Richard Rogers: London loses a titan

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  • Richard Rogers
    British architect (1933–2021)
Starchitect: Richard Rogers at his Royal Academy exhibition in 2013  (Getty Images)
Starchitect: Richard Rogers at his Royal Academy exhibition in 2013 (Getty Images)

Richard Rogers — the greatest British architect since Sir Christopher Wren — didn’t always have it easy. He loved to tell the story of an elderly Parisian lady he bumped into outside the Pompidou Centre. She asked him: “Excuse me, do you happen to know who designed this building?” Richard puffed out his chest and proudly told her that she was in fact speaking to the architect himself. The lady’s response? She hit him with her umbrella — it turned out she hated the way the building looked.

That’s the price to pay for being a radical. And Richard did have a radical vision: he truly believed that our cities could be more human, more equitable and more sustainable. But what marked him out as one of the all-time greats is that he delivered on that ambition, time and again.

His designs — like the magnificent Madrid airport, the Lloyd’s of London building and Millennium Dome (now the O2) — encouraged people to congregate, and feel that little bit happier as they went about their day.

He followed that logic wherever it took him. For example it often meant putting lifts and corridors on the exterior of buildings, which created more space inside for people to mingle and interact.

The Lloyd’s building (AFP via Getty Images)
The Lloyd’s building (AFP via Getty Images)

His masterplans to reinvent large chunks of the city, like his successful scheme to pedestrianise Trafalgar Square, were all about maximising human interactions and helping people come together.

And his tireless lobbying of Tony Blair and New Labour for more effective leadership in the capital led to the creation of the role of Mayor of London in 2000 — which in turn drove so many improvements in our city’s transport infrastructure. But just as significant, for me, was how Richard showed how a different way of living in the city was possible — through the way he lived himself. I got to know Richard after I organised a cities conference at 10 Downing Street back in 2011. Even though he was a life-long Leftie, he had no qualms about engaging with David Cameron and his team — he only cared about getting things done.

Richard designed the Millennium Dome  (now O2 Arena) (Getty Images)
Richard designed the Millennium Dome (now O2 Arena) (Getty Images)

Soon afterwards, I visited Richard at his architecture office, which was then in Hammersmith — right next door to his wife Ruthie’s restaurant, The River Café. (Her restaurant started off as a canteen for Richard’s team.)

The way in which his studio melded into the restaurant gave you an immediate sense of how he wanted the world to be: communal, beautiful and joyful. What could be more lovely than having a work meeting while eating freshly cooked food, with family members popping in and out to say hello?

After all, why should our work life and family life be separate — and wouldn’t our working day be more productive if we had better than corporate Pret sandwiches? Architecture, food, community, culture — for Richard it was all part of a continuous whole.

But the real induction into Richard’s world was to visit his home — two hollowed-out Georgian townhouses, creating an amazing modernist space, with a stainless steel kitchen for Ruthie opening out into a welcoming dining area. The first time I went there was for dinner with Richard and his old friend Renzo Piano, his collaborator on the Pompidou Centre. Renzo was supposed to leave halfway through the evening to be guest of honour at a fancy pre-opening event for The Shard, which he had designed, but he just couldn’t tear himself away from Richard. They were both 80 years old or so, giggling like schoolboys, and clearly in love with one another’s company. Even though The Shard was the largest architectural project of his life, Renzo only wanted to be with Richard — and to stay a little longer in the world his friend had created.

Richard’s approach to architecture went far beyond aesthetics. He wanted cities to be fairer and accessible

Richard’s approach to architecture went far beyond aesthetics. He wanted cities to be fairer, which is why he designed low-cost prefab housing that was both attractive and accessible, and why he consistently made the case for more green spaces that everyone could enjoy. They say that if you steal from one artist, you’re a thief — but if you steal from two, you’re a genius.

When I started my workspace business Second Home, there was no one except Richard that I wanted to steal from — which unfortunately makes me a petty criminal, even if I had the blessing of the victim himself.

What’s remarkable is that Richard always wanted to keep learning, even though he had won every architecture prize going, and was almost universally recognised as one of the greatest designers of all time.

One of Richard’s favourite lines was the oath sworn by new citizens of ancient Athens to “leave the city greater, better and more beautiful” than they found it.

Through his visionary architecture and masterplans, his impact on public policy and the way he lived his life, Richard made good on that Athenian ideal. London is a stronger city thanks to him, but a far sadder place without him in it.

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