Irritable bowelism: this retrospective of Lord Rogers’ career captures the vibrancy of his work but lacks critical insight
Because there was a big retrospective of Rogers’ architecture at the Design Museum as recently as 2010, the Royal Academy exhibition presents each scheme rather fleetingly, often frustratingly so. Instead it focuses on the ideas and ethos that inform Rogers’ life and work generally. The title, Inside Out, refers to his predilection for exposing the structural skeleton, servicing entrails and vertical circulation outside the main body of the building.
This distinctive trait starts with the Centre Pompidou that launched Rogers and Renzo Piano to international fame. Although Piano remains proud of this architectural landmark, he refers to it as ‘a young man’s building, an act of loutish bravado’. Recognising the validity of Postmodernity’s criticisms, though not its architecture, he then entered a highly exploratory phase in partnership with Peter Rice before evolving the more mature, contextually and culturally inflected approach first exemplified by the Menil Collection. By contrast, as this exhibition makes clear, Rogers has not moved on much.
This is emphasised in the introductory anteroom − whose shocking pink walls and large circular lounger take us back to the Pompidou era − and introduces his ethos, including the admirable constitution that has guided the firm since it became the Richard Rogers Partnership (later becoming today’s Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners).
Much of an accompanying video is a close-up of Rogers’ own transparent-face Bulova wristwatch. But this is not, as implied, consistent with the Inside Out theme: the watch’s innards are merely revealed, not vulnerably exposed, which in architecture leads to extra construction and maintenance costs, and sometimes to compromised functionality, such as in extended circulation routes. Exposing these elements is not Functionalism but Formalism, a means of gaining the visual articulation and interest once provided by overtly rhetorical elements and modulating the facade.
The succeeding rooms explain and justify this approach in relation to seven themes, six of them elaborated in the rooms to either side of the anteroom. Each theme is illustrated by the partial presentation of selected buildings and projects, although some themes are contradicted by other projects, often not shown. How, for instance, can such noble nostrums as ‘A Place for All People’ and ‘Democratising the Brief’ be reconciled with that lavishly exclusive enclave for tax-exempt non-doms, One Hyde Park?
Just as the work evokes a bygone era of untroubled techno-optimism, so does the interpretation of some themes, such as Bucky Fuller’s ‘Do More With Less’. We now recognise this should apply less to the material and energy present in a building and more to that involved in the total life cycle of sourcing and manufacturing those materials. In new understandings of efficiency, mud and thatch are near unbeatable − not a message Rogers would endorse.
As well as the panels stating these themes, there are others, whose often sensible points are marred by the hectoring tone of assertion rather than reasoned argument, of flatly stated ‘I believe …’ or ‘We need …’ This, too, unintentionally conveys an ethos. As an architectural exhibition, this one is unsatisfying in that no design is shown sufficiently completely for in-depth study. As well as the partial presentations exemplifying individual themes, maybe a major building should have been comprehensively presented to demonstrate the synthesis of the themes.
The choice of schemes is also puzzling. Obviously duds have been omitted, such as Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz blocks, London’s Tower Bridge House, Barcelona’s Hesperia Hotel, and Antwerp’s bizarre Law Courts as well as the two London residential buildings that have drawn so much opprobrium, One Hyde Park and NEO Bankside. But omitted too are some of Rogers’ very best buildings, such as London’s 88 Wood Street and Lloyd’s Register, both better than the bombastically overwrought original Lloyd’s and on a par with the marvellous Barajas airport terminal − which is shown here along with (very fleetingly) such fine and relatively understated works as the Fleetguard factory in Quimper and the blocks at Chiswick Park.
Instead selection seems to favour the most structurally expressive schemes illustrative of the Inside Out title. As such, although formally vigorous and exciting, they exemplify in extremis key pathologies ofmodern architecture: isolated object buildings autistically expressive only of anatomy and construction and unable to relate to context and culture, particularly as part of contiguous urban fabric. The building is the dominant, positive figure and external space a merely residual ground without coherent and positive form, and of limited functionality.
