Lord Rogers is fast approaching 80 but that doesn’t stop him having ambitions to expand into the Middle East, attacking Boris Johnson’s record as London mayor or taking pleasure in a few glasses of red wine, as Emily Wright found out
Right. Are we going to a bar, or a pub, then?” Lord Richard Rogers is clearly in holiday mode. He has half an hour spare before he heads to King’s Cross to meet his wife and grandchildren for a trip to Paris. “Let’s have a drink.” Like magic, the RICS headquarters comes up trumps, and a tray of wine is deposited on a nearby table. Rogers beelines: “Aha, I’ll have one of those,” he says, sweeping up a glass of red with a grin from ear to ear. He takes a large sip: “Let’s just stay here, shall we?”
The chairman of world famous architecture practice Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP) isn’t merrily stealing alcohol from one of construction’s major industry bodies. The wine is from the annual Alan Cherry debate in memory of the former Countryside Properties’ chief executive, and Rogers has just finished doing his bit on the panel. “I was delighted to do it for such a wonderful man,” he says earnestly.
Now he is happy to slink away from the crowds - where he cuts a neon figure in a sea of suits and ties - for a chat about life and work. He has twinned an electric blue jumper and bright pink shirt with a tan leather satchel. He definitely stands out. “I do sometimes come to events like this wearing these clothes, see everyone in black and grey and think, ‘Oh, I see, I’m a bit different then.’ And I won’t change. My opinion is that there are all these colours in the world. Why not wear them?”
Over the years, Rogers’ sense of style, as well as his modern and often controversial architectural designs, have carved out the reputation on which he has built a very successful career. Aged 79, his life and work are well documented, but he is particularly frank today. He talks exclusively about a first-time move into the Middle East for the practice, as well as politics, family and why it’s so important to stay friends with your ex.
‘It helps to be moderately well known’
There have been many times when Rogers almost walked away from architecture. Every time the market collapsed, when there was no money for new development, or the firm was forced to make redundancies: “I’ve nearly given it all up so many times,” he says wearily. But he never did, and 50 years after graduating from Yale School of Architecture, Rogers is not only still an architect but has built up one of the most famous practices in the world.
He may be nearing 80, but his thoughts and strategies for the future of the practice remain razor sharp. The firm’s results for the year ending June 2010 revealed a 31% drop in turnover to £17m, which would have been far worse had Rogers and his directors not pushed a crucial overseas expansion. “We survived by going abroad and moving to the Far East,” he says. “That move is also how we built staff numbers back up to where we were before we had to make  redundancies in 2009. We are also working in Australia on a huge, 22ha, £3.5bn scheme in Sydney called Barangaroo and we might move into the Middle East next.” This would be a first for RSHP, but Rogers is cagey on any more detail. The plan may be little more than a twinkle in his eye at this stage, but it seems unlikely just to be a throwaway comment - one to watch, then? “The timing seems right,” he says. “And luck. Being moderately well known always helps enter new markets.”
I really, really didn’t get on with Boris. He couldn’t, or wouldn’t, make decisions. The very worst people to work with are those who do not, or cannot, make a decision
Moderately well known? Is that a hint of false modesty? Surely world famous is nearer the mark? Rogers tuts, and waves his hand dismissively as if to suggest the practice isn’t as high profile as many would think. While it’s true that it is less known in the Middle East, “moderately” seems a serious understatement. He shrugs and smiles. “What I can say is that we are extremely fortunate,” he says. “It’s bloody tough out there at the moment and we have been very lucky. For new practices it’s extremely difficult because so much of the work is overseas at the moment. I really am aware of just how lucky we have been.”
It’s true that when times get tough and competition hots up, having a strong name and reputation to trade on helps. And everyone will be waiting with bated breath to see how this continues to work for RSHP as Rogers takes an increasingly less active role. Since 2007 the practice name has included partners Ivan Harbour and Graham Stirk. But while both have built up reputations of their own, Rogers remains the name synonymous with the practice’s reputation. Is there any concern about its future under new leadership? “Not in the slightest,” says Rogers casually, catching someone’s eye for another glass of red. But he does appear to struggle slightly with the idea of no longer being part of the practice, and is keen to emphasise how involved he intends to remain, despite an unfolding succession plan: “I don’t plan to step back, just down, which I do with the Chairman’s role. As long as I am physically and, more importantly, mentally able to be involved then I’d like to be. I don’t know what I would do otherwise.
