Wine Flasks in Bordeaux, Sail Spires in Cardiff

Hal Foster

  • Richard Rogers: Architecture of the Future by Kenneth Powell
    Birkhäuser, 520 pp, £29.90, December 2005, ISBN 3 7643 7049 1
  • Richard Rogers: Complete Works, Vol. III by Kenneth Powell
    Phaidon, 319 pp, £59.95, July 2006, ISBN 0 7148 4429 2

It sounds like a modern fairytale: in 1971 two architects, neither of them French, win the most important commission in Paris since the war, the design for the Centre Pompidou, and become famous overnight. The two – a 38-year-old Englishman called Richard Rogers and a 35-year-old Italian called Renzo Piano – design an exuberant building that delights some and outrages others: a glass box supported by a superstructure of steel and concrete, each façade a playful grid of prefabricated columns and diagonal braces, with a transparent escalator tube that snakes up the front, and other service tubes, picked out in primary colours, that run up the other sides. Imagined as a cross between the British Museum and Times Square updated for the information age, the Beaubourg was immediately popular (today it has more than seven million visitors a year); plopped down in a broad piazza, it was also populist (Rogers still calls it ‘a people’s centre, a university of the street’). Yet the project was contradictory: a Pop building designed by two progressive architects for a bureaucratic state to honour a conservative president, a cultural centre pitched as ‘a catalyst for urban regeneration’ that assisted in the further erasure of Les Halles and the gradual gentrification of the Marais. Such tensions have run through the subsequent careers of both Rogers and Piano, who have long identified with the left even as they have benefited from the patronage of the centre and the right. So it goes, a realist would say, for any successful practice in this neo-liberal era; the test is what one can accomplish given these conditions. And on that score Rogers has picked spots where his office can do public good; as various projects for London alone suggest, no architect of his stature is more civic-minded.

Although young by architectural standards in 1971, Rogers had several years of practice behind him. A graduate of the Architectural Association, he attended Yale in 1961-62 with Norman Foster; the two were in partnership, together with their spouses, until 1967. Hard though it is to imagine today, Team 4 disbanded for lack of work, but not before they had completed a breakthrough structure for Reliance Controls in Swindon, which Kenneth Powell describes as ‘neither a factory nor an office building nor a research station but a combination of all three’. The first of many ‘flexible sheds’ that Rogers has designed over the years, the Reliance Controls Electronics Factory owed much to the elegant simplicity of the Case Study houses in Southern California, especially the famous Eames House of 1949. Yet Rogers was also open to the new Pop and high-tech ideas of the 1960s. In 1968, for example, he conceived a mass-produced house made of yellow panels zipped together and set on legs that could be adjusted and so positioned (in principle) almost anywhere. Displayed at the 1969 Ideal Home exhibition in London, the ‘zip-up house’ was, in its high-tech optimism, one part Buckminster Fuller and, in its snappy material and speedy process, one part Archigram (this group had proposed a fantastic ‘pod’ with legs in 1966). However, unlike Fuller and Archigram, Rogers was willing to moderate his schemes in order to get them executed; in the same years, for instance, he built a home for his parents in Wimbledon that combined the Pop modularity of the ‘zip-up house’ with the refined pragmatism of the Eames House. This is not to suggest that Rogers simply compromised. Richard Rogers Partnership (RRP) has continued to experiment with modular designs in search of an economic architecture that is also inventive. Over the years such schemes have included a mobile hospital for rural use, a diner ‘intended as an industrial product’, an exhibition structure conceived as ‘a huge shelving system’ (a project presented by means of a Meccano model), and an apartment high-rise in which almost everything could emerge from a kit of prefabricated parts.

