Letter from London - Remembering Richard Rogers

Remembering Richard Rogers!

21 December 2021, Paul Finch

Tributes to Richard Rogers on his death (after two years of absence from the practice due to ill health) have tended to focus, naturally enough, on Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ architectural achievements across the world, building on the extraordinare success of Richard’s partnership with Renzo Piano on the Pompidou Centre. The ongoing story has placed the practice and Richard firmly in the canon of great architects of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

However, it is his departure from British public life which will be just as significant, for two main reasons. First, as far as architecture is concerned, it is design business as usual. Graham Stirk and Ivan Harbour were talent-spotted at an early age, have spent decades in the practice as directors, and have been responsible for much of the firm’s output over that period – including an impressive record in international competitions.

Second, the unusual structure of the practice (it is a trust), spelled out publicly in its Royal Academy exhibition in 2013, means that the potential traumas of ownership change will be virtually non-existent. For many years Richard had to be re-elected annually under the trust rules, once he reached retirement age. His retirement aged 87 was neither shock nor surprise in respect of practice governance

It is reasonable to suppose that the practice will continue and prosper, in the way that Zaha Hadid Architects has managed to do, despite gloomster predictions of its demise following Zaha’s premature and unpredicted death. We should have no qualms about the continuing contribution the practice will no doubt make to national and international architecture in the years to come.

But what about Richard’s absence from the world of politics?

An active member (until recently) of the House of Lords, he was just about the only significant architect to play a role in Parliament in living memory. I admired his frankness, for a self-confessed Marxist, as to why he accepted honours and preferment from the Establishment: he thought he could be more effective on the inside than the outside.

In short, RR did stuff, rather than just talking about what it would be nice to do. His activities in London are a case in point. Dynamic and constructive change were at the heart of his ‘Urban Renaissance’ report for John Prescott, when the latter was in his pomp, which has informed our attitude to UK cities for two decades. Where it has been ignored has been a matter for regret. Just as significant was the Rogers manifesto for London, which the capital’s first elected mayor, Ken Livingstone, declared to have been the catalyst for his successful electoral campaign.

Richard was invited to create a design unit inside the new Greater London Authority, with Ricky Burdett, recreating the relationship which saw them leading the Architecture Foundation in the 1990s as chairman and director respectively, campaigning for, among other things, the removal of parking from significant public spaces, and an elected London mayor.

It is hard to think currently of any major architect in British public life who has the same interest in, or appetite for, the cut-and-thrust of city and national politics.

At a time when the profession of architecture is under endless attack, for both good and absurd reasons, we sorely need a new Richard – to argue not just for the importance of design, but for the importance of the built environment as a whole in these troubled times. And who could and did remind us that, in the end, architecture is as much about politics as it is about ideas.

His genius was to synthesise the two, rejecting the narrow-minded ideological zealotry which is disfiguring public discourse, but never taking refuge in the idea that a pure design world is somehow divorced from the messy realities of the here and now.

Parties at Richard and Ruthie’s in their glorious Chelsea house were always interesting because of the mix of people, and the political and cultural spectrum from which they came. Unmissable, and sadly unrepeatable.

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