Richard Rogers gave us the Pompidou centre and the Lloyd's building. No w he's giving us the Reith Lectures
Sir Richard Rogers, the first architect to deliver the Reith Lectures, probably also the first dyslexic, and very likely the first to do so in a shirt without a collar, was walking round his architectural studios. They're in a converted warehouse beside the Thames at Hammersmith, partly up in the air and over the river, rather dizzy making, with all the hi-tech decor.

Is that all part of your empire? I asked, looking down at the buildings below. There are 90 people in his practice, plus another 150 working on the site, clustered in the complex that includes his wife's restaurant, the River Cafe.

"Communieee ... " he said.

Excuse me? He does tend to swallow words, sentences die away, and after all these years, there's still a slight accent. "Community," he repeated. "Not an empire, please."

He's an old fashioned socialist, our Richard, a Sixties idealist, though now with champagne overtones, who prides himself on running a co-operative, with everyone having a voice. Senior partners can't earn more than six times the most junior architect. One-third of the annual profits are shared, on a points system. A third goes back into the business. A third goes to charity, with the staff deciding which charities. He actively encourages people not to work too hard, not to stay too late, except on Fridays. Why Friday? "Friday night is birthday night." No worker's birthday ever goes unmarked, but to save work from being one long party, they celebrate all the week's birthdays each Friday.

So how much do you earn, as the boss, sorry, one of the nine senior partners? You can ask such a question, whenever someone boasts about equality. "Too much, probably," he smiled. A very sexy smile. That Roman nose seemed to grow even larger while his eyes crinkled so much they disappeared. Yes, but how much? "Around £200,000. We've had a very good three years. Nearly £1m has gone to charity, despite the recession." Because you are so brilliant, arguably the world's top architect? "No, just age and experience."

Twasn't always thus. He was born in Florence in 1933, to Italian speaking parents, dad a doctor, mother a potter, and seemed destined to be an Italian himself, except that 100 years earlier, the original Mr Rogers, a dentist from Sunderland who had emigrated to warmer climes, had spawned a family who had always been very proud of their Anglo roots. It was partly a snobbish thing, pretending after all these decades still to be English, which was why he was christened Richard, not Ricardo.

His father, fiercely anti-fascist, left Italy in 1939, bringing Richard, aged six, speaking no English. Worse, it turned out he had learning difficulties, making his school days a misery. Aged nine he contemplated suicide. "There was no such thing as dyslexia in those days, only laziness. I did for a while go to a school for backward children. Being an Italian during the war didn't help either." Did you try to hide your accent, your Italianness? "I don't think so. I've never been a fearful person. I wasvery tall and thin when young, and good at boxing, which helped."

He left at 18, with six 0-levels, making it impossible for him to be a doctor, which his mother would have liked. He went into the army for his National Service. After his first weekend home he didn't go back, thinking the rules were silly, then the military police arrived. "I told the Army I could speak Italian, and they said, `good, we'll send you to Germany'. My unit did go off to Germany, but I had mumps and didn't follow them."

By chance he was sent to Italy, to Trieste, where he visited an uncle who was an architect. That's when he fell in love with the idea of architecture, despite being poor at drawing and lousy at writing. "I was very political and could see the social use of architecture." His parents paid for him to study at the Architectural Association in London, which did not worry about minor things like lack of A-levels.

For the first few years as an architect, he had little work, apart from doing the odd house for relations, which is how most of them start. In 1971 he teamed up with Renzo Piano, thinking they might as well be unemployed together, when a competition was announced for the Pompidou Centre in Paris. "I was against entering. I didn't like the idea of a monument to a president and didn't approve of a centralised cultural building. But Renzo and my wife were for it." (This was his first wife, Sue, still a close friend, and the mother of his first three sons.)

"There were 690 entries. We presumed we didn't have the slightest chance, having done nothing of note. It was a mad scramble to get the Paris drawings ready in time. They had to be posted on a certain date, and we left it so late we sent them from the Leicester Square Post Office at one minute to midnight. The drawings turned out too big for the post box, so the person posting them had to get down on the pavement and cut bits off. They arrived looking as if a dog had chewed them."

They won, and the rest is history. More than 7 million people visit it a year, more than the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower together. But isn't it a bit tatty these days? "Yes, it is. It needs money spent, but I've just been to Paris and it's going to be done.

