The New Lloyd’s

Peter Campbell

  • Richard Rogers by Bryan Appleyard
    Faber, 271 pp, £9.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 571 13976 0
  • A Concrete Atlantis by Reyner Banham
    MIT, 265 pp, £16.50, June 1986, ISBN 0 262 02244 3
  • William Richard Lethaby by Godfrey Rubens
    Architectural Press, 320 pp, £30.00, April 1986, ISBN 0 85139 350 0

Richard Rogers’s new Lloyd’s building in London has begun business, to predictable complaints. A Guardian journalist asking for off-the-cuff comments from underwriters found them grumpy – the only appreciative voice was foreign and female. That is not surprising: the new Lloyd’s is an architectural statement of un-English vehemence. Un-modern-English, one corrects oneself, passing St Mary Woolnoth’s rusticated walls as one heads down Lombard Street to get another view of Lloyd’s.

How did it happen? How was Lloyd’s persuaded to buy this kind of architecture? Its equivalent in gents’ suiting would scandalise the trading floor – a point brought home by a caption in Bryan Appleyard’s biography: Rogers about to leave Belsize Grove for the first Lloyd’s interview in the Yves St Laurent suit’. It was grey, bought specially for the occasion, and worn with a borrowed tie.

Appleyard’s account of the historical and theoretical lineage of Rogers’s architecture analyses ideas which had been floating about in architectural circles, and were demanding expression in real buildings. They tended to be concerned with flexible rather than monumental architecture: the fun palace, the serviced shed and the clip-on. These pushed their way to the front as surely as revived Gothic or Palladianism had in the past. The book’s strength, however, lies, not in this necessary establishment of a background, but in its account of how architectural dreams and fantasies become buildable.

Rogers’s rise proves to have been a victory of personality over technique – not that he is unique in that. Getting the concept over has often been more important than working through the details. ‘Vanbrugh,’ Colvin writes, ‘could communicate architectural ideas by means of eloquent freehand sketches,’ but ‘there is no evidence that he ever troubled to learn the tedious discipline of formal architectural draughtsmanship. For that he had recourse to an unidentified draughtsman he called “Arthur”, and more often to Nicholas Hawksmoor, upon whose professional expertise he relied for the realisation of all his major buildings.’ The engineers, Arups, are Rogers’s Hawksmoor, Laurie Abbott and others his ‘Arthur’. Rogers, who was a dyslexic and could hardly read before he was 11, who even now finds that ‘ordered prose in the smallest quantities can take him hours and dozens of rewrites,’ who ‘seems never to have had a mother tongue’, who drew so badly that he was nearly failed in his early years at the AA (the Architectural Association school), is, nonetheless, one of the most successful and individual British architects of his generation. He achieved this without even Vanbrugh’s freehand skills. So the intimate account Appleyard gives of his life is much more than gossip. Rogers’s life is a subject Samuel Smiles might have relished. Fortune is kind one moment and frowns the next; great enterprises are undertaken, disabilities overcome.

The six-year-old Richard Rogers arrived in England in 1938. His father, an Anglophile descendant of a North Country dentist who had settled in Venice at the end of the last century, chose to keep his British passport rather than take Italian citizenship and fight for the Fascists. The Italian connection was to be important: it was in the office of his cousin Ernesto Rogers (editor of Domus and designer of the Torre Velasca in Milan) that Richard decided he wanted to be an architect. Italy marked him as different. Appleyard describes how he looked to his future wife, Su Brumwell, when she first saw him on holiday in Milan in 1957. ‘Dressed in immaculately pressed jeans, white shirt, a blue V-neck pullover and a Jaeger slimline bow tie ... he represented everything that the English students ... knew they were not.’ It was not just a matter of appearance. Although formal education failed him – he found his identity in a gang and his excitement in breaking rules, was good at games but unwilling to conform – his family gave him experience of an un-English intensity of intellectual argument, and of wider horizons than those of his contemporaries. They also made him work very hard, and had no objections to girlfriends: his first affair began when he was 14. I can think of no other biography of an Englishman – except perhaps that of Wells – in which women appear to be so necessary to a man’s life.

