He may have made his name as an architectural disemboweller, but he has cemented it with a constantly evolving style and widening interests. Tarek Merlin assesses his career
I lived in Paris when I was a young child, and I remember my Dad taking me to visit the Pompidou Centre for the first time. What a riot this building is when you first come across it. This was amazing. I loved the term this architecture was given at the time – “bowellism”. As it was explained to me then (I was five), it was as if the guts of the building had been regurgitated and neatly draped over it in a beautiful colour-coded display.
Designed in partnership with the less credited Renzo Piano and the lesser credited structural engineers Peter Rice and Ted Happold, this building represents Rogers’ first world-class building, and should not be underestimated. It was a quantum leap in his career and a clear break with Team 4 and Norman Foster. We should remember, though, that it was vilified for years as an industrial park plopped in the historic city centre. Had they made a mistake? Did someone read the plans wrong? Now of course it is as cherished as Notre Dame or the Eiffel Tower.
It is the French architect Jean Prouvé, the grandfather of the high-tech style, whom we have to thank for selecting Rogers for the Pompidou Centre competition. The Design Museum is holding a retrospective of his work this December, and Rogers says of him in the preamble to it that he was “a pioneer in linking the process of construction to the language of modern architecture, and has greatly influenced my work.” Indeed, Prouvé’s achievement was to transfer manufacturing technology from industry to architecture, without losing aesthetic quality. This is something that I think Rogers has elaborated upon in his career.
Rice and Rogers teamed up again for Lloyd’s in 1984, perhaps the second most well-known Rogers building. A sort of refined high-tech, a beautifully muscular and energetic building. But some questions lingered in the air during this period … had the theory been diluted to a mere style? Was it just another post-modern pastiche?
Indeed, there have been some duds in Rogers’ high-tech oeuvre: Broadwick House in Soho comes across as an awkward assortment of miscellaneous motifs, lacking his usual rigour. The external lifts, brightly coloured columns and the curved roof (as if taken from the practice’s own offices in Hammersmith) don’t sit happily together. It was described by one critic as a ready-to-wear suit from an haute couture house.
It was as if the guts of the building had been regurgitated and neatly draped over it in a beautiful colour-coded display
Well, I think Rogers was already moving on and certainly his most recent buildings seem to pursue a simple joy in architecture, rather than being preoccupied with achieving a particular theoretical aesthetic. In particular, there is the National Assembly for Wales, with its exquisitely cascading timber-slatted roof. And the 2006 Stirling prize winner, the New Area Terminal at Barajas airport in Madrid, with hundreds of V-shaped coloured steel columns springing out from their concrete base as if they are throwing their arms in the air, waving them around like they just don’t care.
Throughout his career but in particular in the latter parts of the eighties, Rogers was turning his attention to a wider context and scale as he became more and more frustrated with the shortcomings of city-wide design and masterplanning. It is London in particular that he began to think strategically about with the serious intent of making change happen. Rogers saw clearly, and perhaps more readily than others around him, the symbiotic connection between architecture, social infrastructure and the political agenda. He began working with the Labour party and the then shadow minister Mark Fisher to highlight problems and propose solutions. “London as it could be” was the outcome, a fantastic foray into masterplanning and re-imagining the capital.
In 1998 Rogers was invited to chair the Urban Taskforce, wrote a report in 2000 “Towards an Urban Renaissance” seeking to examine how we can accommodate new housing within the city, and he now sits on the Greater London Academy’s Architecture and Urbanism Unit.
All of this is important: his strategic influence at a city-wide level illustrates how architects can be more than “facilitators of development” and puts them right under, and up, the noses of those in power.
Perhaps one of the most disarming things about the man is that he has managed all of this while retaining pretty much everyone’s affection. He’s an architect’s architect. He hasn’t sold his soul to corporate interests, hasn’t become obsessed with building a megalomaniacal empire. Instead he has created a surprisingly small, soulful practice combining critical acclaim with commercial success. No mean feat. The way in which he has handled his retirement from the practice is a testament to this, allowing the succeeding directors to rise from within. I hope Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners enjoy as much success as its founder.
Tarek Merlin is an architect with SMC Alsop