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.

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