But even in 1957 things were not easy. Although he had made it to the AA, his girlfriend, Georgie Cheeseman, had just ended a relationship which

was to set the pattern for the sexual partnerships of the rest of his life. He wanted her not only in his bed but by his side at every possible time ... He involved her in every aspect of his activities and leaned heavily on her to overcome his continuing academic and practical difficulties ... Years later it was Georgie who was to warn Rogers’s second wife, Ruth, not to marry him as he would expect her to look after him every minute of the day, just as Dada had cared for Nino.

Dada and Nino being his parents. Georgie had also been his draughtsman, and his inability to draw was still a problem. ‘How can we be expected to make an architect out of a man who cannot make two lines meet?’ asked one of his teachers at the AA. But new tutors – notably Peter Smithson – found more to respect. Rogers began to get his ideas across. By 1958, a report would admit he had ‘a genuine interest in and feeling for architecture’, even if it noticed a lack of the ‘intellectual equipment to translate these feelings into sound building’. He finally won the fifth-year prize. Like the song-writers who cannot read music, he had proved that you can have ideas without being adept at notation.

A postgraduate scholarship to Yale brought Rogers and Norman Foster together. They returned with first-hand experience of American building and large ambitions. In the Reliance Controls factory of 1966, Team 4, as they called themselves, found a style in which carefully detailed engineering rather than sculptural form carried the aesthetic punch. This preference for legible structure is recognisable in the work of the partnerships which Foster and Rogers entered into when Team 4 broke up.

But the going was still difficult, and when Rogers and his new partner Renzo Piano came out top of the 681 entrants in the competition for a design for the Beaubourg Centre in 1971 they were neither famous nor experienced. The telegram saying they had won arrived in a workless office. The decision to enter had been made over Rogers’s objections: he had reservations about French political patronage, and would later have similar ones about working for City money when the Lloyd’s job came up. The ‘English hippies’, as they came to be known at the French end of the operation, who gathered in Paris to face the task of getting the building off the ground had every reason to be intimidated. Peter Rice of Arups, who had worked in Sydney on the Opera House, another competition-winner which demanded innovative engineering, was the only person who thought the building would go up. Appleyard’s account of the politics and chicanery, of the heroic scale of the engineering and of the meshing of disparate skills, which saw that it did, is gripping stuff. Surprisingly early on, Rogers realised there was little more for him to do. The technicians were at their tasks, the drawings were rolling out. The final stages were not a good time for him. From feeling that the building had set him up, he began to think that it would prevent him from ever finding work again. Within France the Beaubourg was a popular success. Outside France it was, on the whole, a critical one. But it was too idiosyncratic for many to say: ‘I want one of those too.’

In 1977, with the Beaubourg behind them and nothing in the future, with Rogers thinking about living in the USA and his partner John Young looking into minicab driving, the RIBA asked them to submit material for consideration by an unnamed client. Lloyd’s were looking for an architect. They needed, not just space, but a plan which would allow business to go on while building proceeded. At the suggestion of Gordon Graham, then president of the RIBA, Lloyd’s put up money for what was in effect a limited competition – not for a design so much as for a plan of campaign. Although Lloyd’s themselves suggested a couple of names, the profession (in the form of the RIBA) was to a large extent selecting its own men. Forty submissions were narrowed down to a final six. Of these, Serete, a French firm, seem to have misunderstood the brief. Foster was thought to be too much of a loner (‘what happens if his helicopter crashes?’), and the American I.M. Pei was reckoned to be too busy in the States to give the job his full attention. Rogers and the architectural wing of Arups – who, as engineers, were once again in with Rogers – remained. They were asked to re-submit. Arups gave the same briefing as before, while Rogers brought out every gun they had, including Piano (to quash the perfectly sound rumour that the partnership was breaking up) and Jack Zunz, chairman of Arups. During the discussions Ian Finlay, the Deputy Chairman of Lloyd’s, met Marco Goldschmied, a partner in the practice, in the washroom. He asked if Rogers would give them something that looked like the Beaubourg. Goldschmied said no. It was the question that the Lloyd’s committee had asked again and again: would they have coloured pipes all over their building? Gordon Graham said he did not know what they would get – but he did not think it would be that. Rogers was given the job because ‘his presentation had the edge and seemed to suggest a massive range of skills at his disposal.’ So when one asks how Lloyd’s came to buy the architecture they did, the first answer seems to be that they were not buying architecture at all. They had a problem and Rogers offered problem-solving skills.

