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AJ100 Contribution to the profession - 2013

Nearly 1,000 AJ100 employees were asked to nominate one person they thought should be recognised for his or her services to architecture - most named Richard Rogers

Christine Murray caught up with him at the Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners studios in west London:

A riot of colour, Richard Rogers is opposite me in his bright orange sweater, sitting among models of historic and current projects, from the new Leadenhall building in the City of London, which tops out this summer, to the project that changed architecture, Paris’s Centre Pompidou.

‘We’ve been lucky,’ he says, smiling, speaking over the clamour of the upstairs office canteen, where staff eat subsidised food prepared by a former River Café chef - the restaurant owned by Rogers’ wife, Ruth. ‘A number of times I thought I would never make it.’

Rogers has just been named as this year’s recipient of the AJ100 Contribution to the Profession award - 550 architects employed by AJ100 practices nominated him - a gong he will pick up at the AJ100 awards dinner.

It’s another accolade in what is turning out to be quite a year for Rogers: he turns 80 this summer, and will celebrate with the opening of a major exhibition at London’s Royal Academy. But this is by no means a retirement party - Rogers is still in practice, cycling into work on his Brompton, participating in design crits, even playing on the company softball team.

‘When we finished the Pompidou, Renzo and I had no work for about two years,’ Rogers continues. ‘I started teaching in the states, then won Lloyd’s of London, which had lots to do with Lloyd’s and much to do with Gordon Graham, who at that time was the president of the RIBA and advised Lloyd’s. So there’s a lot of luck in this game.’

I ask Rogers what he thinks has been his greatest contribution to the profession, and he pauses. ‘Doing the exhibition for the Royal Academy makes one think about these things,’ he says. Looking back, he mentions ‘the enjoyment of working with amazing partners. Starting with Team Four, Norman and Wendy Foster, Sue Rogers, then with Sue, then with Renzo Piano, and then with my partners starting here. Teamwork. I love teamwork.’

As for his individual contribution, he says: ‘I suppose things like the questioning of the brief - the democratisation of the brief; the social responsibility of the brief. Taking Pompidou, the idea of thinking outside of the box, questioning what is a cultural building. Is it a monument, or is it something people participate in? I’m very interested in public space, which is, in a way, cities.’

Since the Pompidou and Lloyd’s, Rogers’ work has been varied and prolific, from pre-fab affordable housing at Oxley Woods to luxury flats for Candy & Candy at One Hyde Park (right), from Barajas airport in Madrid (far right) to London’s Millennium Dome. Rogers won the Pritzker Prize in 2007 and the RIBA Gold Medal in 1985.

Knighted in 1991, Rogers has also been engaged in political life, first as a Labour Peer - appointed in 1996 - then as chair of the UK Urban Task Force, as appointed by the Deputy Prime Minister in 1998. Rogers was also former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone’s architecture and urban adviser, and is design adviser to current mayor Boris Johnson. Rogers claims he still has a strong relationship with Prime Minister David Cameron and Lord Heseltine, and is undoubtedly Britain’s most politically connected architect. His work is characterised by support for densification of cities, the creation of public space, affordable housing and the use of brownfield sites.

Political life perhaps comes naturally to Rogers, who is a product of architecture’s social past. ‘In my generation, everybody who left the AA at the end of the 1950s, as I did, went to work for schools, hospitals, councils,’ he says. ‘That was part of the social responsibility of architects. We were trying to build houses for the heroes who were coming back from the war. There was a search for a better quality of life.’

‘We had a mission then, and that has gone. Making money has become much more important. That has driven a wedge between those who still have a social responsibility and others who go with the flow and think “as long as I’m making money and it pays well, I’m going to do it”.’

But having a social conscience in architecture can prove frustrating. While Rogers has tried to infuse a social generosity into his luxury projects, he has come under fire for what seems an inherent contradiction between his views on social responsibility, climate change and affordable housing and his work on luxury flats, City towers and airports.

Rogers admits that there are limits to what architects can influence. He believes it’s better to question the brief and try to create a generous piece of city than turn down the job.

‘You have to run a business,’ he says. But he also asserts that social and commercial practice are not in contradiction. ‘I have created my own small civil society here,’ he says, referring to Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. ‘We have a constitution; the partners have no ownership of the company and we are structured as a charitable trust. All of us give some aspect of our profits to charity after two years. You can do those things, once you are making some money.

‘Our constitution states certain things like: “We will not get involved in military buildings”. But we have not said that we will only do affordable housing. There must be questions about airports - I keep defending our involvement in airports by saying the problem is not the gas station; there should be a carbon tax.

‘And in a sense, the problem is not luxury housing: there should be less disparity between the poor and the rich. We as architects can do very little about it but, as citizens, we have a responsibility. Everybody plays a little part.’

His advice to young architects is to travel and ‘use your mind and your eyes’, to learn what kind of architecture you like. He adds: ‘People know what kind of music they like, what kind of cars they like. In the same way, you need to learn about the qualities of architecture.’

As for the future of the profession, Rogers believes architectural education should become more specialised.

In his characteristic, quick-fire style, a barrage of ideas, he says: ‘We as architects - and by architects, I mean architects, planners, landscape, urban regeneration specialists, I’m putting them all together - you can question whether our education does that; that’s another hole. I have been talking for years to ministers about how [architecture] should be more like medicine. We should do three years general architecture and then specialise into landscape or urban regeneration. I don’t think you should split three-dimensional planning from three-dimensional architecture, nor do I think you can split [it from] climate change, which often has to do with mechanical services.

‘If we do, the architect ends up isolated and seen as an artist and, although art is a critical part of architecture, it’s not the only part by a long way.’

Rogers also believes that architects, as individuals, must decide what matters most to them in life. He concludes: ‘You have a duty, whether to your family, or your children. Ask me what’s most important, and I would say family. But architecture is my profession.’

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