When it opened last month, the bosses of Heathrow's new Terminal 5 hoped it would fly the flag for British design and efficiency. With its distinctive roof and cutting-edge layout, it was confidently touted as an architectural vision of the future. But that, sadly, was before the inconvenient matter of the travelling public was factored in. A couple of days and a few thousand passengers later, the whole thing had descended into a fully fledged national scandal. "Terminal embarrassment!" declared the headlines, and for once, the spittle-flecked fury of Naomi Campbell – who, like thousands of others, launched a tirade against the loss of her luggage – reflected the public mood.
In the ensuing furore, and amid questions over the competence of the British Airways top brass, a brace of red-faced BA executives were shown the door. But once the pink mist settled, one central figure emerged with his reputation unscathed. If we had the inclination at this point to guess his identity, there are three vital clues. First off, he is good mates with Ken Livingstone. Second, he likes wearing fluorescent clothes. And, finally, he has "of Riverside" in his name (bit of a giveaway, that one). No prizes for guessing that the spotless party is the building's architect, one Baron [Richard] Rogers of Riverside, who emerged with a conscience as clear as... well, a T5 baggage carousel making its debut.
"We left the site three years ago," he says now of the T5 furore. "When we had completed the project it was well before the operations were installed. As far as building and designing it was concerned – which was our responsibility – we stayed within budget and met our deadline."
Still, the controversy can't have come as a total surprise to Rogers. Throughout his career he has tiptoed across a minefield, and, so far at least, has emerged as cheerful (and colourful) as ever. He is now 74, and winding down a career that, albeit of varied success, has decorated his mantelpiece with the most prestigious prizes his peers have to offer. While he has, arguably, revitalised cities across the globe – Paris, Cardiff, Madrid – there have also been the disasters. Terminal 5 may be the most recent, but lest we forget, his Millennium Dome was the white elephant that trampled the euphoria of the early Blair years (although it is now enjoying a renaissance as the O2 Arena). In 2005 he came under fire for criticising Quinlan Terry's design for a hospital to serve the Chelsea Pensioners, with the pensioners themselves caught in the crossfire.
The following year, Rogers almost got thrown off a $2bn (£1bn) convention centre project in New York, in memory of a pro-Israeli senator – this time for hosting a pro-Palestinian meeting at his offices. Indeed, it's little short of miraculous that his close working relationship with the notoriously gaffe-prone London mayor, Ken Livingstone (for whom he has worked as an adviser), has not created a public relations disaster of skyscraper proportions.
But on the brisk spring morning we meet at his west London studio, his mind is on happier matters. Here, opposite the famous River Café, co-run by his wife, Ruth, he is putting the finishing touches to his first major retrospective exhibition in this country, to open tomorrow at London's Design Museum. It was designed by his son Ab (this is his full name – there is no end to architects' strangeness), and the two have spent much time poring over what it should include – a model of Madrid's Barajas Airport here, an elevation of the National Assembly in Cardiff there. In a meeting room, the pair chat about everything from Westminster politics to sink estates and the poverty gap.
Watching father and son interact is enlightening. Though Rogers senior looks tall, trim and sprightly, Ab occasionally interjects to guide his dad – who often wavers over his opinions, either through indecision or an unwillingness to upset. But the elder statesman goes along with it, on the whole seeming affable, clearly taking glee in his son's attempts to run rings round the press. Question: "Where do you start when designing an exhibition for your father?" Ab's answer: "You start in the same place that you should for any exhibition. At the beginning ..." Rogers smirks, his eyes pinched by his paternal grin, and flails his hands in delight.
The architect's riverside workplace is reached after a pleasant stroll from central Hammersmith. From the moment you first catch a glimpse, you recognise this building as his. Take the location: here, in an affluent, Tory London borough, coxes can be heard barking orders in rowing boats along the Thames. The ostentatious former Harrods Depository building cocks a snook from the opposite bank. One can imagine how Rogers, an eternal moderniser, rubbed his hands with glee as he took on a drab former oil depot and set into it garish blue window frames, multi-layered green blinds, and a gleaming semi-circle of a summit made mostly of glass. He has taken the edifice's internal organs and pinned them to its sleeve.
Passing through the spacious innards of Rogers HQ, by the white models of the Pompidou with its nautical piping, and Lloyd's, a rocket dipped in molten steel, the architect is reached by a short elevator ride.
Upon our meeting, he cuts a dash as unmistakable as one of his buildings. While he surely can't help his prominent nose, gimlet eyes, and skin – now sagging after five decades squinting at blueprints – we must believe he takes time to pick out his wardrobe. In a dazzling pink shirt, lavender belt and moulded brown leather trainers, he perches on his fire escape for his portrait. Against the brown backdrop of the surrounding wharfs, he projects an inward glow of confidence matched only by his tailoring. A chip off the sartorial block, Ab is sporting orange from head to toe. He boasts many other Rogers calling cards: a receding hair line, a strong snout and an obsession with the efficient assembly of good-looking objects.
