Colonies of luxury flats obscure the violence and excitement of Richard Rogers’ finest projects
‘I do not offer here a blueprint’, says Richard Rogers in A New London, the 1992 manifesto he co-wrote with then Labour culture secretary Mark Fisher. He may not have meant to, but he did − mixed use, active frontages, learning from Europe, piazzas, cultural regeneration, brownfield − it’s all there, years before it became policy. Oddly, given the end result − as Graham Stirk has admitted, no one at Rogers Stirk Harbour (save perhaps Rogers himself) can afford to live in any of the flats they design − it is these forays into urban think-tanking that Rogers seems to want to be remembered for. The valedictory Inside Out exhibition at the Royal Academy, or The Brits who Built the Modern World series/exhibition present Rogers as a profound social thinker, a sincere believer and shaper of cities; ‘the last modern architect’, in Jonathan Meades’ phrase. This is unfortunate, as Rogers’ urban influence has coincided with a decline in vigour and originality, with colonies of luxury flats almost obscuring the violence and excitement of his finest buildings.
‘Rogers’ urban influence has coincided with a decline in vigour and originality, with colonies of luxury flats almost obscuring the violence and excitement of his finest buildings’
Jonathan Meades, reviewing a Rogers retrospective at the Design Museum in 2008, separated out ‘Rogers, the architect of genius’ and Rogers the ‘theorist, urbanist and New Labour consigliere who shares his name and his body, but not his gifts’. But now they are not so easily prised apart. So to what extent do his politics and aesthetics coincide? The notion of Rogers as a utopian, a ‘68-er, a revolutionary, is easily debunked; he might have quoted Herbert Marcuse once to the RIBA, but to the real gauchistes, the Centre Pompidou was an act of recuperation, the subsuming of the Situationists by the status quo; it became the star of Albert Meister’s bizarre far-left utopian satire The So-Called Utopia of the Centre Beaubourg, where it is destroyed, extended and transformed by successive, infighting guerrilla groups, who make the thing genuinely, rather than rhetorically adaptable. It’s as both Modernist architect and social democratic thinker that Rogers ought to be judged. His work has long marked a dogged attempt to try and carry on these two projects in extremely difficult circumstances. He may have failed, but he certainly tried.
It is easy now that we know they led to One Hyde Park, NEO Bankside, Riverlight Battersea, to mock all those manifestos and screeds − Architecture: a Modern View, Cities for a Small Planet, Towards an Urban Renaissance, et al. A New London might now look like a series of obvious platitudes − against laissez faire, for planning; for caring about architecture, against letting developers do what they like; against bad things, for good ones − but you don’t have to look far in the contemporary debates to find the sort of urban politics Rogers was reacting against. Not just the named targets, like Canary Wharf and ‘Enterprise Zones’, but also, implicitly, the sullen non-architecture of the ’80s New Left. Compare the optimism, vim and cosmopolitanism of A New London with, say, Ken Baynes’s Cities with a Future? (note the question mark), a 1987 TV tie-in book which sees the best urban models as the suburbanising retail/office/leisure park of Ocean Village, Southampton, or the militarised cul-de-sacs of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. The pictures in there of stunted, paranoid little structures can be compared instructively with the pure, confident, often sun-soaked European cityscapes that form the positive examples in Rogers’ books of the ’80s and ’90s. In fact, this formal fight mirrors that between the GLC and left-leaning Housing Associations over Coin Street in the mid-’80s, when Ken Livingstone defeated one of Rogers’ most magnificently metropolitan schemes in favour of socially owned stock-brick terraces − one of the definitive dates when ‘radical’ architecture and radical politics could be seen to have truly divorced.
Pompidou Centre, Paris (1977)
Lloyd’s Building, City of London (1986)
Millennium Dome (1999)
Madrid-Barajas Airport (2006)
122 Leadenhall Street aka the Cheesegrater (2014)
Pritzker Prize (2007)
Praemium Imperiale (2000)
RIBA Gold Medal (1985)
‘Most buildings, whether they’re Gothic cathedrals
or Romanesque ones, were High-Tech for their time’
Look more closely, and you find that Rogers in ‘92 actually advocates all these new, high-density, high-design housing estates on brownfield land being built and owned by local authorities, as the Dutch estates by Mecanoo he describes were. More prophetic was the admission, thrown out as an aside, that the intended social housing didn’t manage to get built in that great urban exemplar, the Barcelona Olympic Village. Like New Labour itself, the Rogers manifestos had little to say about ownership, and the jobs RSH+P have done in London of late reflect that.
The overwhelming effect of Rogers’ great buildings − Beaubourg, INMOS, Lloyd’s − is still a convulsive thrill, unrivalled by most 20th-century architecture anywhere. They are additive works, ‘organic’ in conception if never, until much later, in metaphor − one of the most telling anecdotes in all the recent exhibitions and TV programmes is Rogers’ priceless response to the question posed by one of the bosses at Lloyd’s, ‘why didn’t you tell us it would look like this?’ − ‘because I didn’t know’. This encapsulates what makes Rogers an architect of genius: an almost intuitive fearlessness and aggression, a following out of a building’s logic, no matter how extreme. And the most extreme of all is, of course, Lloyd’s, whose outrageousness seems so far beyond the architect’s intentions that it often seems he has spent the last three decades in retreat from its implications.
‘Perhaps it is only at first strike, at the Pompidou, where Rogers as architect and Rogers as urbanist came together’
The fall is not sudden; there are many buildings, from Channel 4 to 88 Wood Street, that represent a tamed, rationalised reconception of Lloyd’s’ neo-Constructivist cathedral, with rough edges smoothed, materials lighter. Civic buildings became a minor speciality, with worthy but slightly unconvincing edifices like the Cardiff Senedd, where the tricky-to-access interior is far stronger and stranger than the relatively banal box-with-steps. The only mass housing scheme his firm has built, Oxley Woods in Milton Keynes, is bright and cheerful, a clip-on/plug-in sheen on the volume housebuilder cul-de-sac. And then there’s those dull apartment blocks, culminating in the oligarchical banality of One Hyde Park, where naked plutocracy is clothed in a timid Scando-Modern, leagues from Lloyd’s’ wilfully malevolent embodiment of the City’s Big Bang. And however much it is ingeniously fitted into the City’s unplanned streets, it is an enduring irony that Rogers’ greatest British building meets the street around with a moat. Perhaps it is only at first strike, at the Pompidou, where Rogers as architect and Rogers as urbanist came together, with the futurist grand guignol of the building and the optimistic agora in front inseparably part of the same scheme.
To understand what happened to Rogers after Lloyd’s and with the development of his sideline in Third Way planning advocacy, it is worth consulting Ian Nairn’s description of another stridently original architect of twisted, asymmetrical, Gothic structures, William Butterfield. For All Saints’ Church, Marylebone, read Lloyd’s of London. ‘Butterfield never repeated this − how could he? − and his passion set iron-hard, unapproachable. Perhaps there is no way but death to discharge an experience as violent as this.’ As if in fear of that ‘iron-hard’ passion, Rogers set out a course to an insipid niceness, precisely as his ideas became dressing on a ruthless urban neoliberalism. For someone so apparently diffident and genial, his work was much more convincing when it was almost monstrous in its passion and power.
Illustration by Neal Fox