By Deyan Sudjic
Writer, architecture critic and Director of the Design Museum, London
Richard Rogers collected the Pritzker Prize in 2007 in London in the magnificent setting of the banqueting hall designed by Inigo Jones, for the royal palace that he was never to finish for Charles I. The 17th century monarch’s reign came to an abrupt end when Oliver Cromwell had the New Model Army march him under the great ceiling painted by Rubens, through one of the hall’s windows, and onto a scaffold outside to be beheaded in the climactic episode to the English Civil War. Given that the king’s 20th century descendant, the Prince of Wales, the future Charles III, has been the most highly visible critic of contemporary architecture in Britain, it was perhaps a somewhat unlikely setting for a ceremony honouring one of Britain’s most prominent architects, especially for one associated with an embrace of modernity. Rogers has been the target of the prince’s criticism more than once. It was the prince who put an end to Rogers’ chances of winning the commission to rebuild Paternoster Square, the flawed 1950s setting for St. Paul’s Cathedral. Rogers’ entry was one of the competition’s most talked about submissions to build an extension on the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. The competition precipitated the Prince of Wales’s intervention into the architectural debate with a famous speech in 1984, in which he called the project “a carbuncle on the face of an old and familiar friend.” The bitterness of those conflicts has faded, but at the time, they were vivid, and very real. And they certainly shaped British architecture for a decade, or more. Careers were put on hold because of them.
As a member of the House of Lords, Rogers now has a seat in the upper chamber of the British parliament. He has won the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture, the Stirling Prize, and just about every conceivable honour and distinction in the architectural world. His practice—the name was changed to Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners in 2007—through which many hundreds of people have passed over the years, is active across the world, from Taiwan to Ground Zero. In Britain he built two of the defining landmarks of Tony Blair’s government: the new parliament for Wales in Cardiff and the Millennium Dome in London, as well as the headquarters of the public broadcaster, Channel Four, and the new fifth terminal at Heathrow airport. The outsider had become an insider.
The most eloquent of several speeches at the Pritzker ceremony in May 2007 was made by the then mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. He was there because of his close working relationship with Rogers, who had spent the previous eight years as the mayor’s advisor on architecture and urbanism. It was a partnership that oversaw a radical transformation of the city. It reflected a degree of political sophistication unusual among Britain’s architects who have mostly been content to preach to the converted within the professional ghetto, rather than engage with the wider world. After he helped frame the urban and architectural policy for the Labour government of Tony Blair, Rogers served as the mayor’s advisor for two terms.
Urbanism has been a continuing preoccupation of Rogers over the years. He has consistently campaigned for compact, high density cities that celebrate the quality of urbanity, and encourage their ability to support street life, social diversity, and high quality public transport. It’s a stance based as much on an idea of what the city can be in an aesthetic and social sense, as it is on sustainability.
Inigo Jones brought the architecture of Italy to England in his rediscovery of the language of Andrea Palladio. And in a way, Rogers, too, has brought something of Italy to England. His ideas of urbanism are rooted in the monumental Italian cities, the Galleria in Milan, the arcades of Bologna, markets and pavement cafes, rather than their bleak new suburbs. Like the River Café, the restaurant run by his wife, Ruthie, and based in the complex of wharf side buildings in which his practice is located, which has tried to inject a taste of flavours richer than Britain is used to into its food, so Rogers has attempted to go back to some of the fundamental pleasures of urban life. Rogers looks for streets full of people, casual interactions with strangers, and a public realm that creates a strong sense of civic identity.
Rogers, the older of two sons, was born in 1933 in Florence into a family, which despite its British roots and its Anglo-Saxon name, had lived in Italy for two generations. His father was a doctor and his mother Ermenegilda was a potter ...