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.

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