"It was a very cheap building anyway, one of the cheapest ever, and the problems and rows and difficulties were appalling. It was only my youthful eagerness that kept me going. People forget the world hated the design at first - 90 per cent of the press were against us. Only the New York Times approved. Its popularity was slow to come. For two years after it was finished, I was exhausted, with no work coming in. I was preparing to emigrate to America, to take a lecturing job, when Lloyd's came up."

In the City of London, this is the other biggie for which Rogers will be remembered. Unlike the Pompidou, he says, there were no money problems and no aggravations with the client. Yes, but it's said people now don't like working in it. "This is nonsense. I had lunch with the chief executive only the other day and he says that most people love it. Our latest building, for Channel 4, has also had enormous approval."

What about the attacks from people like Prince Charles, hating the sort of modern stuff you do? He sighed. "It's important to talk about these things, so I'm grateful to him for that, but he has only strengthened the desire to live in the past. We need informed patronage in this country, from the government and private people, and we're not getting it. Britain probably has the best young architects in the world at the moment - and a third are unemployed. In France and Germany they understand modern architecture. I was saddened this morning to hear that Michael Heseltine, in building a library for himself, has chosen an 18th-century style. Important people like him should lead from the front, not go backwards."

So why don't you live abroad? "Oh no, I'm staying. I enjoy the battles. In Italy, unless you have the right political connections, things are hard. Germany is too rigid for me. This country has an amazingly open, democratic society. I can work here with Tories just as well as Labour.John Gummer, for example, is proving an excellent Minister of Environment."

One new interest is the National Tenants' Resources Centre, a body trying to improve the quality of life on council housing estates - in which 15 million people, a quarter of the population, still live. Didn't architects cause most of the problems, with high-rise blocks? "Architects must take some blame, but the clients wanted things done cheaply and quickly. Our plan is to get tenants to run the estates themselves, to collect the rents and decide on spending."

Giving the Reith Lectures,looking at the future of cities, is another new activity. A pretty brave one, considering his verbal handicaps. "I've had coaching in reading my own scripts. I also have a memory function problem, which doesn't help. I can't remember names, even my own aunt's. But for some strange reason, when I stand on a stage in public, without a script to read, I am at my most fluent. I think it must be chemical ... My oldest son, Ben, who is really a philosopher, has been helping with the Reith Lectures."

Ben, 31, went to Oxford and is a writer, working on the biography of A J Ayer. Zad is in TV. When they were in the sixth form, at their north London fee-paying school, they moved themselves to a state school, saying how could a so-called socialist fatherdo such a thing. "Oh, I don't regret it. I'd do the same again. I don't want to sacrifice my children to my own beliefs."

Then comes Ab, who designs and builds furniture, Roo, who is at university in the United States and Bo, still at school.Yes, very Sixties names. "We really chose them for the sounds and we got wilder as we went along."

With age, plus his knighthood - his mother, now 86, was furious he took it - he is part of the Establishment, whether he likes it or not. Has it made him less radical? "I feel more comfortable at 63 than at 33, which is probably not a very good thing, but I know I can do things I haven't done before." Come again? "I mean I still want to try new things."

The Reith Lectures begin on Sunday 12 February on Radio 4. They will also be published in the `Independent' starting next Monday.

RICHARD RODGERS' FAVOURITE THINGS CITIES 1) Paris: "Stunningly beautiful, both for leisure and work."

2) Rome: "For its 2,000 years of history, the visual richness, the street theatre of the passagio."

3) London: "Immensely civilised, rich in culture with its opera, theatre, parks. I feel I can do anything here."

4) New York: "For its extremes, of poverty and richness, all in the public domain, and its density of life."

5) Barcelona: "For its amazing 24-hour life. It's a people city."

BUILDINGS: ANCIENT 1) Pazzi Chapel in Florence: "I prefer Brunelleschi to Michelangelo. He was early in the Renaissance, and so innovative."

2) The Campo in Siena:"I love squares, more than buildings really."

3) Place des Vosges, Paris: "The first great European square."

4) St Mark's, Venice.

5) Katsura Palace in Kyoto, Japan: "Unbelievably simple wooden building from the early 17th century."

BUILDINGS: MODERN 1) Frank Lloyd Wright's prairie houses in Wisconsin.

2) Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye in Poissy.

3) Wright's Guggenheim Museum in New York.

4) Charles Eames's house in Los Angeles.

5) Pierre Chareau's Maison de Verre in Paris.

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