“With the departure of Richard Rogers, there is a melancholy feeling of slow extinction”

The death of British architect Richard Rogers at the age of 88 marks the loss of one of the architects who shaped the past four decades, said Catherine Slessor.

“Ciao vecchio,” famously said Renzo Piano, calling Richard Rogers to let him know that their nascent practice had won the Center Pompidou competition. “Are you seated? “

Vecchio – old man. The joke was that they were both in their late 30s – relatively freaks out when it came to architecture – but Rogers was four years older than Piano.

Now, with Rogers finally gone at 88 – molto vecchio – there’s a melancholy feeling of slow extinction, a fading point of light from a constellation of architects who have shaped the past 40 years.

Rogers’ star burned particularly furiously, a stellar intensity lighting up post-war lead, dreary and exhausted Britain. Born in Florence, descendant of a cultured and well-connected Anglo-Italian family, he was transplanted to dark England in the late 1930s, but his appetite for food, cityscapes, atmosphere and beautiful figure generality of Mediterranean Europe has remained perpetually intact.

Rogers’ star burned particularly furiously

There was no cityscape problem that could not be solved by an infusion of coffee culture. An unrealized proposal to drape London’s South Bank with a corrugated glass roof would have had, according to Rogers, the most desirable effect of erasing the terrible English weather (and possibly England itself) and to create a microclimate, both in temperature and atmosphere, close to that of Bordeaux.

No wonder then that France, rather than England, formed a receptive melting pot for the building that changed everything, the absurd Center Pompidou. I first saw him in 1982, when he was still a relatively virgin, a bustling, gutted and hellish cenobite, showing off his candy-colored guts to the world.

Back then, it worked as Rogers and Piano intended, with the free, zigzagging escalators taking you to the sky in a slow, ecstatic swoon to admire the best work of art of all, the aerial painting of Paris, while in the forecourt below, buskers straight out of the central cast worked the crowds. No one really entered.

Decades later, this idealistic conception of civic generosity, always appealing to the better nature of the city, has been lost in the paranoia of modern security and the rampant privatization of the public realm.

Moreover, like all high-tech buildings, Pompidou’s maintenance regime is an increasingly colossal and sisyphus challenge. Since opening in 1977, the Pompidou has cost more to maintain than to build, and earlier this year it was announced that it would close for four years from 2023 for another mammoth overhaul.

For Rogers, however, this remains his groundbreaking project, energizing a career that had until then been limited to tinkering with houses for in-laws.

Creek Vean in Cornwall, designed with Team 4 for his then stepfather Marcus Brumwell, who sold a Mondrian to pay for it, made little sense of what was to come like the confluence of power of Victorian engineering and slowly but surely aligned Archigram provocations.

Rogers’ high-tech vision has found its moment and niche

Not marred by associations with modernism, at the time quietly crawling to his grave without regret, or the emerging pastel ironies of postmodernism, Rogers’ high-tech vision has found its moment and its end. niche, adopted as the “progressive” style of the day by banks, museums and airports.

In theory, it was neutral, nimble, and rational, espousing kits of rooms and infinitely flexible spaces, but in practice it could be as spookily complicated as any German Rococo church, memorably exemplified by the Lloyd’s building. , a self-proclaimed “cathedral of commerce”. “.

Again, it’s hard to overstate the impact of Lloyd’s upon its completion in 1986, emblematic not only of bold new architecture, but of a city exploding in a post-Big Bang frenzy following deregulation. Thatcherite.

Although in a revealing coda, the management of Lloyd’s insisted on retaining their 18th century committee room, designed by Robert Adam for the 2nd Earl of Shelburne, rebuilt as a stage set or comfort blanket in their new home in high tech, perhaps to protect against what Owen Hatherley masterfully described as “pure hedonism, architecture with all the crackle and complexity of a Detroit techno track.”

Some idea of ​​the distance traveled in the intervening decades can be easily grasped by the Cheesegrater directly across from Lloyd’s, completed in 2014, bigger and duller, long flattened rococo violins, but still wearing the Rogers Imprimatur with its yellow elevator shafts. .

Renamed Rogers Stirk Harbor + Partners, reflecting a carefully managed estate, the firm now sits halfway up the Cheesegrater, a stark experiential contrast to its long-standing and more languid riverside berth in Hammersmith , next to the famous River Cafe, which started life as a staff canteen. Known in 1996, Rogers took the title of Lord Rogers of Riverside.

A particularly successful example of the humanization of a deeply alienating type of building

This is not an original observation, but there is a certain irony in high tech evangelically espousing the benefits of industrial prefabrication and spatial flexibility, quickly freezing into a bankable and affordable style for a limited cadre of workers. the institutional elite.

Rogers himself was astute enough to figure this out, and his mid-career production – the beehive pods of the Bordeaux courthouse and the waving manta ray roof of the Welsh Senedd – showed some softening and maturing of the original aesthetic of “toys for boys”. Barajas Airport, which won the Stirling Prize in 2006, is a particularly fine example of how to humanize a deeply alienating type of building, its color structure guiding passengers through the airport maze.

By contrast, Heathrow Terminal 5 suffered from the stalling of a 20-year public inquiry and, as a result, felt cumbersome and dated for its eventual completion.

Other less successful projects are expected to include the Millennium Dome, a village marquee on steroids that audiences have now reluctantly taken into their concert hall folds, and the sleek silos of luxury apartments in One Hyde Park and Neo Bankside. , hyper-rich. blandness personified, who have all the depressing characteristics of a big company on cruise control.

He understood that architecture is nothing if not a social art

Typical of his expansive approach to practice, Rogers also turned to policy-making as an adviser to the mayor of London between 2001 and 2008. In various manifestos for architecture and town planning, he has advocated in favor of sustainability and the high-density city, attempting to instill a sense of wider and better possibilities.

Although there were obvious contradictions in his accumulation of a list of largely institutional clients, he understood that architecture is nothing if not a social art.

And, as the built environment is brought down to the level of insane “Building Beautiful” slogans and bureaucratic cheese-making by the current Conservative administration, such a genuinely engaging and galvanizing presence will be missed. A few days after Rogers’ death, Lloyd’s ceremonial bell, Lutine Bell, rang once, signifying the loss of a large ship. Ciao vecchio.

Catherine Slessor is an editor, writer and architecture critic. She is president of the 20th Century Society architectural charity and former editor-in-chief of UK magazine The Architectural Review.

The photograph is courtesy of Rogers Stirk Harbor + Partners and shows Rogers at the “London as it could be” exhibition in 1986.

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