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Review: Richard Rogers Complete Works Volume Three

Richard Rogers Complete Works: Volume Three By Kenneth Powell.Phaidon, 2006. 320pp.£59.95

 

The dust jacket of this third volume of Kenneth Powell’s celebration of the work of Richard Rogers and his practice is golden; the first was blue and the second green, so perhaps a sunset fourth volume can be expected.

 

On page 304 of the book, which covers the years 1993 to 2005, Powell writes ‘RRP is certainly not a practice given to repeating itself’ - but this is not the case with Powell’s writing.

 

Those who have studied the previous two volumes will find much that is familiar by way of information in the three new essays: ‘Richard Rogers Partnership Today’, ‘A Political Career’ and ‘The Way Forward’.

 

What is almost entirely missing from the book is a critical discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the architectural approach that characterises the subject of these extended monographs.

 

A hint at what might be involved comes in the penultimate sentence of the book: ‘But where Richard Rogers diverges from other visionary exponents of change - Archigram and Cedric Price included - is that his work is indelibly linked to a view of the city as the foundation of civilised life.’ That surely is a characteristic of Rogers’ polemic, and an optimism about the continuities of certain kinds of urban behaviour pervades his practice’s planning proposals and the detailed design of many of its buildings.

 

Other laudable qualities, which Powell properly highlights, include the rigour with which complex building types can be reduced to comprehensible organisations that allow for rational construction and ease of orientation - the Terminal Building at Barajas Airport, Madrid, is an example. Then there is the sheer technical expertise brought to bear in realising projects which often have bespoke components that are later absorbed into mainstream building production, and the increasing concern to reconcile the question of environmental sustainability with the use of sophisticated technology.

 

And the creation and nurturing of an office culture over several decades is an achievement in itself - both the retention of skilled and loyal staff and the fostering of younger talents who have gone on to found their own practices.

 

Rogers is obviously an inspiration to his colleagues, and has extended his inuence beyond the professional arena to the wider theatre of urban policy-making at a national and indeed international scale.

 

‘Richard Rogers, like many great architects, is no draughtsman, ’ wrote Powell in the first volume of his study.

 

But all the great architects I can think of do draw, memorably if sometimes idiosyncratically. It is not that they are artists, but the process of drawing reveals the complicated relationships that they analyse, in existing environments and in the proposals that they are investigating, between fabric and light, profile and mass, building form, nature and human activity.

 

Others do this in Rogers’ practice, but his role seems to be more one of an inspirer and critic, a distance that allows him to claim, of one of his own practice’s buildings (the Strasbourg Law Courts), that it ‘will be one of the great public buildings of the 21st century’.

 

In this respect (but not others), perhaps he is like Gropius: a truly remarkable team-builder whose name is secure in the history books, but whose most memorable buildings, necessarily the product of ‘team-work’, probably emerged in the imagination of others.

 

One can communicate ideas to one’s colleagues by words as well as by drawings, but drawing acts more importantly as a process of selfreection and meditation. And it is this quality that one misses in the work - the sense that not everything can be resolved by technique. Such critical questions are hardly new, and one might expect them to be addressed in an extended monograph, but unfortunately Powell’s text avoids them, thereby doing a disservice to his subject. We have to content ourselves with sentences which begin: ‘RRP’s work is in many respects about problem solving?’

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