, Rogers advocates taxes on road use, higher gasoline taxes (“petrol is cheaper than mineral water”), waste-recycling laws and more rail transport.
He also supports international taxes on polluting industries and global regulation of cities by bodies like the World Health Organization.
The problems Rogers cites are important, but supermarkets, cars and large office developments are not going to disappear, critics say. “He is suffering from the mismatch of vision and reality that has afflicted earlier urban visionaries,” says city specialist Rowan Moore.
And, as far as London goes, the English don’t have the Continental tilt toward city life--gathering together in public spaces and cafes to see and be seen.
“He wants London to be like Paris and Rome where the quality of life is higher,” says Jonathan Meades, an urban affairs writer. “But the British ideal is not urban but suburban. The rich prefer to live outside the cities, the towns, in villages. The mark of making it is moving out to the countryside.”
And British architectural critic Jonathan Glancey adds: “Richard Rogers is right to fight, fight and fight again for the city he loves. But he is battling against a recurring English dream--of an England of warm beer, leather on willow, midwives on bicycles, and thatched eaves loaded and blessed with autumnal fruit.”
Nevertheless, many believe Rogers is on the right track. As Doreen Massey, a professor at Britain’s Open University, puts it: “It is time architects, urban designers and the social scientists teamed up again. Thank heaven we have someone like Richard Rogers.”
Rogers himself believes the next 10 years will be crucial with “immense dangers” arising from pollution and ecological problems--leading to social degradation.
He points out that even some 19th-Century cities eventually conquered smoke and sewage pollution.
Sir Richard Rogers waved his hand toward the Thames, his favorite river, and said fervently, “Our cities can be improved. Equitable cities that are beautiful, safe and exciting are quite within our grasp. We know what to do. We just have to do it.”