Richard Rodgers: Inside the mind of a political visionary

Lord Rogers has never been afraid to bring politics into the design debate

If an architect can be iconic, Richard Rogers fits the adjective perfectly. The perma-smile, the Italianate bonhomie of his cosmopolitan background, the trademark shocking pink shirts. And the architecture, of course: Pompidou Centre, Lloyd's Building, Welsh Assembly, Barajas Airport, One Hyde Park.

One Hyde Park? Ah, yes: the attack-proof gaff in Knightsbridge with the world's first £100 million apartment – a different kind of icon that sits uncomfortably with Lord Rogers's long-held vision of cities as places of civic equality. The thrust of his ideas and work, in a new exhibition at the Royal Academy, is challenged by this single project.

“A street is not a road,” proclaims one highlighted statement. “A street belongs to the people and the buildings that enrich it. It is a place. A people's place.” Lord Rogers has, uniquely, never been afraid to bring politics – left-leaning in his case – into the design debate. But another message in the exhibition declares: “Architecture mirrors society, its civility and its barbarism.”

The line between the two is fickle, even for Rogers, and the exhibition smoothes over the ethical cracks. Richard Rogers's optimism shines through, as usual: we even encounter one of his pink shirts, neatly folded, in a vitrine.

If you want a whistle-stop tour of his greatest hits, this show is it. Alas, and rather oddly, there is no real insight about his design process – the grunt behind the architecture.

Richard Rogers: Inside Out, Royal Academy, London W1 (www.royalacademy.org.uk) to 13 October

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