Given projects such as the Reliance Controls factory and the ‘zip-up house’, the Beaubourg did not come out of the blue; however, as one of the few prominent Pop and high-tech buildings to see the light of day, it was read as a manifesto. First, it made clear the renewed importance of innovative engineering for contemporary architecture (Rogers and Piano were assisted by the great engineer Peter Rice, who often consulted for RRP thereafter). Second, it offered one response to the open question of what post-industrial design might look like (‘most of us want it to look like something,’ Reyner Banham once remarked; ‘we don’t want form to follow function into oblivion’). In this regard the Beaubourg was not as far-out as the ‘clip-on’ and ‘plug-in’ idiom of Archigram, with its ‘visually wild rich mess of piping and wiring and struts and cat-walks’ (Banham), but Rogers and Piano did convey the unlikely mix of the communitarian and the consumerist that came to pervade much 1970s culture. Third, and more specific to Rogers, the Beaubourg demonstrated the advantage of pushing mechanical services to the outside of the structure – as a means not only to free up the interior space (at almost 50 metres deep, the open floors of the Beaubourg can entertain all kinds of use) but also to animate the building as a whole (there is an echo of Futurism here: one thinks of the power stations imagined by Antonio Sant’Elia, with whom Rogers was much impressed as a student). In a sense the service tubes serve as a contemporary form of ornament – they give the Beaubourg both detail and scale – and the movement of people across the piazza into the ground floor and up the escalator not only enlivens the centre but connects it to the city as well. These are all ideas that would recur in RRP work.

After the Beaubourg, Rogers parted with Piano (amicably, as he had done with Foster), and more projects came his way, some from the business establishment. In 1978, Lloyd’s of London selected Rogers to design its main building for insurance trading. The programme called for a vast space, ‘The Room’, whose functions could expand and contract with trade volume, and Rogers responded with a full-height atrium surrounded by galleries connected by escalators and lifts. Again, services were moved to the exterior, and the stairs were located in corner towers – the first appearance of this signature feature of the practice. Along with the atrium arch, these stair towers give Lloyd’s its impressive ‘Pop-Gothic’ look; at the same time the stainless-steel cladding says ‘high-tech’. Although Lloyd’s obviously lacks the populist dimension of the Beaubourg, the fact that a building with Pop and high-tech attributes could appear at all in the conservative City was a surprise – a pleasant one for some, provocative for others.

Lloyd’s established the language that RRP would go on to develop: lots of glazing, services on the outside when appropriate, with stairs and lifts often placed in towers, all done in such a way that interiors might be made as open, and exteriors as animated, as possible. The exteriors of its buildings do not ‘express’ the interiors in a functionalist way; rather, the office strives to manifest the logic of its designs in a rationalist manner, often through an explicit hierarchy of elements (Powell suggests that Louis Kahn, who thought in terms of ‘served’ and ‘servant’ spaces, influenced Rogers here). For example, RRP uses colours far more often than most offices, yet it does so less for Pop effect than for design clarity: it applies its colours rigorously, and usually in order to articulate different services or sections. Although Rogers is responsive to the expectations of a mass capitalist world, as he showed with the Beaubourg early in his career, he also believes that architecture must offer a formal order that might do something to mitigate the distractive clutter of that world.

Lloyd’s was completed in 1986, at a time when calls for postmodern contextualism were strong, and soon enough Rogers, as a designer committed to modern precepts, was drawn into the fray, sometimes with the Prince of Wales as an antagonist. Perhaps these skirmishes impeded further large-office commissions in the London area in the 1980s; in any case, they returned in the 1990s. Among these buildings are the Channel 4 Headquarters near Victoria station (1990-94); 88 Wood St (1991-99) and Lloyd’s Register (1993-2000) in the City; Broadwick House in Soho (1996-2002); Chiswick Park, a business park in West London (1999-); Waterside, the corporate headquarters of Marks & Spencer, in Paddington Basin (1993-); and the Grand Union Building, north of Paddington Basin (2000-). Still more projects are in the works. Most are fine buildings, cleanly designed and smartly engineered, each with a flourish of its own – the bridge entrance and the concave front of Channel 4, for example, or the curved roof of Broadwick House. But they are more variations than innovations in the established RRP language: again, much glazing, cladding in steel or aluminium when necessary, exterior services and stair towers when possible, and colour accents for articulation.