At this point Appleyard, who makes a strong case for Rogers and his buildings, gets a little uneasy: ‘this was to be a bespoke project,’ he writes, ‘finely tuned to the needs and demands of the client’ – who hadn’t really made demands, save that he should be able to carry on his business without interruption. ‘Its air would be considered and complete, in contrast to the wildly ad hoc mood of the Pompidou Centre.’ ‘In view of all this,’ he goes on, ‘it is perhaps startling how much the two buildings have in common – the layering of the exterior, the exposed services and the sculpted exposed structure. But this mutual consistency does reveal the extent to which Rogers felt he had found his form.’ What is more startling is the extent to which the client got what he had been assured he would not get. The planning hurdles were the next to be jumped. The conservation movement had not yet gained the momentum which would sweep away Peter Palumbo’s long-laid plans. Moreover Rogers’s scheme was approved of by professionals. Even Marcus Binney, who had been a defender of the old Lloyd’s building, wrote that the new scheme was ‘light years ahead of the developer’s architecture we have seen recently and are still seeing’. The Lloyd’s development committee was not unanimously of the same opinion: ‘when the model was unveiled some were still shaken at the sight of what they had commissioned.’ But the Royal Fine Art Commission thought it was wonderful: any losses of old buildings were justified in order to ‘achieve what should be one of the most remarkable buildings of the decade’. The press liked it too, and ‘the client suddenly began to feel pleased with itself.’

Much has been written about the arrogance of architects imposing their ideas in the field of public housing. The story of the Lloyd’s building shows that a private client is just as likely not to get quite what he wants: asking for a short back and sides, and rising from the barber’s chair with a Mohican. But perhaps architecture can only be a popular art if people are willing, in some sense, to make a show of themselves. One reason the Lloyd’s building is already attracting rubbernecks is that Lloyd’s people are literally doing that. The glass-box lifts which slide up and down door-punctuated walls are as much fun to watch (and doubtless as vertiginous to ride in) as a ferris-wheel. If the insurance market ever collapses, Lloyd’s will doubtless take on the character of the Eiffel Tower. Appleyard’s book is extremely entertaining. Architecture offers good plots, and in Rogers it has produced a romantic hero who would make The Richard Rogers Story a movie to give The Fountainhead more than a run for its money.

In A Concrete Atlantis Reyner Banham is back picking at the architectural wallpaper to find out what was papered over. The patch he has chosen looks too small to cover anything dramatic: his subject is the 14 illustrations of American grain elevators and factories which Walter Gropius published in the Jahrbuch des Deutschen Werkbundes in 1913. But these photographs are unique. Often reprinted, occasionally augmented, and at least once doctored (Le Corbusier tidied off a whole row of pediments when he reproduced an Argentinian elevator in Towards a New Architecture), they became ‘established icons of modernity and architectural probity’. Moreover the European architects who were influenced by them knew nothing of the buildings they showed save what was there in the picture. The European avant-garde married American industrial building on the basis of a handful of snapshots, and never afterwards showed the least curiosity about the bride’s origins. ‘Insofar as the International Style was copied from American industrial prototypes and models,’ Banham writes, ‘it must be the first architectural movement in the history of art based almost exclusively on photographic evidence rather than on the ancient and previously unavoidable techniques of personal inspection and measured drawing.’ In researching these buildings in the flesh, Banham has renewed the potency of some of the most hackneyed images in architectural history. He has also given 20th-century architecture some new and respectable ancestors. To ignore them is, he says, ‘to mislay some of the true sources of the International Style, which will remain, as far as anyone can yet see, the dominant style of the high art of architecture in the 20th century.’

