Bricks and mortars: Richard Rogers

With Prince Charles out to stymie his latest project, Britain's grandest architect is tearing at the walls
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The Independent Online

In Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, our hero Arthur Dent meets a grey-bearded sage called Slartibartfast.

In the course of their conversation, Dent discovers that his new friend is a designer of planets. Did he, asks Arthur, have a hand in the Earth? "Oh yes," says Slartibartfast. "Did you ever go to a place – I think it was called Norway? That was one of mine. Won an award, you know. Lovely crinkly edges."

Richard Rogers must sometimes feel like Slartibartfast. Britain's most internationally successful, famous and high-profile architect, a man who this week challenged British royalty to mind its constitutional Ps and Qs, could be forgiven for feeling god-like. Flying into Spain, he can jerk a thumb at Madrid airport and say, "That was one of mine, Won the Sterling Prize in 2007." Driving through Paris, he can point out the Pompidou Centre and say, "One of my early ones – it was used as the set for a Bond film, you know."

If a London tourist asked what the hell was the tall building that dominates the City's night landscape with its spooky blue light, Rogers could admit he did the Lloyds building. Heathrow Terminal 5? Sure. The Antwerp Law Courts? Certainly. The National Assembly Building in Wales? Uh-huh. The Dome? Of course (but we don't call it that any more.) Until a week ago, he was going to add one more edifice to this portfolio. But on Friday 12 June his office phone shrilled at 9am and a spokesman for the Qatar royal family told him his services as mastermind of the Chelsea Barracks project (the family owns the site) were no longer required.

It was the most shattering blow. The £3bn project, to build 552 flats in a series of glass and steel residential towers on the 13-acre site of the old barracks, was about to get the green light. After two years of design work, planning permission was days away. Westminster Council and the Greater London Authority were on side. Only a group of locals, the Chelsea Barracks Opposition Group, were ranged against them.

But Prince Charles didn't like the look of Rogers's plans, and that was what counted in the end. He wrote to Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani, prime minister and foreign minister of Qatar but also – crucially – a member of the royal family. The letter asked, "prince to prince", whether a different design might be adopted. It was enough of a hint for the Qataris to slice a jewelled scimitar through Rogers's plans.

His response was bold, even foolhardy. He called for a public inspection of Charles's constitutional powers. Has a royal, even a future king, any right to intervene in building projects? Does his princely role allow him to throw his blue-blooded weight around in areas such as farming and the environment? "The prince does not debate," Rogers told one newspaper, "and in a democracy that is unacceptable and non-constitutional. I think he pursues these topics because he is looking for a job and in that sense I sympathise with him."

It was a fantastic row – the Prince vs the Lord – and has ramified into a larger dispute: traditional vs modern, classical grace vs high-tech trendiness, Nimbys vs developers. It's brought a storm of right-wing spluttering about the awfulness of the "modernist architectural mafia" and the bravery of Charles in standing up for "the people". Elsewhere Charles has been criticised for being Luddite, and his intervention seen as "almost feudal" in its high-handedness. Lord Rogers, meanwhile, has been derided for petulance, abused for his former closeness to New Labour, and told to calm down.

Neutral analysts point out that Rogers hasn't a leg to stand on, concerning the Prince's powers. Constitutionally, the Prince has every right to contribute to public debate, provided he isn't party-political. He has, however, a power of influence over decision-makers which is massive. And while we can sympathise with any businessman whose ambitions are scuppered by a mere raising of the royal eyebrow, many think Lord Rogers is guilty of a long-gestating hubris. He has, they say, got above himself. "The [Chelsea] neighbours never wanted these glass and steel high-tech residential towers stuffed with £50m flats," one columnist wrote. "But they had no influence over the combined might of Lord Rogers, Gulf State money and the Candys. [Nick and Christian Candy, developers of One Hyde Park, designed by Rogers.]"

Born in Florence to Anglo-Italian parents, Rogers went to the School of Architecture in London, before studying at Yale, where he met Norman Foster. Back in England they became partners in Team 4, specialising in hi-tech industrial design. In 1967, he joined Renzo Piano, which won a competition to design the Pompidou Centre. There, Rogers established his trademark, inside-out style –- exposing the building's staircases and heating ducts on the outside, to leave the interior uncluttered.