Naturally enough, it was industry, both old and new, that really warmed to the rationality of RRP designs. In 1979 Rogers designed a centre for Fleetguard in Quimper, Brittany. Fleetguard specialises in manufacturing heavy-duty engine filters, but Rogers gave its factory a rather light construction – a long box supported by slender columns that extend through the roof and are stayed by thin cables, with columns and cables painted red. Designed with the aid of Peter Rice, this steel-mast structure became another signature device of RRP (its most prominent appearance is in the Millennium Dome), but it is not just a stylistic feature: as the stair towers open up interior spaces, so the mast structures augment interior spans. The result is a functional flexibility that has suited high-tech enterprises as well, such as the Inmos Microprocessor Factory in Newport, Wales, and the PA Technology Laboratory in Princeton, New Jersey, which RRP designed in the early 1980s. These, too, are big sheds supported by steel masts, uniformly coloured, that allow for broad spaces mostly free of columns. Prefabrication and off-site construction enable such structures to be built economically and rapidly. Lightness, flexibility, economy, efficiency: these are architectural values, but most companies are pleased to be associated with them as well. In other words, as Powell suggests, there is an abstract symbolism at work here, and other clients have partaken of it, too; for example, RRP has also adapted its shed type for various academic projects, as with its resource centre for Thames Valley University (1993-96).

As RRP executed these big jobs, it attracted still bigger ones, such as transportation facilities, dockland developments and master plans. Among its major works in the first category are Terminal 5 at Heathrow (1989-), Transbay Terminal in San Francisco (1997-), the New Area Terminal at Madrid airport (1996-2005) and Terminal 2 at Shanghai airport (2003-). Although the primary innovator here might be Norman Foster – his single-level terminal at Stansted established a new type – RRP has contributed as well; in a sense, its shed structure finds its apotheosis in these terminals. At Heathrow, RRP used giant ‘tree’ columns to hold up its broad open terminal; at Madrid many such columns support the long wings of the terminal under a great canopy, coloured Spanish red and yellow, whose curves guide travellers like so many waves. (Such ‘Baroque’ shapes are much in fashion in contemporary architecture, but, unlike his more extravagant peers, Rogers has confined them mostly to roofs.) In other words, both terminals are designed as symbolic as well as practical gateways; ‘Like London’s great railway stations of the past,’ Mike Davies, a longtime Rogers partner, remarks, ‘Terminal 5 has a civic role to play.’

This civic role is important to RRP, and it is evident, too, in its dockland projects and master plans. Over the years the office has produced schemes for parts of Florence (where Rogers was born), Berlin, Shanghai, Singapore, Lisbon and Manchester, among other cities. But much of its planning has focused on London and its environs, with schemes for Paternoster Square (Prince Charles helped to dash this one), Greenwich Peninsula, Bankside, Wembley and the Lower Lea Valley (including the Olympics master plan); and the same is true of its dock projects, which have included the Royal Albert Docks, Silvertown Docks and Convoys Wharf. Not all RRP proposals for the public realm are on target: its scheme for the National Gallery extension (1982) foisted its own new idiom, part Beaubourg, part Lloyd’s, on a programme and a site not much suited to it. But others are inspired, such as the ‘Coin Street Development’ (1979-83), which proposed that Waterloo station be connected to the City by a lofted arcade and a footbridge across the Thames (fitted with pontoons to support various amenities), and the ‘London as it could be’ project (1986), which argued for a long park along the Embankment as well as a new route from Waterloo station across the river to Trafalgar Square. This kind of will-to-plan, which is often rejected out of hand as a will-to-power, is needed today more than ever, and it is galling for an American to note how far major US cities have fallen behind (even at the level of individual buildings, the most innovative designs have lately appeared in smaller cities such as Seattle, Cincinnati and Denver). In any case, commitment to planning has often led Rogers into the political arena: he campaigned for Labour in the 1992 general election; he was appointed chair of the Urban Task Force after Blair won in 1997; and he serves as chief adviser on architecture and urbanism to the mayor of London (he also advises the mayor of Barcelona).

