Architecture: Feed him, need him now he's 64

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The Independent Culture
Richard Rogers is a man in a hurry. The arrival of a Labour government is a moment that Lord Rogers, as he now is, has been waiting for since he started elaborating his themes of creating new types of city for the next century.

It's not as if he was completely out in the cold during the Tory years. After an initial snub by Michael Howard, whom Rogers went to see after the 1992 election, he became firm friends with John Gummer, the Environment Secretary, who did much to create a climate for innovative urban design and earned respect as a beacon within a philistine administration. Rogers subsequently won the design competition for the Millennium Exhibition at Greenwich, although he lost out to Norman Foster, his former partner and rival, to design the scheme to pedestrianise parts of Trafalgar and Westminster squares.

Judging by the first weeks of hectic activity in the Department of National Heritage (probably to be renamed Ministry of Culture, following a suggestion by Rogers), Lord Rogers' vision of urban renewal through a new type of architecture and design could become a reality within his lifetime. National Heritage, headed by Chris Smith and with Mark Fisher as a junior minister, is all a hubbub with ideas, plans and initiatives. The civil servants are bowled over by the open approach of the politicians and are being swept up in the enthusiasm. As one put it: "In the past our approach was terribly bureaucratic, but now we are being asked to respond to ideas. It's very exciting." People like Rogers are pushing at an open door - and he could not be better placed, having long courted Labour politicians and the sort of innovative ideas that chime in with New Labour thinking.

In 1992, he wrote a book, A New London, with Mark Fisher, about reversing the decline of the inner city through the emergence of "a new urban culture". It is a radical agenda of reducing car use, creating city squares, reinventing social housing and involving local communities in change. As a theoretical vision, it is exciting. As a political programme which comes up against the realpolitik of the motoring lobby, the cost of public transport schemes and the self-interest of big business, it may prove hard to implement. Nevertheless, Rogers is in a strong position. Fisher is in government and Rogers has won over Tony Blair, the Labour leader. After a well-attended public meeting on the future of London organised by the Architectural Foundation last April, at which Blair backed Rogers' idea for a new London government, Blair famously went off to dine with Rogers, rather than Foster who was also at the meeting. Within months Rogers had been ennobled and has become one of the group to whom Blair turns for ideas. One Labour source said: "Blair and Rogers meet quite often. Tony likes people such as Rogers who try to transcend conventional thinking."

The new Lord is not averse to a bit of clever politicking to further his ideas. It was timely that his partnership's drawings of the dome for the Millennium Exhibition appeared in the newspapers over the weekend. The future of the exhibition is in doubt, with ministers appalled by the lack of detail and the optimistic assumptions in the business plan. Clearly Rogers felt that a pre-emptive move to win support for the concept was needed. Interestingly, whereas previous images of the dome made it look like an alien spaceship that had missed its turning at Alpha Centauri, the new one is crisply elegant, and a better vehicle with which to sell the beleaguered exhibition.

The problem for Lord Rogers is that the redesign of cities is not an overnight task. He is 64 and his ideas have emerged gradually over his lifetime's work. Will Labour, with lots of goodwill but precious little cash, move quickly enough for Rogers and his supporters to see a difference?

Christian Wolmar

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