If Richard Rogers ran the City, rather than just designed some of its iconic buildings, the grotesque financial screw-ups of recent years might have been avoided. Putting an architect aged 80 in charge of Britain’s commercial heart and dollar-fixated soul, is of course never going to happen. But listening to the man who gave the Square Mile the Lloyd’s building in 1986 and who next year will deliver its new Leadenhall Street neighbour in the shape of the “Cheesegrater”, you detect an inner-politician whose idealism could well have survived the Westminster wrecking-ball.
After 50 years in practice that has seen him knighted, created Baron Rogers of Riverside, given the Légion d’honneur, awarded the Royal Institute of British Architect’s gold medal, and made a laureate of the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honour, Rogers might be expected to enjoy the best office, an array of assistants, a chauffeur, and near-obscene remuneration.
Prepare to be disappointed. When I spoke to Lord Rogers at his practice’s building in Hammersmith, which overlooks the Thames and Barnes Bridge, he had travelled to work from his home in Chelsea the same way he’s been doing for years – on his fold-up Brompton bicycle.
So no Rolls-Royce outside? “Thirty years ago, if not 50 years ago, I think we set out quite early on trying to have social responsibility,” he says. “We wrote a constitution and agreed that at that time the highest paid architect – which was me – could only have eight or nine times the lowest-paid architect’s salary. The rest would go through either a direct profit share or to charity. We mapped out benefits, were among the first people to give paternity leave anywhere… we outgunned John Lewis in fact.”
The theme of social responsibility appears, at least on the surface, at odds with Lord Rogers’ clients list of the past half century and the big-ticket budgets that have accompanied the creation some of the most technologically advanced buildings in the world. A Rogers project – the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Lloyd’s, the Millennium Dome, Terminal 4 at Barajas Airport Madrid, the new World Trade Centre – doesn’t come cheap, and he doesn’t apologise for the contradiction. “The key thing about a building is the client. If you have a really good client, you’re likely to get a very good building. I look at the best buildings we’ve done – all exceptional clients.”
In this respect Rogers is like any other award-winning architect operating at the top of end of his profession – economic realism dominates. He admits :“Architects are not clients. We can’t build without something to built.”
And London clients have been good to Rogers. The tubular lattice, external framework , canyon-scale atrium and electric-blue cranes of Lloyd’s changed the City’s view of what was possible, what was acceptable. 122 Leadenhall, scheduled to be finished next year, may do the same. “We thought Lloyd’s was technologically sophisticated. But Leadenhall may make it look primitive. We’ve seen tremendous change and we hope to use the appropriate solution, the appropriate technology to address each problem we face.”
An exhibition at London’s Royal Academy of Arts – entitled “Richard Rogers Inside Out” is currently examining his career. But it does far more than simply bundle up his influential and pioneering work. “My son designed the exhibition, and guided me through what we wanted to say. He said: ‘We need to catch your smell.’ We wanted to show there was more than just architecture and that the main ethos [of his practice] was fairness.”
As we discuss categories of architecture, the part of the Modernist movement Rogers would place himself in, and the dominance of London and New York as financial centres, there’s a switch from what architecture can do, to what architecture isn’t doing. “I think greed is a critical problem – the gap between the poor and the rich. The gap between the top 10 per cent and the bottom 10 per cent. It’s greater than its ever been before,” he says.
The problem isn’t new, but with the perspective of an architect-politician, Lord Rogers hints that it might be possible to “build” a solution – literally. He sounds defeatist when he says: “After the war we used to build 300,000 buildings a year, in the time of Macmillan and Wilson. Now we build nothing like that, half maybe. And most of what we build is almost private. What we’ve lost is social, affordable housing. And we need a new consciousness to address this. Three boroughs in London are three of the 12 poorest boroughs in Western Europe. This isn’t some unheard-of Welsh coal mining village – this is London.”
For someone who designs such complex structures, Lord Rogers had a difficult time with education. Born in Florence in 1933, he left Italy six years later. “I was an Italian arriving in England in 1939 – a bad year. But as I look back, I think I can say I’ve enjoyed the last third of my life much more than my first third. I was called stupid because I couldn’t read and couldn’t spell. But I learned to box pretty well. When I started having children, and they started talking about dyslexia I realised that was obviously what I had.”
In the RA exhibition there are two of his school reports. “One is from my fourth year, where I failed everything. My father was doctor and I did think of doing medicine, but there was no way I could have been a doctor in those days. But I learnt how to get through a few back doors and managed to get into the school of architecture.”
After two years national service, Rogers says people forgot to ask him how many A-levels he had – none – and by the time he graduated from Yale in 1962 with a masters degree, alongside his fellow students, Norman Foster and James Stirling, his focus was on what he could do, not what he couldn’t.
In the late 1960s, Rogers was part of the political and social upheaval that saw prewar “don’t do” replaced with a generation of “can-do”. As a young architect he produced a striking modular factory-built design for a prefabricated house, with thin legs, that narrowly failed to win a design competition. Called the “Zip-up enclosure”, it was never built.
Rogers has re-engaged with that 1960s challenge. “Houses for £15,000 to £20,000 which can be put up in three or four hours, each with a high standard. We can do these things now. We built 100 in Milton Keynes, and we have plans to do more [in Newham] but it has been a hell of a battle .”
I ask if there is a political will to make it happen, to solve the crisis? Although Rogers says “No” he accepts the problem isn’t really just the UK. “Housing in Europe is the most critical thing in the built environment. We have to do something because a lot is at stake here. We’ve lost some of the energy that we had in the immediate post-war period. “
So where does £30bn to build a new London airport fit in? Would it reflect a generation’s legacy, a revival of lost confidence? His answer looks to a wider agenda: “We need the trade. But the airport is less of a problem. The airport could be a hub, offering employment and a gateway to the City. So you have to have railways and further investment. And we invest less in our infrastructure than any Western country. And where the Government are on this – I’m rather bemused. I can’t work out where they are going.”
As a Labour peer, his answer is to be expected; as an architect the answer should be seen as worrying.
Rogers also thinks the Government is getting it wrong on the way developers are taxed. “If you had a carbon tax, you’d have less cars and more bicycles, more people getting around on foot and by public transport. Equally, there needs to be a way of retrieving [value] on the increase of the cost of land. Once developers get planning permission, and the land is revalued, some of that increase in value should be going to the Government in tax. “
For someone hired by wealthy clients to increase the value of some of the most expensive land in the world, the idea of an added-value tax seems almost contradictory, traitorous even. Rogers won’t see it that way. As he’s said before “Architecture is measured against the past, you build in the future and you try to imagine the future.”
A life in brief
Born Florence, Italy, 1933. Arrived in London aged 6. Father was a doctor
Education: Poor. Left school with no A levels. Enrolled at Architectural Association School of Architecture. Yale School of Architecture, masters degree 1962
First architecture practice: Team 4, partners included Norman Foster
1971: Won design competition for the Centre Pompidou, Paris
2001-2008: Adviser to London Mayor Ken Livingstone
May 2006: chosen as architect of Tower 3, replacement for World Trade Centre, New York.
Knighted in 1981, created Baron Rogers of Riverside, 1996.