Richard Rogers: The architect of his own misfortune

Being sacked from the Welsh Assembly shivered the timbers of our best-known architect. But it could be just the tonic his flagging career needs
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The Independent Online

A dark shadow will be cast across the 68th birthday celebrations of the architect Richard Rogers tomorrow. No doubt the table will still be laden with dishes such as grilled polenta and baked seabass for which his wife Ruth, chef at the family-owned River Café, is famous. But the news last week that Rogers's practice had been sacked from the prestigious job as designer of the new National Assembly for Wales will put a dampener on the hedonistic atmosphere associated with the annual party he holds for friends at his Chelsea home.

That's not to say that Rogers's reputation has been dealt a death-blow. His name is firmly established and, like all architects, he has suffered many disappointments before. Among the most high- profile of these was his failure to realise his scheme to cover the South Bank Centre in London with a giant glass "wave". The project was shelved in the mid-Nineties after millions of pounds of lottery money had been spent on feasibility studies which failed to convince those in charge that it was a viable solution.

Now Welsh officials are blaming the Richard Rogers Partnership for spiralling costs on the Assembly building, an accusation firmly denied by the architect last week on Radio 4's Today programme: "If they'd appointed a proper business consultant, we could have built a building for £13.2m," he said.

But what will also niggle Lord Rogers – he was made a life peer in 1996 – is that the Welsh project would have been the most important public building designed by the architect in Britain, a landmark achievement for a man who, as chairman of the Government's Urban Task Force and official adviser to the Greater London Authority, clearly enjoys his high profile. "The Welsh building is very close to his heart," says Paul Finch of The Architects' Journal. "I think it's an absolute bargain for £26m [the original prediction for the total cost]. You could pay that for a superstore and car-park. Even at £40m, it's good value."

The sacking also comes at a sensitive time in Rogers's political career. Though this week's issue of Building magazine describes him as the most powerful architect in Britain, an editor on the publication says: "He's seen as slightly out of the loop now that Prescott's no longer in charge of the environment. He was his patron."

What is less likely to concern Rogers is the loss of fees for the project. It would take much more to dent the personal fortune he has amassed since he began working as an architect in such different circumstances nearly 40 years ago.

Rogers was born in Florence in 1933 to educated English and Italian parents (his father was a doctor, his mother a potter), a stark contrast to the working-class Manchester origins of his great contemporary and one-time business partner, Norman Foster. His childhood, however, was not exactly idyllic. The family moved to Britain in 1938 and Rogers went to a prep school where his undiagnosed dyslexia held him back. "I remember this misery, just being so unhappy," he told one interviewer.

Life quickly improved for the handsome, gregarious Rogers once he became a student at the private Architectural Association school in London (the only one that would take him with no A-levels). His design work won him a scholarship to Yale where he studied alongside his new wife Su (they married in 1960) and fellow-student Norman Foster.

The years in America were formative in establishing Rogers's design sensibility. He travelled across the continent to see the cool, industrial aesthetics encompassed in the Californian houses of Charles Eames and Pierre Koenig, and experienced first-hand the seminal work of giants such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (the Welsh Assembly scheme is a gently updated essay in Miesian Modernism).

In 1963, back in Britain, Rogers set up a practice called Team 4 with Su, Norman Foster and Foster's wife Wendy. Together, they built a number of private houses (including one for Su's parents in Cornwall, now listed by English Heritage as a building of historic importance). But the project which really established the reputation of the architects was an innovative factory- cum-office (now demolished), completed in 1967 for Reliance Controls near Swindon. In its steel and glass structure, open-plan interiors and hi-tech aesthetics lie the roots of Foster's and Rogers's most seminal work.

During the next 20 years, Rogers led, or co-led, the teams responsible for designing the world's most famous piece of pop architecture – the Pompidou Centre in Paris, completed in 1977 – and the most symbolic building of the Eighties boom, the Lloyd's Building in London, in 1986. These works, famous for wearing their guts on the outside, made Rogers a household name.

But their iconic status has also been a burden. There have been lean years between projects when nobody wanted what they saw as expensive signature architecture – Lloyd's cost a hefty £168m. And the significant projects which followed – the Channel 4 headquarters in London, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, the law courts in Bordeaux – have never attracted the critical acclaim of Rogers's early work.

So despite the riches, which are most visible in his London home, a pair of Victorian terraced houses knocked together, the Welsh Assembly scheme might have been seen as a return to form for an architect who has become as famous for his lifestyle and influential network as for his buildings.

And it is this non-design-related aspect of Rogers's career which irritates many younger architects. His public talk of making Britain more like Tuscany, filled with piazzas and cappuccino-guzzling citizens, is seen as naive. Meanwhile, his role at the centre of a "luvvie" architectural axis, with the River Café as its informal club, grates on others. From this base his power extends through a complex network of colleagues, family and friends to exert influence in everything from the design profession to national politics.

His daughter-in-law Lucy Musgrave, who is married to Zad Rogers, director of last week's much-publicised Channel 4 exposé of the Tory election campaign, Unspun: Amanda Platell's Secret Diary, is herself director of the Architecture Foundation. His long-time business partner, Marco Goldschmied, was until recently president of the Royal Institute of British Architects. His first wife Su – the pair are still close – is married to John Miller, a respected architect and father-in-law of The Observer's architecture critic, Deyan Sudjic. Beyond his firm and family, Rogers has a diverse group of friends including Alan Yentob, Peter Palumbo and Nigella Lawson, for whom he designed a wedding cake when she married the late John Diamond.

If the Welsh officials stick to their decision to hand over control of Rogers's design for the Assembly building to another company, the architect will be keen to find another high-profile project through which to explore the ideas of his late career and regain the respect of his peers. Aside from the Welsh building, the other projects currently in his 120-strong office are unlikely to fulfil this ambition. The gigantic scheme for Heathrow's Terminal 5 – in development for years – has yet to be given the final go-ahead. And several office buildings on a Chiswick business park are unlikely to live up to past highs. "He did some great stuff," says one young architect. "But the Pompidou and Lloyd's are the pinnacle, and it's downhill from there." It must be a relief for Rogers that he deftly avoided any responsibility for the Dome débâcle, despite being the designer of the structure itself: it came in on time and under budget.

From the outside it may look as if time is running out for Rogers. But as he enjoys his birthday tomorrow he can take heart from the example set by his hero, Frank Lloyd Wright. He looked washed-up in mid-career and came back to design some of his greatest buildings in old age, culminating in his masterpiece, the Guggenheim Museum in New York. It was under construction when he died in 1959, at the age of 92.