Rogers senior was born in Florence in 1933. He jokes that "questions about my youth will have an element of unreality and post-rationalisation about them". His father was a doctor, his mother a potter. "I became socially and politically aware early on," he explains, his words segueing into each other. "I am dyslexic, so I could not be a doctor like my father. Plus, I am obsessed with all things design."
Rogers attended the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, the Oxbridge for architects, before graduating from Yale School of Architecture in 1962. It was at Yale that he first encountered his fellow "starchitect" Norman Foster. "There is always competitiveness with any individual you work with, and with Norman there was always a certain edginess," he explains. "We were very close friends... I think without any feeling of competition it would be a very strange life. Even when I boil an egg I try to make it good."
With Foster, he set up the architectural practice Team 4, along with their respective wives at the time, Su Rogers and Wendy Cheesman. When the team split in 1967, Rogers joined forces with Renzo Piano, and it was with him that he cemented some of his proudest commissions, including the Pompidou. This established Rogers's trademark of exposing most of his buildings' services – such as heating ducts and stairs – to leave the interior flexible and uncluttered. He was knighted in 1991 and made a peer five years later.
Nowadays, his constant toil has morphed into comfortable affluence. After winning the Stirling Prize (essentially an Oscar for architecture) for his Madrid airport in 2006, and the Pritzker last year (akin to a Nobel), he has been able to scale back his hands-on involvement. Last year, Richard Rogers Partnership became Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (named after its directors) and he has been able to enjoy life a bit more, skiing, cycling, and spending time with his family. "I certainly don't miss the early times," he laughs. "They were very panicky. I've since had the opportunity to spread into different areas, like my work with the Government [such as in 1998, when John Prescott asked him to chair a task force examining the country's cities]. I couldn't have done many of those things when I was 30, say."
It is these political excursions which have distinguished him from his old friend and fellow peer, Foster, who rarely pipes up to speak his mind, presumably for fear of losing work. But Rogers claims social awareness is woven into his DNA. "Historically, with architects the lines have never been clear between the political and the design. With [Italian Renaissance architect Filippo] Brunelleschi, for example: was he a sculptor, was he an inventor, was he a writer, or was he a philosopher?"
So what does this polymath make of the mayoral elections, at the beginning of next month? Could he, for example, see himself working with Tory candidate Boris Johnson, currently neck and neck with Ken in the polls? At first Rogers says he would not have trouble working with a Conservative mayor. "I haven't met with Boris," he says, "I don't know him. I worked well with [former Conservative environment secretary] John Gummer and [Michael] Heseltine [who held the same position, most recently between 1990 and 1992]. My roots are on the left. But if I can be useful..." Ab interrupts: "I am sure it would be hard seeing that the press releases [Johnson] has put out are contrary to a lot of what you stand for. I think it depends. My flyer through my door in Wimbledon said: more power for your bucks. It was like he was selling washing-up liquid. There is a lack of intelligence in the way he's campaigning."
Rogers gathers his thoughts and continues: "You're probably right. I suppose the reason I'm not completely saying no is that I will wait to see. I've had relationships with a lot of politicians. Some of them have been appalling on both sides. When I chaired the task force I got as much backing from the Conservatives as I did from Labour."
Such canny posturing is typical. While he is a Labour peer, and vaunts his leftist beliefs, he has recently designed 86 luxury penthouses at One Hyde Park, opposite Harvey Nichols in Knightsbridge, for the upmarket developers the Candy brothers. His penthouses there have 24-hour room service, huge baths hewn from wood, marble work surfaces, floor-to-ceiling fridges, panic rooms, bulletproof windows, and private lifts direct to each apartment, as well as eye scanners. This is hardly a model of restrained good taste, or looking out for the little guy. How can he reconcile such extravagance with campaigning for key workers trying to get their feet on the property ladder?
"I don't think you'd be doing much good if you refused to do this kind of project. A question I often get is, why build airports if I believe in reducing carbon footprints? And to that I would say: it's not the gas station that is the problem, it is the car and the petrol. One should have a carbon tax, better public transport, all these things. But, yes, I do build airports."
Ab comes to the rescue. "But you have much less materials in your airports," he says. "And with the Candy brothers, it will be a piece of high-quality architecture that will be there for years to come." It is this wavering – or, if we are being unkind, wriggling out of the question – which defines Rogers's involvement in politics. You can't crucify someone for making a buck or two. But when using his personality and power to expound ideas of what the world should look like, shouldn't he lead by example?
Earlier this week, preparations for Rogers's exhibition were in full flow at the Design Museum, a white angular car ferry of a place just east of Tower Bridge. Here, technicians bustle about, hanging photographs, installing computers, shifting models (including the metallic £100,000 original of the Lloyd's building) from desk to desk. There is a "strut" from Terminal 5, spray-painted pink, which will be shifted to the entrance in due course. The show is a trimmed down version of a well-received retrospective at the Pompidou last year, and is organised according to "theme". Typically dense architectural terms – "legible", "systems", "public" – sign the public's way around a room only marginally smaller than a football pitch. Films show X-ray images of various structures to try to demonstrate how Rogers arrives at his designs. While it is lofty stuff, aficionados will lap it up.
