Architect whose radically innovative buildings included the Pompidou Centre and the Lloyd’s of London building
Richard Rogers in Paris in 2010. He put sustainable cities at the top of the political agenda. Photograph: François Guillot/AFP/Getty Images
The Guardian-Oliver Wainwright
Richard Rogers, who has died aged 88, changed the face of urban Britain more than any other architect of the late 20th century. He was author of the groundbreaking Lloyd’s building in the City of London and the Pompidou Centre in Paris, but his impact was manifest less in his own buildings than in his influence on public policy, which saw a fundamental shift in the perception of inner cities away from being something to endure or escape, to being something desirable to enjoy. He ushered in the era of “regeneration”, seeing British cities adorned with canal-side apartments and cafe-lined squares, if sometimes at a cost to existing communities.
Shortly after New Labour came to power in the landslide election of 1997, Rogers was appointed to chair the Urban Task Force, a quango charged with identifying the causes of urban decline in England and recommending practical solutions to bringing people back into cities and putting an end to suburban sprawl. The findings, published as Towards an Urban Renaissance in 1999, called for a new generation of “compact cities”, advocating the redevelopment of post-industrial brownfield land with high-density flats, shops and cafes, along with investment in public transport, public spaces and public facilities. Five years later, housing densities had risen from an average of 25 to 40 dwellings per hectare, and 70% of development was on brownfield land. Rogers’ principles would define the model of urban regeneration for the coming decades, for better and worse.
His vision was presented as one of inclusivity and equality, but it would also foster greater displacement and division, producing a form of investment-fuelled development that saw his own practice design some of the most expensive housing ever built. While the socialist Labour peer argued for a city for all, his office was designing the fortified luxury apartment schemes of One Hyde Park, Neo Bankside and Riverlight, stacks of investment units that became symbols of London’s extreme inequality.
Rogers often credited his urbane, cosmopolitan outlook to his Italian upbringing. He was born in Florence, in an apartment with a view of the Duomo. His father, Nino, was a doctor, whose own father, a dentist, was a British émigré to Italy. His mother, Dada (nee Geiringer), was an art-lover, who became a potter. She was the daughter of an architect and engineer from a notable Trieste family, and had once been taught English by James Joyce.
They moved to Britain in 1939 to escape the rise of fascism, finding lodging in a single room in a boarding house in Bayswater with a coin meter for the heating and a bath in a cupboard. Cold, smoggy London at a time of rationing was a culture shock for the young Rogers. As he later recalled, “life switched from colour to black and white”. He was sent to Kingswood House boarding school in Epsom, a place he described as “brutal and unfair”, where he was regularly beaten and bullied, an experience that prompted him to become a good boxer. He grew in confidence at St John’s school in Leatherhead, where he discovered sporting ability, but he struggled with dyslexia and left school in 1951 without A-levels.
It was during these years, Rogers later wrote, that he realised there was more strength in working as a group than being a solo high achiever, an outlook that would go on to inform his collaborative model of practice. During a major retrospective exhibition at the Royal Academy to mark Rogers’s 80th birthday, the curators admitted that they struggled to find a single drawing by the man himself.
Rogers spent his national service stationed in Trieste, which proved to be a formative period. While on leave, he worked in the office of his cousin Ernesto Rogers, the feted architect of the Torre Velasca in Milan, which inspired him to apply to study at the Architectural Association on his return to London. He was an enthusiastic, if inconsistent, student. A tutor’s report in 1958 described his work as “chaotic and inarticulate”, but he impressed the examiners with his final project, a school for children with special educational needs in Wales, using locally grown timber and designed so that the pupils could participate in building. One of Rogers’s tutors, the brutalist architect Peter Smithson, noted his “capacity for worrying about the effect the building will have on people and a concern for shape on the inside,” which would prove to be a constant theme.
Rogers met Su Brumwell in his third year. She was studying sociology at the London School of Economics and her parents were socialists, with deep roots in the Labour movement, giving Rogers early exposure to the political left. They married in 1960 and travelled to Yale the following year on a Fulbright scholarship, after Rogers spent a short spell working at Middlesex county council’s architects’ department. At Yale he met Norman Foster, and was taught by Paul Rudolph, whose designs for Yale’s Art and Architecture Building would have a great influence on his own designs for the Lloyd’s building years later. After graduating, he worked briefly in the San Francisco office of the corporate firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which provided a useful lesson. “I quickly came to realise,” he wrote, “that working in someone else’s architectural practice was not for me.”
On returning to the UK, Rogers, Brumwell and Foster, along with Foster’s wife Wendy Cheesman, set up a practice, Team 4, and began by designing a house for Brumwell’s parents in Cornwall, called Creek Vean. It was a steep learning curve. It took six years, almost bankrupted both the designers and their client, and saw Rogers and Foster summoned to the Architects Registration Council for practising without a licence. Their factory in Swindon for Reliance Controls, built in 1967, had a smoother ride. In its use of standardised industrial components, this elegant shed presaged the direction Rogers’ work would go on to take.
