Richard Rogers — building from the heart
Fresh from winning the Stirling Prize, the great architect and bete noir of the Prince of Wales talks about his “difficult year”
I’m watching, out of the corner of my eye, Richard Rogers being interviewed. He’s just stepped off the stage on Saturday night, having won — for the second time — the Stirling Prize for architecture, for his Maggie’s Centre for cancer care in Hammersmith, West London. A rookie reporter asks the obvious question: “Do you think this is a snub to Prince Charles?” Rogers’s normally smiling, avuncular eyes momentarily harden. “What kind of question is that?” he fires back. “This has nothing to do with the Prince, or indeed me.”
Conspiracy theorists were at work even as the announcement echoed round the hall at Old Billingsgate Market in the City of London (Rogers was definitely not the favourite to win); the sense of this being one big bow-tied, architecty love-in was accentuated by the fact that for the first time the Â£20,000 prize was being paid for by Rogers’s former business partner, Marco Goldschmied. “Hmm, smells a bit,” one guest said to me.
“Was the Stirling Prize given to Richard Rogers to insult Prince Charles?” barked a headline the next day. And, when I meet him on Saturday night, Rogers himself is insistent — jokingly so, but insistent nonetheless: “I’m not talking about Chelsea Barracks. No.” Those eyes are hard again. Fair enough, you think. The man doesn’t want reminding in his hour of triumph about his latest in a long line of battles with the Prince of Wales, a battle that, this summer, he lost — being unceremoniously dumped from the project to build a mixed-use development beside Chelsea Hospital, southwest London by its landowners, Qatari Diar, thanks to the Prince’s intervention in the name of traditional architecture, or at least the negative publicity surrounding it. But there’s another good reason. Rogers’s firm is preparing to sue Qatari Diar for up to Â£2 million in unpaid fees. One false quote from him after a glass or two of bubbly could cost it dear.
But, in a way, Rogers is right. Saturday’s Stirling win has nothing to do with the Prince or, indeed, Rogers. The Stirling Prize supposedly goes to the architect who’s made the biggest contribution to British architecture in the past year. But that’s poppycock. This year the winner wasn’t the architect at all. It was the building. It was Maggie’s. The cancer care charity began in 1993, when the landscape architect Maggie Jencks was receiving treatment at the Western General Hospital, Edinburgh. So inhumane were the bog-standard NHS environments where she was being treated that she dreamt of the opposite: a “modest, uninstitutional home from home,” she wrote, “which will encourage and not intimidate.”
Her husband, Charles Jencks, happened to be the most famous architectural writer in the world, the kind of chap with Frank Gehry on speed dial. Maggie did not survive cancer, but 16 years later the charity she founded has become the most adventurous architectural client in a country deeply conservative about its buildings, its centres designed by a who’s who of eminent architects: Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Wilkinson Eyre, Foreign Office Architects, Rem Koolhaas, Piers Gough, Kisho Kurokawa. With its Stirling win, Maggie’s has arrived.
Rogers’s Maggie’s is a return to form for the charity, which, after a series of buildings edging uncomfortably towards the impressively “iconic” (good for publicity), and less towards the cosily domestic, unintimidating spaces that Jencks initially envisaged (Hadid’s spiky centre was a low point), seems to have got its mojo back. “Of course, it was a very personal project for me,” Rogers says. “I knew Maggie for years, so was always conscious of honouring her memory and intentions. There had to be an intimacy about the building.”
It’s small — “just a big house, really,” he adds — albeit rather a posh house. A massive orange wall (Rogers loves a bright colour) shields the building from the droning Fulham Palace Road, but, punctuated by an opaque window, and low enough to spy the double-decker buses, protects but never isolates you from the world outside.
Inside, Rogers says, “we went rather Japanese”. It’s essentially a traditional Japanese wooden-framed post and beam villa, topped by a floating roof — albeit in steel — and dotted with intimate spaces and hidden courtyard gardens subdivided not by paper shoji screens, but glass and wooden walls. And it is very, very intimate. “We chose the project with the most humanity in it,” said one of the judges, the designer Thomas Heatherwick.
It’s also the latest in a gradual return to form for Rogers. In the 1990s his political work on new Labour’s Urban Task Force, and later as an adviser to Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, took precedence over a few rather unimpressive buildings. But in the past five years the rise of a younger generation — Ivan Harbour and Graham Stirk especially — symbolised in the company’s name-change to Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners — has put some fire in the firm’s belly and updated an architectural language that looked dated with all those pop-age pipes, tubes and pods. Harbour and Stirk have gently modernised the architecture towards modish, computer-generated curves and a softer palette of materials, such as wood and stone. It has paid off. His terminal building at Madrid airport showed airport buildings can be both warm and spectacular, winning the Stirling in 2006.