With the International Style standing as low as it does in the public eye, that is fighting talk, and as well as being very good architectural history, Banham’s book is the most effective document yet in the Modernist counter-reformation. In his hands grain silos and factories become as evocative as Roman ruins were to the Renaissance, Greek temples to the 18th century, and Gothick abbeys to the 19th. Like earlier architectural explorers, he finds excitement, disappointment and even danger in these ruins. Here is his description of visiting Concrete Central, a grain elevator on the banks of the Buffalo River. It is huge – about twice the bulk of the Pompidou Centre – and it is derelict:

The first time I reached Concrete Central by land, a series of incidents emphasised its abandonment and isolation. Shrubbery has already begun to grow out of its upper works, inviting a comparison with Roman ruins that was enhanced by the flight of a bird of prey from the head-house at my approach. That sound was amplified when my foot crashed through a rotted plywood cover that had been laid over an open culvert. As I extricated myself, I reflected on my folly: had I sustained an incapacitating injury ... even those who knew approximately where I was would have no idea how to reach me. I remembered the fate of the Chicago architectural photographer Richard Nickel, lying dead in the ruins of the Schiller theatre for weeks before his body was found.

Part of A Concrete Atlantis is engineering and industrial history. It is about steel supplies and window-to-wall ratios, the unpredictable behaviour of bulk wheat (which must be thought of as a solid, a liquid, and in some circumstances as an explosive), the economics of rail transport, patent construction systems, reinforced concrete, and the geometry of silos. Banham writes about these with laconic clarity: the closest comparison I can think of is Slocum’s description of the rebuilding of the Spray. All this American detail was unknown to the Europeans, who saw the beauty of simple forms, but had little sense of the constructional finesse of the best industrial building: their photographs were too small and blurred to show, for example, the chamfered arrises which prevented spalling on concrete frames. Nor were they aware of the transitional nature of the solutions these buildings represented. At the very time illustrations of multi-storey American factories were inspiring European architects, the buildings themselves were being replaced by single-storey sheds which were a more logical housing for a power-driven production line. The Fiat factory at Turin, of 1914-26, with its test-track on the roof, was based on American models which were already out of date.

But although the Europeans might have profited from American competence, competence was not the only thing, or even the main thing, they were after. The blurb has it that the book is about ‘how good Modern was before it went wrong.’ The questions is: good in what way? The American buildings, like the European warehouses they evolved from, worked in straightforward practical ways. European Modernism was quite another matter.

‘The appearance of industrial resemblances in non-industrial buildings was construed’ by Le Corbusier’s generation of architects ‘rather as a promise that these buildings would be as functionally honest, structurally economical and, above all, as up-to-the-minute as any of the American factories.’ The argument that modern architecture failed to keep that promise is, in Banham’s view, not the only relevant one. The larger promise at the heart of the Modern programme was not about keeping your feet dry – although a closer acquaintance with the American buildings might have led to sounder construction – but about other, grander hopes for man and society. Banham’s final chapter is about the Fiat factory in Turin. If this was a failure as a production unit, it was a success as ‘a presence in the city, a standing witness to the period’. But it was also ‘a testament to a lost future’. In such function-bereft monuments – palaces and cathedrals as well as factories – the poetry of architecture gathers.