The following year, after Team 4 split up, he and Su developed the ZipUp House, a prototype home designed to be assembled quickly and cheaply from insulated panels of the kind used for refrigerated trucks. “Buying clothes off the rack is the norm,” Rogers wrote. “We wanted to do the same for the house – an affordable, speedy kit of parts.” The concept was never realised, but the thinking influenced Parkside, the modular house he built for his parents in Wimbledon. A model of the ZipUp house, a streamlined yellow pod on bright pink legs, stood in the foyer of his office for decades to come, as the original high-tech, factory-assembled dream from which all else would be spawned.
Rogers’ technology-driven production line principles would soon be explored on a much larger scale in a project that would change his career forever. In 1969 the French president, Georges Pompidou, announced a competition for a new multidisciplinary cultural centre on the vacant site of the Plateau Beaubourg in Paris. Rogers teamed up with the Italian architect Renzo Piano, to whom he had been introduced by his doctor, and, together, they dreamt up the most radical proposal of their lives.
Their scheme for the Centre Pompidou was to be a great oil refinery of art, a mechanical transformer of a building, inspired by the comic book fantasies of Archigram and Cedric Price for a new kind of robotic architecture that would respond to changing needs, with plug-in components and moving floors.
Huge digital screens would entertain crowds on a great sloping piazza outside, while escalators in glass tubes would shuttle people up the building’s facade, forming a dynamic backdrop to the mime artists and musicians down below. It was saturated with colour, its exposed pipes and ducts painted in the bright reds, blues and greens of the media age – a feature that would continue in Rogers’s work for years to come. The point, he said, was that “culture should be fun”.
Their winning sci-fi vision met with a frosty reception in Paris. The architects were booed at the press conference, where balls of paper were hurled, along with accusations that they were building a low-brow supermarket of culture, an ocean liner run aground in the Marais, and a jungle gym for King Kong. Pompidou died and his successor cut the budget. The screens were dropped, the floors did not move and fire regulations curtailed some of the more daring ideas. Pressure groups filed lawsuits against the project, the Guardian’s art critic said the “hideous” object should be covered with Virginia creeper, while Robert Delaunay’s widow Sonia said she would rather burn his paintings than have them exhibited in the building.
But the architects were vindicated by the public reaction: visitor numbers were five times those predicted. Around seven million people visited in the first year, more than the Louvre and Eiffel Tower combined. The Pompidou Centre marked a watershed: it was both a late flowering of 1960s utopianism and a premonition of the city-boosting “iconic” cultural architecture that would define urban regeneration in the decades to follow.
The Parisian cultural tanker set the aesthetic and ideological agenda for the Richard Rogers Partnership, later Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, which Rogers founded in 1977 on his return to London. Structure would be exposed and express what it was doing, in as didactic a way as possible. It would be jauntily coloured too, matching Rogers’s vivid wardrobe of neon braces and acid-hued shirts. The ambition was to make buildings lighter and more flexible, to minimise structure while maximising space and light, and reduce demands on energy and the natural environment, in pursuit of a kind of technological sublime.
In London, the thrilling potentials of this high-tech age were first proved in the new headquarters for the insurance giant Lloyd’s of London, completed in 1986. Formed of three towers around a 60-metre high atrium, lit by a huge barrel-vaulted glass roof, its most radical move was to place the service cores outside the building. This freed up more floorspace for desks, and provided Rogers with a chance to revel in the sculptural forms of staircases, glass lifts and toilet pods on the facade, composing a vertical symphony of polished stainless steel.
It suffered a similar critical reception to the Pompidou at the time – it was subjected to accusations of “bowellism”, for presenting its innards on the outside – but it has since been recognised as one of the most significant buildings of the 20th century, in 2011 becoming the youngest structure to be Grade I-listed.
Two years later, RSH+P completed the Leadenhall Building across the street, a tapering behemoth almost three times the height of Lloyd’s, known as the Cheesegrater, which followed similar principles, placing services to the north to free up the floors and creating an animated ballet of lifts on the facade. In a nod to creating more public space, the tower was raised on legs, 30 metres up in the air, although the heavily-managed plaza beneath has the feeling of a high-security lobby.
The 1980s also saw Rogers begin to take a more prominent role in public life. In an exhibition at the Royal Academy, titled London As It Could Be, he set out ambitious plans for the capital, together with Foster and James Stirling, including burying the road along the Victoria Embankment to create a pedestrian-friendly public riverside, introducing new lightweight footbridges across the Thames and banishing traffic from the north side of Trafalgar Square – some of which ultimately happened in different forms.
Rogers increasingly saw it as his duty to defend the cause of contemporary architecture against more conservative forces. In a series of high-profile speeches throughout the 1980s, the Prince of Wales launched a tirade of attacks on modern architecture, famously describing a proposed steel and glass extension to the National Gallery as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.” In a speech to the Corporation of London’s planning committee in 1987, referring to Rogers’s proposals for Paternoster Square, he said: “You have to give this much credit to the Luftwaffe: when it knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble.”