Maggie’s, though, shows Rogers’s critics, such as the Prince of Wales, that his architecture, at its best, can do human-scaled and even vaguely traditional, that it’s about more than just machines and modernism. Rogers might have seized fame, like his old friend and former colleague Norman Foster, as one of the world’s most accomplished purveyors of high-tech — rendering “machine-like” modernism in sleek, crisply detailed form, such as the Pompidou Centre in Paris or Lloyd’s HQ in London. But while Foster’s buildings, for all their impressive scale, have the touch of the robot about them, even a dud Rogers building has a pumping heart under all that steel and glass. “Like the best modern buildings,” Rogers says, “Maggie’s has the human at its core. I think people have always misunderstood what modern architecture at its best is about. It’s about you and me. Our needs. I think our architecture is humanist, is spiritual.” High-tech architecture, he argues, is in many ways an updated version of the Gothic, the medieval — what is a medieval timber-framed house, infilled with wattle and daub, but a precursor to spiky steel-framed high-tech, infilled with glass?
Rogers wears his own Guardian-reading liberal heart on his sleeve. He is a Labour peer. His office is still run as a partnership, with profit sharing, charitable status and a “moral” constitution supporting “the welfare of mankind”. His theories about public space, generosity, tolerance, flexibility, are firmly middle-class, Fabian, humanist intelligentsia. All-important style aside, there’s always been a mere wafer between him and the Prince in their attitudes. How fascinating that Rogers should have won Stirling this year for a healthcare building — one of the Prince’s pet concerns.
Where they differ, of course, is on how to achieve their high ideals. “Unlike others,” he says, cheekily, “I think you have to be true to your age. The British, though, do have a feeling for tradition, which is stronger perhaps than that for the modern.” Such attitudes were revealed on Friday, when a somewhat simplistic YouGov poll commissioned by the arch-conservative architect Robert Adam found that 77 per cent preferred the two traditional designs put before them to the two contemporary ones. “It’s always been like this, though,” Rogers says. “If you look back to when Modernism was first introduced into this country, it was a struggle then. It’s still a struggle today. And yet if you look at what’s been built, British modern architecture is up there with the best.”
This has, he admits, been “a difficult year.” Apart from Chelsea Barracks, his unassuming extension to the British Museum was refused planning permission in July amid vociferous neighbourhood protest. The more architecturally conservative, perhaps, scent blood. Some, many even, will never love steel or glass. But they often miss the point. “The true battle in Britain is not about tradition or modernity,” Rogers says. “It’s about quality.”
He’s right. The real architectural battle in Britain — and at Chelsea — is not about style, it’s about developers who try to squeeze every drop of profit from a building by beefing it up while cutting costs. It’s about local councils so disempowered these days that they have no bargaining weight with incoming investors such as the Qataris, and a planning system so weak and reactive to big money that local people feel disenfranchised.
“We’ve had bad years before,” Rogers chuckles. Such was the struggle to build both the Pompidou and Lloyds in the prevailing conservative conditions that both were followed by quiet periods. The first clash with the Prince of Wales in the mid-1980s didn’t help either.
Sometimes, though, Rogers does himself no favours. He has designed his share of duds. And time and again his own liberal ideals clash with what’s actually built. In the 1980s he battled against the GLC boss at the time, Ken Livingstone, over a massive commercial development on the South Bank. Rogers was theoretically right at the time to favour the kind of dense, mixed-use development that is the norm today, but the design was poor, and facing popular left-wing opposition, rather than the usual conservatives, was uncomfortable. I wish his architectural back-catalogue contained more Pompidou Centres and social housing, and fewer offices for bankers and luxury apartment complexes — such as two, in Knightsbridge and Bankside in London, due to be completed next year. “There’s always compromise,” he sighs.
On Saturday night I kept hearing the same refrain: “Rogers, again?” “What about someone younger?” Fair do’s. This 76-year-old isn’t getting any younger. And his architecture has its faults. Rogers-bashing has today replaced Foster-bashing . But we take him for granted at our peril. Trust me, you will miss Rogers when he’s gone.
Fairly catty comments posted on the bottom; my take is that in a cold environment like Insurance District City of London or any regenerative Dockland area then Rogers is your man; I'm not convinced I'd like to see him take on more sensitive sites; as he is in my opinion limited to being an excellent method architect