24 February 2022
The Gentle Brute
by J.R. Thomas
The amusing happenings at the O2 Centre last Friday, as parts of its roof vanished down the Thames, made the Shaw Sheet realise that we had failed to commemorate the passing, on 18th December last year, of that distinguished but controversial figure Richard Rogers, or as he was less well known, The Lord Rogers of Riverside. As Richard Rogers though he was very well known as one of the UK’s most distinguished architects, and indeed as a great architectural thinker and urban planner.
His first building was far from urban; it was Creek Vean in Cornwall, a modest house on a steeply sloping site above the River Fal. It epitomised what came to be seen as the Rogers style; nothing like it had been seen before, it was built to an unusual layout and out of unusual materials, it took three times as long to build and considerably more money than had been estimated; and it was a joint enterprise. In this case perhaps the most distinguished joint enterprise that Rogers was ever part of, with Norman Foster, Sue Brumwell, Wendy Cheeseman, and Georgie Woolton. All of them were to become distinguished architects in their own right, though at the time only Woolton was actually qualified. (They also all became related; Woolton was Cheeseman’s sister, and Rogers and Foster married respectively Brumwell and Wendy Cheeseman.)
Most persons in the street probably think of Rogers as a “brutalist” architect, brutalism in buildings such as the Barbican and the National Theatre being the height of architectural fashion as he began his career. Absolutely the reverse is true; Creek Vean is so transparent and modest it almost seems to float above the river, just tied down by an external staircase and smothered in lush planting. The interiors, it must be said, are mostly tile and concrete blockwork, though with lots of glass; shafts of light and amazing vistas of course, but the blockwork alas tending to stain as concrete does. It remains a much-loved house that gives its owners great pleasure and has spawned a number of other houses in similar style nearby, probably the best proof of its success.
That theme continued among Roger’s later buildings; light, a sense of adventure and fun, unusual materials and colours, a playfulness, and, mostly, highly successful in their purposes. The partnership was immediately successful after Creek Vean; but fame struck big time when Rogers and Cheeseman won an extraordinary victory, the competition to build a new and very large art gallery and central library in the Les Halles district of Paris.
If it seems odd that an English architect should be chosen for such a very Parisian work there were several mitigating factors; Rogers was in fact Italian, his family having fled to London from Florence in 1938; much of his architectural training had been at Yale, then the centre of innovation in architecture; and his partner for Les Halles was Renzo Piano, also Italian, and making a name for himself as both a distinguished theorist and skilled practitioner of new architecture. There was another factor; the influence of the French president, Georges Pompidou, outwardly a conventional blue suited banker, inwardly a clever and radical thinker, trained by Guy de Rothschild, an admirer of the new so long as it was beautiful. The building was of course the Pompidou Centre, named for the President, who died in office as it was built. The building is enormous, great swathes of glazing, huge open floors for the galleries, and glass tubed external staircases resting on red and blue platforms. It looks like nothing else in central Paris and there was great muttering amongst Parisians as it was built, but it has become one of the most admired and visited buildings in the city, both with residents and visitors.
We will just mention two other buildings, one small, one very large. The small is 22 Parkside, Wimbledon, designed for his parents in 1968, as the Pompidou Centre was underway, a single story glass and steel framed house with bright yellow detailing. It is Creek Vean for an urban setting, remaining in the Rogers family until given to Harvard School of Architecture a few years ago.
The large is the Lloyds building in the City of London, like the Pompidou Centre an extraordinarily radical building for a seemingly highly traditionalist institution. The Lloyds market members for whom it was built had severe doubts about it, at both the design and building stages. Although it eschewed colour – it is almost entirely silver, built of aluminium and steel – all the services were hung on the outside of the six towers, with huge silver pipes and conduits and glass lifts, leading to many jokes about it being a rocket launch site. The core is a 200 feet high atrium, with open floors nearly all around (the board of Lloyds could not resist moving their Robert Adam committee room from its previous home). Until recent years, when the City planners let rip with high building planning consents, it was a highly symbolic cathedral (of mammon) towering over the City. Having aroused huge suspicion and dislike amongst its intended occupants it almost immediately became immensely popular (there are always a few diehards) as the insurance brokers realised that what Rogers had made for them was a modern interpretation of a market, a vertical one rather than a horizontal one, where there is a sense of community and an ease of communication. There is talk now of Lloyds leaving which will be a great pity. The building, very unusually for a structure of its age, is Grade 1 listed, so hopefully will find a suitable new user. It seems very much in tune with the working practices of the post-covid era.
The four buildings surveyed here, plus the partially and temporarily roofless London Dome (please, let’s pull off the meaningless O2 label) show so much about Rogers’ approach to designing of spaces, to be seen across almost all of his huge portfolio of built architecture. The importance of light, originality, jollity, the standard of the building work, the respect for surroundings – sometimes by leadership of style; but most of all, the fitness for purpose. Rogers thought very carefully about how each building was to be used and the lives and habits of its occupants. The radicalism of the shapes and colours may at times have caused consternation when the plans first appeared, but once the occupants moved in they rapidly came to appreciate their surroundings, and to find them ideal for purpose. Lord Rogers was also a great urban thinker, not a subject we have space for here, but he was a consultant on long term urban planning for several major European cities, including London and Barcelona, though his suggestions were often too long term and radical for politicians.
Many people ask, oft sneeringly, where architects themselves live. Rogers lived in Chelsea, in a traditional high Georgian terrace house. Don’t sneer, but look through the windows (well, please don’t, except metaphorically) and you will see an open tower, crossed with steel staircases and with platforms and open spaces, some for privacy, some for specific purposes, the whole for entertaining. As for his clients, he made the perfect living space for himself.
tile photo: Max Whitehead on Unsplash