So the style wars began. Rogers responded with a long article in the Times, rejecting the Prince’s “Disneyland approach” of bolting on “disposable symbols like decomposed classical columns, pediments and cornices, or flimsy Gothic turrets and Egyptian palm trees,” and attacking his misuse of royal privilege to intervene in the planning system. Rogers maintained that the Prince’s interventions behind the scenes cost his firm work on a number of major projects throughout his career, including the transformation of the Royal Opera House and, most contentiously, his masterplan for Chelsea Barracks, which was shelved in 2009 after Prince Charles contacted the Qatari royal family.
If the Prince wielded power behind the scenes, Rogers himself enjoyed a very public platform. He set out his vision for a new generation of sustainable compact cities in the Reith Lectures in 1995, published as Cities for a Small Planet two years later. In 1996 he was made a Labour peer, as Lord Rogers of Riverside. As the chair of the Urban Task Force, he argued for densely populated hubs linked by public transport, walking and cycling, and championed “the urban environment’s capacity to emancipate and civilise, rather than segregate and disempower”.
With the establishment of the Greater London Authority in 2000, and the election of Ken Livingstone as the first mayor of London, Rogers was appointed to head up the new Architecture and Urbanism Unit, charged with improving design quality in the capital. “Ken wanted us to influence more than policy,” Rogers wrote. “He wanted us to make things happen.”
The A+UU published design guides on streetscape, housing, density and green space, mapped high streets and town centres to identify opportunities for infill development, and launched a plan for 100 new public spaces across London. Only a few of these flagship projects were ever completed, but the A+UU played an influential role in putting design at the top of London’s political agenda – something that was swiftly removed by the next mayor, Boris Johnson, much to Rogers’s fury.
While the built output of his practice never quite matched the visceral thrill of the Pompidou or Lloyd’s again, Rogers continued to produce elegant and engaging public buildings, from the law courts in Bordeaux and Antwerp to the National Assembly in Wales, where an image of transparency and public accessibility were always central. His tensile white tent for the Millennium Dome, while deemed a failure at the time, has gone on to house one of the most successful live performance venues in the world, in the form of the O2 Arena.
Rogers was awarded the RIBA gold medal and Pritzker prize, and won the Stirling prize twice, for the Barajas airport, Madrid in 2006 and the Maggie’s Centre at Charing Cross hospital in 2009. The former is a rare thing: an airport that does not make you want to escape as soon as you have entered. With its undulating bamboo roof floating above an avenue of branching rainbow-coloured columns, it is a calming place that soothes the stress of international travel. It took just eight years from conception to completion, a stark contrast to Rogers’ scheme for Heathrow Terminal 5, which was subjected to the longest public inquiry in British history and took 19 years to be built. As a result, it seemed outdated by the time it opened.
Outside the office, Rogers’s home life was a constant whirlwind of family and entertaining, conducted in a magnificent Georgian house on Royal Avenue in Chelsea, which he gutted to form a vertical stack of spaces around one gigantic triple-height room, nicknamed the piazza. Decorated with artwork by Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly and Philip Guston, it was a lively social hub where he and his second wife, Ruth (nee Elias), co-founder of the River Cafe, whom he had married in 1973, hosted parties and charity benefits for their extensive network of friends. It was a welcoming place, where nosy guests were encouraged to feel at home and explore, discovering everything from the bright green Lino in the loo to the neatly ordered rainbow landscape of Rogers’s sock drawer – which once inspired a dedicated article in the New Yorker.
While he lived in a converted Georgian terrace, Rogers always espoused a future of modular homes that could be built on a production line, although he never quite achieved his goal. The main prefab housing scheme he realised was a group of suburban homes for Taylor Wimpey at Oxley Woods in Milton Keynes, in 2007, which were plagued by leaks and legal claims. The practice also developed a “Homeshell” concept for prefabricated flat-pack housing, which they trialled on several sites in London, but have yet to succeed in scaling up. By contrast, his office enjoyed huge success in the luxury apartment sector, producing gleaming glass towers of flats across London, Monaco and Taipei.
“Our society has decided … that we will tolerate this worsening level of inequality, despite the fact that it is socially corrosive and economically inefficient,” Rogers wrote in his 2017 memoir, A Place for All People. “Our politics cannot be made a slave to the narrow interests of the super-rich.” As time went on, the gulf between what he espoused for the greater public good, and what his practice actually did for the elite few, grew ever wider. Nonetheless, he will be remembered for a series of radically innovative buildings, which still have the power to shock 40 years on, and for putting the importance of sustainable, liveable cities at the top of the political agenda.
He is survived by Ruth and their son Roo; and by three sons, Ben, Zad and Ab, from his first marriage, which ended in divorce; and by 13 grandchildren. His youngest son, Bo, died in 2011.
Richard George Rogers, Lord Rogers of Riverside, architect, born 23 July 1933; died 18 December 2021