As well as to the space around buildings, this applies also to that beneath them, as with the Zip Up House and Chateau La Coste gallery projects. This is no trivial point: we cannot approach sustainability without treasuring every part of the earth − not leaving it residual and unloved − and moving beyond treating buildings as subservient functional mechanisms to once again seeing them as cultural artefacts mediating between us and a larger temporal and spatial continuum, a subtle but crucial notion utterly at odds with Richard Rogers’ approach.
The whole of the third large room is devoted to the seventh theme, ‘The Power of the City’, but is decidedly underpowered, as if preparation time ran out. Yet this theme is claimed as central to Rogers’ concerns. The report of a commission he chaired, Towards an Urban Renaissance, was undoubtedly important and influential, as was the community work and writing he undertook in association with Anne Power. On the strength of these, and inspired by Oriol Bohigas’s achievements in Barcelona, he became Chief Advisor on Architecture and Urbanism to Mayor of London Ken Livingstone.
But contrary to normal practice he did not forgo building in London (Bohigas had resigned his post so that his firm, MBM, could once again build in the Barcelona) − but then ‘conflict of interest’ seems a non-issue in contemporary Britain. Some architects contemplated taking this up with the RIBA, but realised it was futile with Rogers’ then partner Marco Goldschmied as president, an example of the formidable web of networks Rogers has cultivated. This room could usefully have explored what Rogers hoped to achieve when in this post rather than showing a few unexplained survey plans and more panels of hectoring assertions.
A key Rogers initiative during his time as mayoral advisor, inspired by Barcelona, was that London be provided with 100 new urban spaces. But the cities are not remotely comparable and faced very different priorities. Barcelona’s new spaces were a cheap way of creating international impact and initiating a snowballing momentum that would open up densely overcrowded areas and reconnect the city in novel ways. By contrast, London’s new spaces were to be just dotted around its vast expanse with little concern with forging connections and drawing on their hinterlands. Worse, completion of a really promising initiative from before the Livingstone era, Foster’s World Squares for All, was scotched. This had proposed counterbalancing the hard classicism of Trafalgar Square, once centre of Empire, with a soft, green and leafy network of spaces − modelled on the English cathedral close − around the Gothic and Neo-Gothic of Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.
As part of a larger strategy, this would have better connected up central London while also intensifying its sense of history, meaning and identity − all key dimensions to intelligent urban intervention. Instead it was proposed that Parliament Square alone be refurbished, a savagely compromised proposal terminated by Mayor Boris Johnson. Although I am unsure how much Rogers contributed to this, central London’s other legacy from this period are some high profile buildings by friends of Rogers − Jean Nouvel’s almost sacrilegious One New Change and Piano’s inappropriate and mediocre trio of works, Central St Giles, the Shard and New London Bridge House − and those by Rogers’ own firm − the two housing schemes already mentioned.
But none of this, nor anything else contributed to London during this dynamic phase of the city’s history, is touched upon here. Instead and easily overlooked, much the most impressive part of this room is the presentation of the work on the Grand Paris project aimed at bringing the whole city, urban core and suburbs, into a new and more vital unity.
The impression here is of a sound and sequential strategy founded in research and analysis. It would be interesting to know more and see what comes of this, which seems to mark a new maturity in Rogers’ approach to the city. Leaving the exhibition, others were overheard describing it as an ‘epic orgy of naivety and nostalgia, nepotism and narcissism’. Such a response is easily understood, but also harsh.
On reflection, the overriding impression left by the show is that Rogers has led a blessed life, as celebrated here. His early years in England might have been tough, but he has forged an empowering narrative out of his family and foreign backgrounds. He might have had to fight his corner, but he has created and seized extraordinary opportunities.
He has, among many other things, been a professional partner to two of the greatest architects of his time, Norman Foster and Renzo Piano, worked extensively with one of the greatest engineers, Peter Rice, enjoyed a famously successful marriage and the succour of a large extended family, and reached the upper echelons of England’s Establishment. This might be a slight show, but there are things to be learnt from it, positive as well as negative.
Richard Rogers RA: Inside Out
Where: Royal Academy of Arts, London
When: Until 13 October 2013