A man with a vision to sell
Sunday 27 June 1999
The architect of the Millennium Dome wants to reverse the drift to the suburbs which has characterised much of Britain's social development this century. Lord Rogers has spoken of "a new spirit of urbanity", which will enable us to make best use of our urban centres and turn them into places "we cannot only inhabit, but enjoy".
We have already seen one example of his vision in his controversial "landmark" residential block, Montevetro, a 20-storey riverside showpiece on the Thames in Wandsworth (prices start at pounds 250,000). It is a classic urban regeneration project, on the site of the gaunt hulk of the Hovis flour mills, which, in turn, were preceded by Battersea's manor house in the early years of this century.
The glass and steel edifice dwarfs the adjacent historic parish church of St Mary's, where William Blake, the Romantic poet, much admired by Lord Rogers, was married. Blake, driven by his poverty and visions, often walked along the Thames, to "mark in every human face, marks of weakness, marks of woe", words now inscribed on a concrete slab on the South Bank.
Lord Rogers's report is likely to cite Barcelona as a role model for the British cities of the next century. Europe offers a template, he says, because the quality of life in many English cities compares unfavourably with that of major cities in mainland Europe. The Dutch, he argues, are 20 years ahead of us. On a fact-finding tour to the Netherlands, he was impressed by the mix of low- income families living in two-storey homes and larger apartment blocks around a square which doubled as school playground.
But Lord Rogers has made no secret of his belief that some of the answers lie closer to home and has often cited Glasgow as a fine example of a city now flourishing through the appropriate mix of public and private finance, dynamic architects and politicians prepared to take the long- term view.
His dream of a nation of peaceful city dwellers is not based purely on aesthetic architectural grounds: he passionately believes that pleasant cities are fundamental to the economic health of the country. To that end, he argues that a long-term commitment is required by local and central government to strengthen the economy across the country.
"Our regions need regional capitals, or groups of regional cities, that are economic and cultural powerhouses, with a strong European identity," he wrote recently in the Times.
Whether or not he is remembered as the man who revived our cities while saving the countryside from the bulldozers depends on whether these spruced-up cities will encourage middle-class families to plump for urban living.
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