Richard Rogers may have put down his pencil in 2020, but he was never the retiring sort. The architect earned a reputation for himself by designing buildings with rainbow symphonies of ducts and pipes that spilled out onto the outsides of galleries and offices.
Along with his love of public discussion and bon viveur lifestyle, he became recognized for his equally colorful neon attire.
Rogers’ preferred instrument was never the pencil. He had always been a lousy draughtsman and dyslexic, according to his own admission. He liked to converse, preferably over a bottle of wine and some delectable Italian cuisine.
“His designs will continue to suffer while his drawing is so bad, his method of work so chaotic, and his critical judgment so inarticulate,” a tutor’s note from 1958 concluded. Despite this, Lord Rogers of Riverside arguably impacted the face of metropolitan Britain more than any other architect of the late twentieth century throughout his four decades in practice and as a government adviser.
His “inside-out” monuments to pipes, like as the spectacular Pompidou Centre in Paris and the still-awe-inspiring Lloyd’s building in London, may be his most well-known works. However, his legacy in the United Kingdom has been more about his influence on public policy, notably during New Labour in the early 2000s.
He ushered in the age of regeneration that has seen UK towns decked with canal-side flats and cafe-lined squares, a vision of Barcelona street life transported to British shores, often at the expense of existing communities, as chairman of the Urban Task Force.
His vision of the “compact city” was sold as one of inclusion and equality, but it would also lead to further displacement and separation, resulting in a kind of investment-driven development that has seen his firm build some of the most costly dwellings ever erected in the UK. Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners were developing the fortified luxury apartment complexes of One Hyde Park, Neo Bankside, and Riverlight, stacks of investment apartments that became icons of London’s excessive inequality, while the socialist Labour peer advocated for a city for all.
Despite the fact that Rogers’ name has always been above the partnership’s door, he has had nothing to do with the firm’s increasingly corporate activity in the previous decade or so. His early structures, probably none more so than his first big undertaking, are by far the most engaging.
The Pompidou Centre, which erupted in the center of the Marais like a psychedelic oil refinery in 1977, was a shock to Parisian sensibilities at the time of its opening, and it remains so now. It was designed as a mechanical transformer of a building, a new sort of robotic architecture that would adapt to changing demands, with plug-in components and movable floors, by Italian architect Renzo Piano.
Outside, large digital displays would amuse crowds on a sloping plaza, while escalators in glass tubes would transport people up and down the building’s face, creating a dynamic background for mime artists and musicians below. It was vibrant, with exposed pipes and ducts painted in the media-brilliant era’s reds, blues, and greens — a characteristic that would remain in Rogers’ work for years to come. He made the argument that “culture should be fun.”
It was a rocky ride: the screens were dropped, the floors didn’t move, and some of the most ambitious concepts were stifled by fire rules. The project has been sued by pressure groups, and a Guardian art critic has suggested that the “hideous” item be covered with virginia creeper.
The public’s response, however, validated the architects: seven million people went in the first year, more than the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower combined. The structure established the precedent for museum galleries to be designed as massive movable containers, and it foreshadowed the city-boosting statement cultural architecture that would be on every mayor’s wish list for years to come.
Rogers’ approach was also influenced by the aesthetic and ideological objective established by the French tanker of art. The structure would be visible – and brightly coloured – and would explain what it was doing in the most didactic manner imaginable.
In pursuit of a technological sublime, the goal was to make buildings lighter and more flexible, to minimize structure while maximising space and light, and to lessen demands on energy and the natural environment.
The new headquarters for insurance giant Lloyd’s of London, constructed in 1986, demonstrated the sculptural potentials of this hi-tech era for the first time in London. Its most innovative step was to relocate the service cores outside the building in a sequence of towers, with floors packed around a 60-metre high atrium illuminated by a barrel-vaulted glass roof.
This freed up additional floor space for workstations, allowing Rogers to enjoy the facade’s dramatic interplay of stairwells, glass elevators, and toilet pods, all in a gleaming frenzy of stainless steel.
Twenty-seven years later, with the Leadenhall building across the street, the company would explore the same concepts in steroidal form. The Cheesegrater, as it is known, has its services moved to one side to free up floorspace and create a dynamic dance of lifts on the façade, which is almost three times the height of Lloyd’s.
The skyscraper was hoisted up on 30-meter-tall legs to liberate the area below, a tribute to Rogers’ repeated comments on the need of public space, albeit the resultant plaza seems more like a high-security open-air lobby.
Rogers continued to create exquisite and engaging public structures, from law courts in Bordeaux and Antwerp to the Senedd building in Wales, where an image of openness and public accessibility were always prominent. While his tensile white tent for the Millennium Dome was mocked at the time, it has now become the O2 Arena, one of the world’s most popular live entertainment venues.
Rogers’ terminal at Madrid-Barajas airport, for which he received the Stirling Prize in 2006, is my personal favorite. It’s unusual for an airport terminal to be a location where you’d like to spend some time rather than fleeing as quickly as possible.
It is a soothing location that calms the stress of foreign travel, with its undulating bamboo roof hovering above an avenue of branching rainbow-colored columns. It took just eight years from conception to completion, in sharp contrast to his firm’s Heathrow Terminal 5 proposal, which was the subject of the longest public inquiry in British history and took 19 years to construct. As a consequence, by the time it opened, it seemed to be out of date.
I first met Rogers when working at City Hall in London in the mid-2000s, when he was Mayor Ken Livingstone’s senior consultant on design and urbanism. He’d come in every now and then to assess our work and, on occasion, treat the crew to a drunken lunch. I recall handing him some water one lunchtime, and he seemed taken aback.
He beamingly remarked, gripping a glass of white wine in one hand and a glass of red wine in the other, “I don’t drink water.” “Fish fuck in it,” says the narrator.