Richard Rogers might be thought of as a guy who desired everything. He desired attractive new structures, a just and civilized society, and prosperity for himself and his associates.
He was kind and harsh, amorous and political, all at the same time. He wanted to be in the thick of things.
Such desires foreshadowed a career of magnificent success, with an effect equal to that of any British architect.
His early life is summed up in two papers. His cousin Ernesto Rogers, a great Milanese architect, sent him a letter when he was born, advising him to “break through the door of life, not eavesdrop behind it.”
R received a critical report from one of his lecturers as a student at the Architectural Association in London. It stated his sketching was poor, his working approach was chaotic, and his critical judgment was illogical.
He did, in fact, slam the door open. The AA report was essentially accurate as well.
His brilliance lay in his ability to overcome his flaws via charm, charisma, and persistence, as well as forming alliances with other intelligent individuals who could achieve what he couldn’t. Early in his architectural career, he was a member of Team 4, which included Norman Foster, Foster’s wife, Wendy Cheeseman, and Rogers’ wife, Su, all of whom had abilities that he lacked.
With Renzo Piano and a slew of other designers, he created the Pompidou Centre in Paris.
Rogers constructed a social world with his second wife, Ruth, around the River Café restaurant, which began as a canteen for his practice, and the triple-height living area of the home they built by combining two Chelsea townhouses. Rogers is remembered for giving a gracious, if slightly incoherent, speech to a party that might include a Hollywood star, a cultured footballer, or a world-famous artist in a cerise or lime-green shirt, standing on the house’s elegant steel staircase, with Andy Warhol prints of Chairman Mao on the walls.
His insatiable hunger was accompanied by an indifference to contradiction, complexity, and the stubbornness of facts. This may be seen in an early home he and Su created for photographer Humphrey Spender; inspired by California’s steel-and-glass “case study” residences, Rogers sought to do the same in rural Essex, with little regard for climatic variations.
Spender sent Rogers a humorous Christmas card his first winter at the home, a snapshot of the frost patterns that developed on the interior of the single-glazed walls.
Rogers’ efforts with Tony Blair, John Prescott, and Ken Livingstone to revitalize British towns via smart design exhibited the same obliviousness. This resulted in a genuine shift in political and cultural views toward urban living, but it also necessitated compromises with property interests that went counter to the inclusive values he promoted.
There might be conflicts of interest between Rogers the social activist and Rogers the boss of a large firm: “good design” was all too frequently interpreted as the high-tech style that he and his associates supplied. At worst, we’d end up with something like One Hyde Park in Knightsbridge, a building of ultra-luxury apartments with fortress-like security measures that don’t do anything for the public space.
He has the potential to be merciless in his pursuit of his goals. His undertakings often did not turn out as planned or came at a significant expense to his clients.
He successfully used British libel laws against American author Stewart Brand, whose book How Buildings Learn had questioned Rogers’ assertions that his designs were flexible and adaptive in its US version. These passages were substituted by something else in the UK edition, as if in a Soviet altered image.
Rogers and I had a tumultuous relationship. With maybe exaggerated iconoclastic fervor, I criticized initiatives like his idea to enclose London’s Southbank cultural institution in a big glass canopy.
That didn’t sit well with him. Nonetheless, the news of his death, at the age of 88, struck me like a ton of bricks. His bravery was incredible.
And, in the end, he was one of the good people. Half a century after its start, the Pompidou Centre is still a burst of excitement, vitality, and inventiveness in the middle of a historic city. Even customers he was on the verge of bankrupting, like Spender with his frigid mansion, were won over by his vision.
Rogers informed his partner, Graham Stirk, that “naivety is an important part of creativity.” You couldn’t have one without the other in the case of this architectural marvel.