There is a bit in Paul Shepherd’s excellent book What Is Architecture? where the author, incensed by watching Richard Rogers being interviewed on television, describes himself literally jumping up and down with rage. Rogers is busy telling the interviewer how flexible the Lloyd’s building is and how putting the services on the outside is just a logical way to allow the building to be extended. Shepherd rages at the TV, unable to believe the balderdash that Rogers is getting away with. This idea, Shepherd says, this idea of flexibility is absolute hokum. Complete nonsense. Its just aesthetics. Why can’t Rogers just admit to liking pipes and grills and groovy bits of metal? What’s wrong with just putting your hands up and saying: “ I thought it looked good”. Why does everyone, Rogers included, feel the need to justify architecture through recourse to a specious logic of reductive functionalism or pseudo science?
It’s a good question. I felt a bit like asking it again standing watching a film of Rogers talking on a monitor in his firm’s retrospective in the Pompidou Centre recently. Everything he says is nonsense. Well, taken in chunks it might not be, but collectively it’s nonsense. One minute it’s all about flexibility, openness, change. The next it’s all about light and shadow. And then its about Italy, or new materials, or Louis Kahn. Can it be all of those things? Wasn’t the openness and flexibility all about getting rid of that stuff about light and shadow and Italy? He seems a nice enough chap, genuinely concerned by things we should be concerned about, but boy, does he talk some shit. All that well meaning but rather patrician stuff about cities and how we should embrace the good urban life.
Rogers loves the idea of the city and sees it as a civilising force for good. Suburbs, of course, are bad. Architects hate them. Architects like form and suburbs are formless. Architects like to know where we are and what we’re up to and you can never quite tell in the suburbs. Rogers talks about the city and how we need to live sensible, sensitive lives where we can walk to work in the city and sit in piazzas engaging in spontaneous acts of civic engagement with each other. And then he designs Terminal 5. A big shed in the suburbs dedicated to increasing social atomisation.
Which is not to say that he isn’t a good architect. Personally I am a bit of a sucker for the bright pop colours and Victorian steamboat air intakes of his work. I love the Lloyds Building. I think it’s a masterpiece and what’s more, one of the strangest, most peculiar and beautiful buildings ever built in London. For a long time it was practically the only modern building in London of note. How on earth did he get away with it too? It is extraordinary. A dark, billowing monster of a thing lurking in the narrow City streets, half Geiger alien and half hallucinogenic factory as imagined by a whacked out combination of Hugh Ferris, Ken Adam, Edward Heath Robinson, Roger Dean, Joseph Paxton and Jean Tinguely. It is part Doctor Who, part Pink Floyd Relics album cover, part Terminator 3. It is, it has to be said, pretty weird. If it is extendable then it requires the wholesale demolition of most of the City to do it. Rather than being a modest exercise in adaptability, it is more like a weird malignant spider’s web. All this designed by a nice man in a lime green jumper with a fold up bike.
Of the names mentioned above only Joseph Paxton would be one Rogers might mention, and only then as a nod to the supposed rationalism of Paxton. The glittering glass spectacle of Crystal Palace, its vast dream like collection of exhibits from around the world, the globe held captive in an infinitely extendable glass case like a megalomaniac’s menagerie, this aspect of Crystal Palace is never mentioned. Just some dull facts about large spans and cast iron.
All of which makes Roger’s justification for his creations all the more bizarre. And what about that justification anyway? Architects are funny creatures always seeking reasons and rational explanations for what they do. It’s never enough to say that you did things a certain way just because you liked it that way. So the forceful exuberance and baroque mannerism of the Lloyd’s building has to be justified by suggesting it is very practical to extend the lift lobby. Rogers colludes in this, endlessly telling us how useful he is being. How considerate and reasonable and responsible.
I’ve always found him far more fascinating though because of the sheer excess of his work. Sure, it has got cooler and more and more toned down, more, in fact, like Norman Foster and others of the sober grey concrete school. This exhibition fits with that view. There are acid colours and slightly utopian, slightly banal graphics and the show’s organisation is like that of a mini city, but the worthiness is a long way from Rogers’ hippy origins. All those endearing photos and stories of the unlikely band of long hairs that somehow scooped the Pompidou Centre competition as if from nowhere.
The drawings of this scheme are amazingly pared back and basic but still extremely beautiful. The vague patina of counter cultural cred still clings to them too, what with those giant billboards showing images of soldiers in Vietnam stuck on the giant steel frame. Even stranger then that after this Rogers went on to design the vision of corporate Armageddon that is the Lloyd’s building. And that architects – always an odd lot with a gift for myopia – should look at it and go: “Ooh, lovely detailing”.
Compared with Rogers, his former partner Renzo Piano seemed to hang onto the slightly hippy heart of the Pompidou for longer. But that always struck a slightly bogus note. Indeed, an acquaintance of mine who worked for both once told me that the benign, bearded Piano was a total tyrant in the office whilst Rogers was a genuine sweetie. I can believe it. His heart seems in the right place. But, his head….