The architect talks about his wartime childhood, celebrated projects – and offers forthright views on Grenfell and architectural responsibility.
Richard Rogers famously lives in a grand Georgian house on Royal Avenue in Chelsea, a Grade II-listed building that he was allowed, many years ago now, to alter internally, the better that its main room – the piazza, as he likes to call it – could be triple height and expansive enough for the riding of bicycles by small children. As anyone who has even glimpsed it from the road will attest, it’s an amazing space, and in his new book, A Place for All People, Rogers makes much of its essential conviviality. It is, he writes, often used for parties, whether to benefit a charity or for an annual celebration of the architect of the Serpentine Pavilion in Hyde Park. By way of illustration, there follow some photographs. In one, taken at Christmas, some 30 paper-hatted people can be seen sitting down for lunch, yet still there is room beside the table to move, and perhaps even to dance.
He met Su Brumwell, his first wife and the mother of three of his five sons, in his third year (she was doing a sociology degree at the LSE), and after their marriage in 1960, they travelled together to Yale, where he would take up a Fulbright scholarship to study for his master’s degree. It was at Yale that he struck up a friendship with Norman Foster, also on a scholarship. Back in England, he and Su and Foster and his wife, Wendy Cheeseman, formed the firm Team 4, and worked together to design Creek Vean for Roger’s parents-in-law, a dramatic concrete house in Cornwall that vaguely calls to mind Frank Lloyd Wright. He and Su also worked, a little later, on a home for his parents, Parkside in Wimbledon, comprising two brightly coloured single-storey pavilions with steel frames. Both are now listed.
“I think I would have had a go at designing for the devil at that moment,” he says, laughing. The Brumwells were, he says, the better clients. What about his parents? Can he remember the moment when they clapped eyes on the finished article? Did they love it? “Well, yes and no. My father was more concerned with practical problems: I think he was about to sue by then. It was my mother who had the eye. She loved beauty and colour.” Still, he learnt a lot from both projects: “It took six architects six years to get Creek Vean built, as well as almost bankrupting both us and our in-laws. Not much was being done for society there, and it made us think: there must be a better way. We moved to easier construction systems, and highly flexible ones, too.” Team 4, however, was dissolved in 1967.
Rogers was introduced to Renzo Piano by his doctor; they bonded immediately, and together they entered the competition to design a grand new cultural centre for Paris: the building that would become the Pompidou Centre. Having won it, they had no idea what it was that he was taking on. “Young architects are immensely naive,” he says. “I would never dream of doing it now. We had a great client, but the press gave us hell. In seven years, there were only two positive articles. I don’t know how we got to the end.” Sonia Delaunay, an artist who was proposing to give a large collection of works to the museum, announced that she would rather burn her paintings than see them in the space he and Piano were designing; an elderly Frenchwoman, on discovering his identity as its architect, once hit him on the head with her umbrella. But everything changed once it opened. “It was successful, even if we made very little money out of it.”
Does he feel it blazed a trail, a forerunner of the ever more extraordinary museum buildings that have been built the world over ever since? He insists not. “I think we were just making the building we had to: a loose container, a great big piazza, and a facade; a cross between Times Square and the British Museum.”
After the chapter which recounts the building of the Pompidou Centre, his book loses momentum – though it’s pretty funny when he describes, with a straight face, his disappointment when the board of Lloyd’s refused to sign off his plan to commission a clock by the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely (you can hardly blame them: Tinguely had insisted that it would never tell the right time). He devotes too much energy to bemoaning the lack of vision of the supposed enemies of modern architecture, and not enough to addressing the matter of his own regrets (though when I ask him about this, he says: “I don’t know that I do regret a major piece of my professional life.”)
His forays into politics are a bit irritating, too (Rogers, who joined the House of Lords as a Labour peer in 1997, has sat on several quangos, most famously the Urban Task Force; he was also an ally of Ken Livingstone during his time as the mayor of London). It is, for instance, extraordinary that he sees fit to praise John Prescott, the man who oversaw the obscenely wasteful and destructive Pathfinder scheme – a blind spot that seems to be born only of the fact that, as environment secretary, Prescott pushed the recommendations of Towards an Urban Renaissance, a report Rogers helped to write.
In conversation, though, the opposite is true: his energy is amazing, his stories growing ever less varnished as he goes on. “How long have you got?” he asks me. For a while, we talk about Prince Charles, and what Rogers regards as his chilling power over developers; they will, he says, use any excuse to lower their risk, including a daffy royal (the nearest he has ever got to debating with HRH was when he told him, after a dinner in 1984, that by his logic, Christopher Wren should have designed his extension to Hampton Court in a late medieval style to match the Tudor buildings rather than in his own baroque). But then, as he admits, there’s always something. The architect’s lot has never been a happy one. “Things don’t change,” he says. As the dean of St Paul’s told him at the opening of the Lloyd’s Building in 1986, by the time Wren had been working on the cathedral for 30 or 40 years, he was so sick of people criticising him, he built an 18ft-high wattle fence to shield the works from prying eyes.