"It's an incredible array of work," says Ab. "We tried to create an environment which was engaging. Architecture is often shown in quite neutral places and architecture models are quite neutral in themselves. We thought that by using colour we could increase the contrast between the models and their environment. And we tried to make this city-like space, and by using films, to show off the humanism of the buildings."
Of the exhibition, Rogers later explains: "I often say that at one level my favourite project is my parents' house, not least because I was close to my parents; but because many of the germs of the ideas which we developed later can be seen there, such as in Pompidou. Here we learnt that things should be extendable, flexible and colourful. At another level, I love the Pompidou, because it became known as a place for both culture and fun to be put together. And then, there is, of course, Madrid Airport, which I thoroughly enjoyed being involved with. It lifted my heart, but more importantly I hope it lifts the hearts of those who use it."
As the end of our time together draws near, Rogers declares that he is proud to have been involved in sculpting a city such as London, where so many of his buildings live on, for better or worse. "I think London at the present is going through its best period, certainly in my life. More people are using its public spaces, and there's a general feeling of being cosmopolitan and I see that as continuing. When I came here, Britain was very much an island country. Today you can get any form of food. I talked to about 50 of our architects of late, and only three were born in England. I think that's fantastic."
Earlier this month, he took a plane to see the birth of the latest member of the Rogers dynasty. "I am very concerned about my family," he concludes. "I just had my 10th grandchild born last week. We went over to New York, where they live, as soon as we heard she was about to be born. Ruthie and I got a plane and we spent the week there, with the grandchild and the children. My family, above all, are the most important thing to me. If I were to sum up the most successful part of my career, it would be having lots of children." Needless to say, Lord and Lady Rogers avoided the ignominy of departing from Terminal 5.
'Richard Rogers + Architects – From the House to the City', is at the Design Museum, from tomorrow until 25 August; 0870 833 9955, www.designmuseum.org
From the Pompidou to the 'cheese grater', via the Dome
Wimbledon House, London, 1969
This was one of Rogers' first projects, located opposite Wimbledon Common. Despite having a relatively small budget, and the clients being his parents, the designer still managed to create a "prototype" for what was to come. Its exposed steel frame could be seen in his later work. His son Ab now lives there.
Millennium Dome, London, 1999
Those who commissioned the "New Millennium Experience", to give it its official name, soon wished they had never clapped eyes on its "12 outstretched arms". Costs spiralled to at least £758m, and it failed to attract the crowds that were promised. After some talk of turning it into a supercasino, it was reinvented as a music venue, which opened last year.
Terminal 5 (T5), Heathrow, London, 2008
Nearly 20 years in the making, T5 was marred at its opening by negative headlines caused by problems with its baggage-handling system. But many critics have been gushing about its design, which incorporates a steel-truss roof with fretted glass. Described as one of the best man-made spaces in modern Britain, although it cost a whopping £4bn.
National Assembly for Wales, Cardiff, 2005
Rogers says this £41m building incorporates themes derived from its client (the Welsh assembly) in that it is expansive and transparent, supposedly influenced, in an ideal world, by the "transparency" of democracy. A beautiful building located on Cardiff Bay.
Leadenhall building, London, to be built by 2011
Dubbed "the cheese-grater" this 47-floor, £286m skyscraper in the City of London is one of a host of towers planned for the capital. Its distinctive, tapering shape is in part to preserve views of key historic buildings around it, such as St Paul's Cathedral.
Channel 4 building, Horseferry Road, 1994
With its prominent location close to London's Victoria Station, this £39m headquarters was the perfect calling card for the architect's practice, especially with its slinky cladding of powder-grey aluminium. The broadcaster wanted the building's design to express the character of its operations: "innovative, socially aware and willing to take risks".
Madrid Barajas International Airport, 2006
The building that gifted Rogers the Stirling Prize, this €6bn (around £4bn) terminal was a sign of what was to come at Heathrow. Like the London project, in the first two weeks there were baggage handling and flight delays (and the metro link to the terminal did not open for months). But, undoubtedly good-looking, the building vaunts vast amounts of light and space.
Lloyd's Building, London, 1986
This £75m pioneering tall building was designed for insurance institution Lloyd's of London. The futuristic structure flaunts its services (such as lifts) all over its exterior. While it divided opinion at first, over time it became accepted as an architectural tour de force.
Pompidou Centre, Paris, 1977
Rogers designed this landmark – with a team including the now-famous Italian architect Renzo Piano – as an arts centre including such attractions as a modern art museum and music research centre. "Movement" was an integral part of his vision, hence the conspicuous escalators snaking their way up its side. It cost £59m.