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Thick brushstroke, thin print: The contradictory Richard Rogers by Eliot Foy

The AJ Writing Prize 2013: Winner

1960, Bologna. His black rimmed glasses resting on his forehead, an elderly man stares intently at a row of objects: a fluted vase, a terracotta pot, and an earthenware vessel. They’re positioned as if stood in a queue, each patiently waiting for an opportunity with their intense onlooker. The man, Italian artist Giorgio Morandi, lifts his brush from a palette crusted with ochre, sienna, umber, to paint a quiet likeness of their form.

1968, New York. He places the partially completed print flat, lowers the screen now blackened by so many reproductions, and squeegees the oily slick over the mesh. Revealed beneath is a graphic soup can, delineated by a crisp black line to complement the flattened blocks of red and gold. Andy Warhol aligns the next print to repeat the process.

Both artists made everyday objects their subject. But whilst Warhol’s reality is of brute reproduction and consumption, Morandi’s is transformative. Subtle abstraction lends his still lifes a distilled, essential quality, heightening the specialness of otherwise familiar things necessary for life. As those in the architectural profession, we often strive for a similar transformation, taking the ubiquitous building material, the pervading commercial pressure, to transform the prosaic into the poetic. So an office building is an urban gesture; a civic building an expression of culture. But how much contemporary architecture, instead, tends towards Warhol?

2013, London. The establishment is celebrating a man hailed as revolutionary, whose eightieth birthday is marked by a retrospective at the Royal Academy. Richard Rogers: Inside Out is suffused with the kind of contradictions demonstrated by our two artists, and by broader architectural practice. In this exhibition, the contradiction is writ large: an almost perceptible horizontal division between a richness of cultural influences, and shallowness in architectural execution.

A shelf at waist height runs the length of the room. Filled with personal objects it is testament to Roger’s rich life of summers in Italy and his wife’s cooking; of his liberal upbringing and his mother’s pottery. These are the paint-laden brushstrokes of accumulated experience, of broader culture giving form to personal outlook. And this outlook is similarly generous, with Roger’s political opinions strikingly apparent in a profession often shirking overt activism. Here is an article on a 1986 exhibition, London as it Could Be, looking at a city plan beyond mere commercial development. Here is his book, Cities for a Small Planet, suggesting densification and mix of uses to foster compact, walkable urban environments. They intimate a Morandi-like engagement with the everyday, evinced by Rogers’ quote: ‘There should be a law that everybody can see at least a tree from their window.’

But such broad references, such Humanism, as he himself describes it, is notably absent beyond the bounds of the shelf dividing the room in two. Above it are pinned photographs and drawings, and in the centre of the room dazzlingly intricate models of built projects and architectural ideas. How much these seem to be informed by his wider interests, however, is debatable. The Pompidou Centre, 1977, designed alongside Renzo Piano, seems only to reference Pop Art, or a more practical, buildable version of Archigram’s paper works. And how civic minded is Lloyd’s of London, 1986, in revealing its digestive tract - its mechanical and sanitary services - to the city?

Here, like Warhol, specialness is debased in favour of a representation of brute reality, however cynical. An early iteration of the Pompidou’s design, demonstrated by a Perspex model in the exhibition, describes the facade as a billboard-like screen of virtual information. But such commercial precedent confuses the shallow accessibility of consumer culture for a profound connection with the urban environment. Arguably the most successful aspect of the building is the piazza sat at its base. Its gentle slope forms an amphitheatre-like space creating - as the name ‘piazza’ suggests - a place of public interaction as traditionally conceived.

The spectacle of tourists, meanwhile, travelling along glass pipes; businessmen scaling buildings in glass vitrines; all alongside cross-bracing, ducting, and toilet pods is merely that - spectacle. In their limited technological references, Rogers creates buildings which speak only of their base function, as opposed to the myriad precedents suggested by the Royal Academy exhibition. Architecture is designed not as contextually acute, but as anonymous machine; as repeatable screen‑print.

Warhol, however, has an excuse: fine art practice gives his work a critical distance, sufficiently removed from the worlds of mass advertising and corporate culture to allow a reflexive quality. Placed in the gallery, the repeated Coke bottle, the repeated celebrity face, are not necessarily complicit in a celebration of consumerism. They are prophetic; a foretelling of our contemporary, all-pervading global economy; a comment on the developing relationship between art and money.

Instead, in practising architecture, Rogers can little expect to be granted the luxury of such distance. As a profession, we must engage with those market forces, and with the commercial developer client, in order to win commissions and practise our craft. But need these brute forces dominate a building’s expression? In placing services at the extremity of the Lloyd’s building, the floorplate is left uninterrupted, to best serve a client intent on maximising flexibility. In employing escalators in the Pompidou, the language of the shopping mall is applied to that of the civic amenity. These are not Humanist gestures, but the world of Warhol uncritically applied.

Architecture’s purpose should not be to articulate an alienated homogeneity, slavishly reproducing our consumer society. Rather, it can be an inclusive medium through which to express broader cultural values. If Morandi’s paintbrush can provoke us to think differently of our everyday environment, to tease out a quality obscured by ubiquity, can a bricklayer’s trowel, a steelworker’s wrench, achieve the same? Roger’s compassionate outlook, a canvas thick with influences, suggests it can. But his buildings leave just a shallow print of their potential.

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