Banham’s view of modern architecture is persuasive. It celebrates skill in, for example, the well-made and timeless concrete framing of Lockwood Greene and Company’s 1911 Larkin R/S/T block in Buffalo, and manages to communicate excitement and even confidence in the Modernist programme. One can wonder at the aplomb with which Banham writes off the worst of what was done in the name of the Modernist promise, as though it was some unmanageable Third World debt: but the result is to show that the central vision still has value. Even now, the inability of any of the alternatives – Classical, Neo-Vernacular, or Post-Modern – to carry the same kind of authority is remarkable. If you doubt its power consider how difficult it would have been for Lloyd’s to buy themselves, for instance, a Neo-Classical design, and, if you view things from the other angle, how much hangs on Robert Venturi producing something authoritative for the corner of Trafalgar Square.

W.R. Lethaby was, on the face of it, Richard Rogers’s opposite: clever, always top of his class, and a prize-winning draughtsman. He was born in Barnstaple, the son of Bible Christians, and articled to a local architect. His early career culminated in happy and productive years as Norman Shaw’s principal trusted assistant. Although he went on to become an architect and designer of distinction, it was his work as teacher and writer which gave a new rationale for industrial design. Godfrey Rubens illustrates the move by comparing a cabinet by Lethaby of 1890, a piece ‘designed on paper by one man and carried out by another – albeit a skilled carver’, with a chest of a year later, a design which arose from ‘the mere putting together of material’ and did not involve the carving of decoration. The notion that simple things could be honourably made by those who had not themselves designed them allowed an escape from the Ruskinian position that ‘art is the expression of man’s pleasure in labour,’ that it is wrong for ‘one man’s thoughts to be executed by another man’s hands.’ It links Lethaby, through ornament-free art, and the teaching of architecture and industrial design as technique and rational analysis, rather than style and decoration, to Rogers. But Lethaby also wrote about the importance of symbolism in architecture. Although the spirit of his work and writing is foreign to them both, he can be claimed as a founding father by High Tech and Post-Modern.

He believed that an architect should be on hand while a building is constructed, and when writing and teaching began to take up more of his time he designed fewer of them. Their combination of original thought with Arts and Crafts principles makes them hard to place, but All Saints Church at Brockhampton, and two or three thick-walled domestic interiors, have the kind of unstrained originality which American West Coast architects were achieving at about the same time. With different clients he might have done more, but he was unwilling to waste time courting them: ‘How my sympathies leap up,’ he wrote to Gimson, the architect and furniture-maker, ‘when you talk about not being able to dine out for work, or spend weekends looking for it.’ Moreover as the century advanced, and new techniques and materials proliferated, he began to feel technically and emotionally inadequate. He had lost the wish ‘to force his views on employers as a nostrum’, thought that a modern architect should be taught ‘engineering, with plenty of mathematics and hard building experience’, and knew, even so, that his own preference was for ‘rubble and thatch’. This cast of thought resulted in one astonishing solution – the roof of the church at Brockhampton, which is made of reed thatch over concrete. He virtually gave up architecture after his marriage, at the age of 44, to Edith Crosby, a Bostonian a few years older than himself. Rubens describes him as remote, shy, lonely for much of his life, but presenting a calm, well-adjusted face to the world.

His authority came in part from the very fact that he did not build. His work at Westminster Abbey is a model for what is now accepted practice. He defended the preservation of a mid-Victorian fountain on the grounds that ‘it is one of the few Victorian attempts at making the place more delightful. Poor as it may be thought, it represents its time.’ He insisted that wall paintings which were fading be recorded, rather than restored, and on his departure from the post of Surveyor of the Fabric wrote: ‘The systematic cleaning of the structure and monuments ... has given me more pleasure than almost anything else ... the one greater pleasure is new work I have not done in the ancient church.’ Rubens’s book makes this remark, which could seem a piece of false modesty, ring entirely true. Lethaby’s attitude to clients, pupils and buildings seems to have given an unusual weight to the need to let them be themselves. The joint design for Liverpool Cathedral suggests that it made him an over-compliant collaborator, but it meant that his thinking about design education was more than an attempt to show how to do things his way. Rubens’s modest, useful and well-made book has the virtues of Lethaby’s own work.