“But I really am not worried about the future of the practice. It’s not just me. This crazy idea of one person, one God-like architect or,” he shudders, “this word ‘star-chitect’ working at the top of a practice is just not true. Nothing I have ever done has been without a team.”
The problem with royalty
Rogers’ roles over the years have gone beyond heading his architectural practice. He is a Labour peer in the House of Lords and remains fiercely active in this role, loyally lobbying for what he believes will boost the industry and improve the public realm: “I am passionate about good urban design and the three key things I’m fighting for and drawing government’s attention to just now are the importance of considering the best use for land, retrofitting existing stock and ensuring a mixture of rich and poor in developments.”
He was also chief adviser on Architecture and Urbanism to Ken Livingstone when he was Mayor of London, a role he sensationally stepped down from a year after Boris Johnson took over: “I really, really didn’t get on with Boris. He couldn’t, or wouldn’t make decisions. The very worst people to work with are those who do not, or cannot, make a decision. Ken did that job better. He did, and could do, much more for London than Boris.”
This dispute with Johnson is not the only controversy that has surrounded Rogers. In 2010 Prince Charles wrote to the Emir of Qatar describing Rogers’ design for the Qatari Diar Chelsea Barracks scheme as “unsuitable” and “unsympathetic’, which ultimately saw Rogers’ design scrapped: “It wasn’t right,” he says. “To wade in and use his position like that. I wrote asking for an explanation and I got a response saying ‘Prince Charles does not enter debate from Buckingham Palace.’ I just thought “What? This is ridiculous, wrong and entirely unconstitutional. He shouldn’t be allowed to do that sort of thing. I have fallen out with people before, like Margaret Thatcher - but at least prime ministers will always come and go. Royalty tend to stick around for longer.”
And how about when the pair meet now? Do their meetings have the awkward vibe of two still-smarting exes coming together in a public forum where decorum, rather than bickering, is necessary? “I see him at charity events and things, yes. Neither of us is awful to the other. And I actually get on extremely well with my ex-wife [designer Su Brumwell] by the way. When 50% of marriages end in divorce or separation, my advice is this - learn to get along with you exes.”
For the love of shopping
Now married to Ruth Rogers, owner of the River Cafe, Rogers says his family is the thing that he is “most proud of in the world”. He had two sons with Ruth - Roo and Bo, his youngest child who tragically died last year at the age of 27. Rogers has three other sons, Ben, Zad and Ab from his first marriage: “Would I have liked a girl? Yes. I tried very hard but failed five times.”
A real insight into Rogers as a father came last year after an equally frank interview in Building with his son Ab - now a designer himself . Rogers junior recounted an incident when he was six - his father took him to Paris to see the Pompidou Centre and told him the pipes on the outside were slides. Rogers throws his head back, his mouth open in a silent fit of laughter: “Yes I did. He said that was very mean of me. But I am sure it didn’t do him any harm.”
Then there is Ruthie: “We share this passion for great food and great wine, and I love to shop for clothes with her. Men’s clothes are very boring. But I love shopping with Ruthie for her outfits, and I often advise her on what to get.”
Speaking of his wife, Rogers’ neon pink iphone rings - a check-up call from her to make sure he is en route to catch the train to Paris. “Hello … Yes, I know… I’m in the car… Yes, right now… OK, bye.” He looks up sheepishly: “Well, I will be in the car very soon so it’s not really a big lie. Is it?” The minute he has said it his brow furrows with an apparent realisation. “Actually, I think perhaps I had better go. If I miss that train I will be in deep…” he pauses for a second and seems to revise his sentence, “trouble. I really will be in an awful lot of trouble.”
He makes time to finish his drink - the wine got better by the second glass, he says - and gathers his belongings, gaining a momentum most likely spurred on by the prospect of an angry wife and a hoard of very disappointed grandchildren.
As he makes his way down the marble staircase of the RICS headquarters, there is a five-minute break in the rain and the sun pours through into the building, taking the electric blue jumper and pink neon shirt to new heights of bright. He stops halfway down and looks back up squinting against the light to say, full of pride: “Taking my grandchildren to Paris. Being old is alright you know.” One final broad smile and a wave, and he is gone - off to a land where the buildings are clad in slides and the red wine tastes decent from the first sip. Bon voyage.