Richard Rogers: The lord of all he surveys

One of his towers is being built at Ground Zero, and he just won architecture's 'Nobel Prize'. Now, at the age of 74, the laureate is returning to the building that shot him to fame: the Centre Georges Pompidou

By Paul Rodgers
Sunday 18 September 2011 21:28

A fin de siècle mood permeates the Riverside Studios, home to one of the world's greatest living architects. You can see the signs, literally, as you approach the former water-pump plant turned munitions factory turned TV studio turned architectural node in Hammersmith, west London. After 30 years as the Richard Rogers Partnership, the name was changed in April to Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. At 74, Baron Rogers of Riverside is clearly planning his succession.

"There needs to be continuity but there needs to be change," says Richard Rogers philosophically. "That's why I added those two names [Graham Stirk's and Ivan Harbour's] to my practice six months ago. It's to make the world recognise what they do." Since he turned 70, Rogers – he does not like to use his title – has been on a rolling one-year contract, though the board would have to be mad to get rid of a leader with so much experience and influence, let alone talent.

Rogers insists that he is looking to the future. He has lots still to do and claims to have just as much passion as when he was a young man. But his 46-year career has been such a success that not many pinnacles remain to be conquered.

This has been a good year for the partnership. "We won the Sterling Prize [for the Barajas airport in Madrid], then the Venice Golden Lion [for lifetime achievement], and then we won the Pritzker," says Rogers. In the architectural world, the Pritzker is the equivalent of a Nobel Prize. Endowed by Jay Pritzker, the founder of the Hyatt hotel chain, it comes with $100,000 (£50,000) and priceless publicity.

For Rogers, it arrived a little late; his two best-known former partners, Renzo Piano and Lord Foster, got theirs in 1998 and 1999 respectively, and a much younger architect, Zaha Hadid, became the first female laureate three years ago. But he's got it now, and there is no higher accolade for an architect.

Add to that the partnership's big projects under way in New York – one of which is part of the replacement for the World Trade Center. The skyscraper at 175 Greenwich Street, instantly recognisable by its diamond-shaped bracing ("Details are critical. We're very careful with our details"), is the centrepiece of three replacement buildings being designed by Rogers, Foster and Fumihiko Maki. "Our building celebrates the verticality of towers," he says. Together the trio will define the Manhattan skyline for at least a generation, probably a century, and possibly much longer. How do you top that?

Rogers says he doesn't know how many buildings he has built, let alone the number that were designed but never realised. The glass wall at the front of his studios is stacked high with models. Many of them will be moved to Paris next month for a retrospective, along with sketches, diagrams and films. The exhibition was organised to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Centre Georges Pompidou – the building that catapulted Rogers and Piano on to the international stage – but it also serves as the architect's visual memoir. Yet even though he is sitting in a meeting room with drawings of what the retrospective will look like tacked to the walls, Rogers has to be prodded by his communications manager to turn his attention to the project.

He's dressed in a casual continental style – an open-neck pink shirt with cuffs turned up – and he fiddles with his spectacles, rolling the translucent white frames between his fingers. Smiles come easily to his face and he laughs readily. He mentions, proudly, that the show is being designed by Ab, his middle son – he has five – and whizzes over a plan of the exhibition hall, pointing to the colour-coded blocks and listing their themes in a rapid burst. "It shows our key buildings and urban plans," he says.

For an oeuvre that includes such disparate works as the Lloyd's building and the Millennium Dome, the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff and Terminal 5 at Heathrow, there are a surprising number of common themes. The interplay of light and shadow is one he mentions often, and he supported sustainability long before climate change made it trendy.

But perhaps his central theme is the role of the public realm. Rogers designs not just buildings, but urban landscapes. He led the Government's Urban Task Force and now advises London's Mayor Ken Livingstone every Wednesday. He was responsible for pedestrianising the north side of Trafalgar Square and says: "It's the quality of the public spaces that make the city."

But the characteristic he will be remembered for is turning buildings inside out. "If you want flexibility and you believe in environmental sustainability, change, growth and adaptation, then you don't want interruptions inside the building," he says. "That allows you to manipulate the form and the play of light and shadow; that is architecture, otherwise it's a box."

This means, too, that the service areas of the building, the lifts, escalators, air-conditioning, cabling and plumbing, can be easily replaced when they wear out. Plus, the use of the building can be changed without much trauma. "The library at the Pompidou used to be just books, now it's mostly IT," he says. On the aesthetic side, the building becomes legible, with the materials and construction techniques on display.

Although he's become the champion of functionalism, Rogers was not the first to experiment with it. Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed the Larkin building in Buffalo, New York, and the Philadelphia architect Louis Kahn inspired him. And Rogers raves about the Seagram building by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. "It is the most magnificent building in New York. It's the proportions that make it, and the great piazza in front." As a functionalist monument, the Seagram building is a bit of a fraud, though. Building regulations required that it's steel skeleton be encased in concrete to stop it melting in a fire. The bronze I-beams you see are merely a façade.

Rogers claims that his interest in architecture and his success are, in part, due to his European origins. "Culturally I'm pretty Italian," he says. "I was brought up with none of the shock of the new that the British had after the war. The island mentality was strong here."

He was born in Florence, inheriting his English name from an ancestor "who went to Venice 200 years ago". His parents, a doctor and an artist, brought him to Britain at the age of five when they fled fascism: "1939 was not a good time for an Italian boy to be starting at a small English school," he says, deadpan. On top of the implied bullying, he suffered from dyslexia – not diagnosed until many years later – and was considered slow. "I had a difficult first 20 years, but I've had a wonderful later life," he says.

Because he spoke Italian, he was posted to Trieste during his national service. There he got to know his cousin, Ernesto Rogers, one of the leading Italian architects of the post-war period. Ernesto's influence turned Rogers towards his calling. After studying at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London he went to Yale, where he met Foster. With their wives, they formed Team 4 and worked on several small projects. After they disbanded, he joined up with Piano and entered the competition to build the Centre Pompidou. "When we won it, we were in our 30s, Renzo and I, and we were very proud that we'd beaten 700 entries. We went to the press conference in Paris and they practically threw tomatoes at us. That certainly pulled us down to the ground." When the centre opened, though, the public were queuing to get in.

A similar drubbing came decades later over the Millennium Dome, and you can hear annoyance enter his voice when he talks about. it. "I wish some reporter would do his research and get the facts," he says. I promise to do so. And here they are. While the Millennium Dome's overall budget soared to £800m, the building itself was completed on time and under budget, at a cost of just £40m. "It wasn't the building, it was what was going in it," he says. And when I mention the "fiasco" of New Year's eve 1999, in which hundreds of the great and good, plus most of Fleet Street's editors, were left in miserable weather miles from the Dome, he just nods. "Yes, that's the word I'd use too," he says.

The Richard Rogers retrospective at the Centre Georges Pompidou runs from 21 Novemberto 3 March

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