RA Magazine Winter 2007
Issue Number: 97
In the Studio: Richard Rogers RA
The man who transformed the City’s skyline is reaching ever dizzying heights. Fiona Maddocks meets Richard Rogers RA at his flagship headquarters
Richard Rogers RA photographed by Eamonn McCabe
Richard Rogers’s Hammersmith practice makes a joyful assault on the eye: blue carpet, orange sofas, bright green chairs, canary yellow desk. Daylight floods in through massive glass walls. All around, a panorama of river, city and sky adds spectacular counterpoint.
With its nautical walkways and portholes, and situated so close to the Thames, this architectural powerhouse seems poised to set sail. And here, lest you overlook him, is Lord Rogers of Riverside himself, the urbane captain of this futuristic starship – nut brown, silver haired and wearing a dazzling fuchsia shirt.
This has been an astonishing period for the Italian-born architect, whose designs include the National Assembly for Wales, the Millennium Dome and Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport, due to open in March 2008. In the past eighteen months, he has won the 2006 RIBA Stirling Prize, the Golden Lion at the Venice Architecture Biennale and the Pritzker Prize, following in the footsteps of his former partners, Norman Foster RA and the Italian architect Renzo Piano.
Rogers, 74, was elected to the Royal Academy in 1984, just as he completed the iconic Lloyd’s of London, a building that dramatically brokered a transformation of the City’s skyline. As chief adviser on architecture and urbanism to the Mayor of London, he has been a key player in the urban renaissance of the past two decades.
Yet his most famous work, now 30 years old and still controversial, is the Pompidou Centre in Paris, built with Renzo Piano. It revolutionised the culture of museums and revitalised the Beaubourg area with its high-tech, playful, assertive presence. Rogers’s enthusiasm for clearing internal spaces and putting the engine room outside – lifts, pipework, escalators – established him as an architectural iconoclast, widely imitated but never matched.
The Pompidou Centre remains unsurprisingly, one of Rogers’s own favourites: ‘Partly for the wonderful collaboration with Renzo and partly because it’s a place for every race and
creed’. The people, 190 million of them so far, have voted with their feet. It ranks as a top attraction in France and is considered one of the wonders of the modern architectural world.
In celebration of its anniversary, a survey of his work is on display there. Through drawings, models, photographs and films, the show demonstrates Rogers’s long held philosophy of urban renewal, social inclusion and environmental sustainability. Spanning his 40-year career, it has a retrospective air about it. ‘But I’m certainly not retiring,’ insists the architect. ‘There’s a whole section on current and future projects.’
Does he have other favoured architectural offspring, old or new? ‘My view changes all the time. But I’m fond of the house I designed early for my parents, in Wimbledon. And new projects are always on the mind, so I would say the Barajas Airport, Madrid. To me, it shows that travel can still be romantic, exciting, instead of a grind.’
In the spring, Rogers’s new Maggie’s Centre for cancer care, the first outside Scotland, will open with gardens designed by Dan Pearson. This network of care centres has sprung from the vision of the late Maggie Keswick Jencks, a Scottish landscape architect and historian. ‘I knew her well, and have tried to reflect her interests in the design. It’s an urban setting, so I’ve planned it around a series of courtyards to give protection from the noise of Fulham Palace Road.’
Even as he enters his mid-70s, Rogers stays involved with the many schemes his firm handles. With an international team of 180 however, he puts collegiate democracy to the fore, discussing ideas, arguing and finally establishing a design.
How does this work? He makes the process sound informal, but the Rogers credo is far more complex and rigorous than his genial New Labour media image would suggest.
‘Monday is kept clear for our design forum. We fix no other meetings. Anyone can join in. We pin up current designs and discuss them. So it’s a vital day and sets the pattern for the week.’ He still draws, at least at the early stages of a new idea. ‘I’m not good at computers.’ Nonetheless, his building is full of them, as streamlined as you might expect.
The practice changed its name recently to Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners, reflecting, as Rogers puts it, the need to ‘bring on the young’. It is owned by a charity. Philanthropy defines its ethos and structure. Directors hold no shares and get paid a maximum of six times the lowest paid architect.
‘As chairman, I get nine times. All staff learn to give to charity. Everyone is encouraged to walk, use public transport or cycle to work. We work as a community.’
This is no empty utopia. People who join rarely leave. The firm recently came top in its sector for staff benefits. They eat together in the canteen, where the chef provides meals comparably delicious to those served in the celebrated River Café next door, run by Rogers’s wife Ruth, and her partner Rose Gray. Staff trips abroad and parties on any pretext – fireworks, the Boat Race, the founder’s birthday – are fixed dates in the calendar.
‘I was brought up with ideals of civic and social responsibility and that has remained vital to me,’ he reflects. ‘My own desk is in the middle of the floor with everyone else. I used to have the best view, upstairs, but we moved round. I believe in dispersing the pleasures.’
What if he wants privacy? ‘I don’t. At home, my living room is called the piazza because it’s an open space where everyone meets. Until recently, Ruth and I slept in a room without walls.’ What changed? ‘The children grew up. We had a rethink.’
It is a characteristic answer from this endlessly creative spirit. Richard Rogers has now won all architecture’s laurels, but he is the last person likely to rest on them.
- Richard Rogers & Architects, Pompidou Centre, Paris (+33 1 44 78 12 33; www.centrepompidou.fr), 21 Nov– 3 March 2008;
- Maggie’s Centre, London (07985 703985; www.maggiescentres.org), opens March 2008
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