Designing the Future
British architect Richard Rogers first seized the international spotlight in 1971 when he and Renzo Piano beat out 680 entries with their outrageous design for the Pompidou Center in Paris. Their brash building—its brightly colored tubes, ducts and pipes exposed on the outside—landed in an old neighborhood like an alien spacecraft. Not long afterward, Rogers began his own practice in London, where he once again rocked the old guard with his gleaming, stainless-steel Lloyd’s of London headquarters slapped down among the dowdy office buildings of the financial district. Though he now carries a British title—Lord Rogers of Riverside—the 73-year-old architect is actually Italian by birth (his great-grandfather Rogers was an English dentist who settled in Venice); the family moved to England on the eve of World War II. Not that it matters—Rogers’s outlook is clearly global. And on June 4 he’ll be officially awarded the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize. In honoring him, the Pritzker jury cited his consistent pursuit of “the highest goals of architecture” and his “unique interpretation of the Modern Movement’s fascination with the building as machine.” He spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Cathleen McGuigan. Excerpts:
MCGUIGAN: You’ve spent a big part of your career devoted to master planning, thinking about cities and working with the City of London. That’s an unusual trajectory for a “star” architect.
ROGERS: I always say, I love cities. I am an urban person; I very much believe in city-states. I was born in Florence, a city-state if we look back 500 years. But I do think cities have a very important role in our society, and I have done a lot of work on the regeneration of cities. When this [British] government came into power, the deputy prime minister asked me to chair a group called the Urban Task Force, to examine the state of our cities. We came up with about 105 recommendations, and they are very much part of the policy now of how we develop compact, well-designed, environmentally conscious cities with good public transport. I’ve been trying to make that link between the quality of architecture and the quality of public space and the vitality of cities—and quality of life.
I’m now the chief adviser on architecture and urbanism to the mayor of London—and the first thing he asked me, in 2001, was to try and develop some of those policies. I’m talking about what is called the urban renaissance … The first thing is to make cities more people-friendly—and to rebalance the relationship between cars and people, and give the priority to people. That means public transport.
You were way ahead of most of your architectural peers in your concern for sustainability, which is now the big buzzword.
Yes, I remember first reading a Club of Rome report about the problems of using oil and so on. That must have been in the ’60s. They got many of their calculations wrong in those times, but the principles were right. Since then we’ve been interested, but only in the last decade or two have we realized there’s a tipping point. And, of course, Al Gore has made that very clear to a large population, including here in Europe, with his film. My point is, if we want mankind to continue—mankind rather than the earth, because that will probably continue—then we really have to start looking at how we can make this globe sustainable.
As far as buildings are concerned, we’ve built the new Parliament in Wales, which uses under 50 percent the amount of energy you’d expect. And we’ve built a number of court buildings, in Bordeaux and elsewhere, and really lowered the amount of energy used, so we’re mediating the climate with the building.
You have a number of U.S. projects in the works. One is Tower 3 at the World Trade Center site. With so much controversy over the site, and so many delays, how likely is it that your skyscraper will be built?
Well, I’m optimistic. Everybody else has already done such massive battling, we’ve been able to gain a toehold, if not more. Again, I think our building, and Norman Foster’s and Fumihiko Maki’s buildings—we’re all sort of linked in terms of the site and also working with the same client—will be built. I would be surprised if they’re not. But then I always say, until it’s built you’re never sure.
Years ago, when you were studying at Yale, you were mad for Frank Lloyd Wright. What other architect—or building—from a distant era inspires you?
Well, I suppose, looking at other eras, I’m inspired by Brunelleschi. I come from Florence, and he comes from Florence, and he was a great engineer and architect and—what I’m not—a sculptor. I think he changed not only how we look at art and architecture, but how we live in cities.
You are the only modern architect I can think of whose work always brings to mind color. You like color.
What color shirt are you wearing right now?
[Laughs] Right now I’m wearing a brilliant green shirt.
I wonder if your love of color and use of color comes from being Italian?
Possibly. My mother loved color. My mother used to embarrass me when I was a schoolboy wearing bright colors.