His career, and the Richard Rogers partnership, took off, internationally. But this supremely ambitious architect was never content with drawing-boards. After he became a Labour peer in 1996, he seemed determined to shape government policy in deciding how the urban environment should look.

He steered the government's Urban Task Force in revitalising decayed cityscapes, but, frustrated by its lack of action, openly criticised its policy. Under New Labour he became "the best-connected British architect in two generations." His projects, and his ambitions, grew larger. What he wanted to happen, happened.

Except when Prince Charles didn't approve. Rogers and the Prince have had run-ins before. In 1987, his company was slated to rebuild Paternoster Square beside St Paul's, until Charles spoke out in public at the Mansion House against their proposals. When Rogers was in the frame to rebuild the Royal Opera House, a late-night phone call told him he was "too risky" because "the prince doesn't like you".

Perhaps his most interesting confrontation, however, was in May 2005. It involved Quinlan Terry, the prince's much-favoured "contemporary classical" architect. Terry had designed a £20m infirmary at Chelsea Royal Hospital. The borough's planning committee had unanimously approved it – but at the last moment, the Deputy Prime Minister's office froze all plans while it considered objections to the scheme.

One came from Richard Rogers, who – though he wasn't bidding for the project – described the design as "inadequate for the location, a pastiche and a copy", and recommended a modern building. Quinlan Terry was appalled. He accused Rogers of using his friendship with John Prescott and the New Labour machine to scupper his plans. "We just feel," he said, "that the whole planning system is undemocratic if you are going to be overridden by pressure groups."

Does that sound familiar? A lucrative development scheme in the Chelsea area is suddenly and undemocratically derailed by a hostile rival, through the use of friends in high places? Prince Charles, it seems, isn't the only one who resorts to underhand (though not illegal) influence to get his own way.

There's something regal about Lord Rogers as he sits in palatial splendour at his riverside offices in Hammersmith, west London. His title is Lord Rogers of Riverside. His second wife is Ruth Rogers, the effervescent co-proprietor (with Rose Gray) of the famous River Café, which specialises in rustic Italian dishes, lovingly prepared and ruinously expensive.

Rogers and his design team use the café as a staff canteen. There's a popular notion that multimillion-pound projects for buildings that will change the London skyline for ever sometimes start life lazily sketched out on River Café napkins. The garden is the setting for summer parties for writers, politicians, TV executives, publishers, designers and journalists: this is where you'll find Lord Bragg, Ed Victor, Nigella Lawson, Stephen Bayley, Alan Yentob and Salman Rushdie hobnobbing in the sunshine.

Lord Rogers ambles serenely through them all, smiling his mile-wide, crocodile grin. At 75, he's a youthful and stylish chap with a fondness for vividly coloured pink and green shirts. A knight, a lord, a Companion of Honour and the holder of the Priztker Prize (the Nobel Prize of architecture), he no longer has anything to prove, except how much he hates to be thwarted. A pillar of the arts establishment, he shows alarming signs of folie de grandeur in confronting his future king. It would be a shame if over-confidence made him the architect of his own humiliation.

A life in brief

Born: Richard Rogers, 23 July 1933, Florence, Italy

Family: Married to second wife Ruth Elias, 1973, co-owner and co-founder of the Riverside Café, with whom he has three children. He married his first wife, Sue Brumwell, the architect, in 1960 with whom he had three children.

Early life: He moved to London in 1939 where His father, Nino Rogers, was a doctor. He received his diploma at the Architecture Association 1954-59 and in 1961 he studied for his degree in architecture at Yale University.

Career: In 1977 he formed the Richard Rogers Partnership and was knighted in 1981. His work includes the Pompidou Centre, the Lloyds HQ building in London and the Millennium Experience. His current projects include Tower 3 on the World Trade Center site in New York.

He says: "The architect has two responsibilities: one is for the client and the other is for the passer-by. The passer-by, though, is the one who tends to be forgotten."

They say: "He likes to work in buildings in which congregations of people will gather and pass through, in the genuine belief that he can create spaces offering people a better experience." Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, of which Rogers was chairman of the trustees.