Of course, proposed projects are one thing, executed ones quite another: the major public buildings designed by RRP have tended to be further afield. A few are law courts, such as the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (1989-95), which consists of two circular chambers with two long ‘tails’ for offices and chambers along the River Ill, and the Bordeaux Law Courts (1992-98), a glazed shed with a curvy canopy, under which sit seven courtrooms vaguely in the shape of wine flasks (unusually for RRP, they are clad in cedar) with tops that pierce the roof. RRP, like other celebrated offices, has benefited from the post-1989 push to use architecture to develop institutional images for ‘the new Europe’ (which new one are we on now?), a programme in which cities and regions have also participated eagerly. On this front Rogers is seduced, as Foster is, by the strained analogy between architectural transparency and political transparency. Thus all the glass at the Bordeaux Law Courts is meant to suggest ‘the accessibility of the French judicial system’; similarly, the new National Assembly of Wales (1999-2005) on Cardiff Bay, with its glazed shed under a wavy roof, ‘seeks to embody democratic values of openness and participation’. Yet the structures that actually house the Assembly here – two curvy cones which, as in Bordeaux, pierce the roof – conjure up other associations far more readily: sailingboats, church spires, wizards’ hats à la Harry Potter.

The wine flasks in Bordeaux and the sail spires in Cardiff raise an important question: what is the relation between the civic role of architecture and its iconic power? Too often iconic buildings are asked somehow to stand in for the civic realm, as if imagistic self-promotion were all that citizens can safely expect from politicians and designers today. Rogers, like Foster and Piano (with whom, for better or worse, he will always be triangulated), emerged in the interregnum between the engineered abstraction of modern architecture and the decorative historicism of postmodern architecture. In different ways all three designers have refined the former and refused the latter, and for the most part they have also fought shy of the sculptural iconicity of contemporaries like Frank Gehry and Santiago Calatrava. However, like these other architects, Rogers and company are also asked to brand their clients distinctively. For example, RRP is at work on a new bridge for Glasgow, a ramped promenade that is meant to be an ‘icon for the city’, one that will mark its metamorphosis from old industrial centre to ‘European business and cultural capital’.

Such abstract symbolism can be effective, but it can also be inflated, and the Millennium Dome might qualify as one such balloon. With its 12 100-metre masts (12 as in 12 hours, months and constellations), ‘the ultimate inspiration for the Dome,’ Mike Davies tells us, ‘was a great sky, a cosmos under which all events take place.’ RRP remains proud of this structure, and certainly it can’t be blamed for the ways it has been used, but the cosmic connection is grandiose, and most people see the Dome as a white elephant. Recently unveiled, the RRP contribution to the World Trade Center site is a very different animal. One tower in a group of four (the others will be designed by David Childs, Foster and Fumihiko Maki), the RRP scheme sends mixed messages – though like the others it will probably change. At present the design calls for glass façades that extend beyond the rooftop as well as steel cross-braces that support the tower in case its columns collapse in the event of an attack. On the one hand, then, RRP offers a suggestion of transparency, even of spirituality, that responds to the strange rhetoric of American freedom and perpetual funeral that pervades discussion of Ground Zero; on the other hand, it presents an image of security, even of armoured defence against the world. This contradiction comes with the site, and it is compounded by a master plan that now mixes office buildings, a transportation hub, retail stores, anodyne cultural centres and a huge memorial. What designer could make sense of that ‘civic realm’?

For the most part RRP has worked seriously on the question of civic architecture in a consumerist age, and its responses are usually well-considered: no more manipulative, on the level of image, than the Bordeaux flasks or the Cardiff spires. Moreover, so insistent is the office on the ‘expressive use of services’ that its favoured form of architectural imagery might well be ‘the mass ornament’ of the actual occupants of its buildings – in offices, in circulation, and so on. Yet here the contradictions that first emerged with the Beaubourg return, some of which are real, others apparent. Rogers has acknowledged our mass society with the Pop and high-tech aspects of his architecture; at the same time he insists on a humanist notion of the city as ‘meeting-place’. The rationalism of RRP designs can be severe; at the same time, the office is renowned for its sociability (it is structured as a non-profit organisation, with the salaries of its senior partners pegged to those of its youngest employees; it is active in charities; and the River Café, run by Ruth Rogers, began as the office canteen). Finally, RRP steams ahead with huge developments; at the same time it rightly promotes the ‘sustainability’ of architecture and the ‘regeneration’ of cities. RRP works well with such contradictions, but is that a weakness or a strength – or both?