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Rogers in 'social cleansing' furore

A high-profile lecture by Lord Rogers this month will be targeted by a radical protest group claiming his political work has been instrumental in promoting 'social cleansing' - the process of sweeping away people sleeping rough and other street communities in the name of creating better public spaces.

The group Transgressive Architecture is led by an unnamed academic and is likely to be joined by rough sleepers and street entertainers on 14 March. It is critical of Rogers-inspired policy on improving public spaces in cities, and says that by shutting down parks used for public sex acts, criminalising street vending and clearing public spaces of the homeless, the government has put the openness and diversity of public space under threat. It also accuses the architectural profession of 'complicity' through its failure to speak out against 'social cleansing'.

Lord Rogers' arrival at the RIBA lecture on 'The city and the architect's role' will be disrupted by the group, which plans to drape images of sex cruising, rough sleeping and street vending across the steps and pavement of 66 Portland Place, alongside quotes from Lord Rogers' work. The installation-cumprotest comes soon after London's Russell Square was locked at night to deter people from having sex in public and street vendors were cleared from Oxford Street.

The group is opposing Lord Rogers' political work, in particular because it believes his Urban Task Force report for Labour limits the uses to which public space can be put.

The report has been broadly adopted by the government and states that each space should have its own 'specific set of functions'. It lists outdoor eating, street entertainment, sport, play areas, civic or political functions, walking and sitting-out as particular uses. This is too prescriptive for Transgressive Architecture and it says it denies the rights of marginal groups to decide on the use of urban spaces.

'The way these people create a new use for space is no different from traditional planners and developers, ' the group's leader said. 'They are all architects because they all transgress or change their space, only their ability to read the possibilities and limitations is far beyond that of architects and urban planners. With projects like the Great Court at the British Museum, politicians and architects claim we are getting new public spaces, but how different are they from the semipublic space of a shopping mall?'

University College London professor of planning Michael Edwards backed the group's stance.

'Richard Rogers seems quite libertarian and happy to see a city full of creative and sometimes ugly things as part of life's rich texture. But he also seems to be part of a 'clean the city up' campaign, for which there is enormous pressure from property developers. If he is going to support Ken Livingstone and a general agenda of social inclusion then he should be careful to not get too hooked up with the cleansing brigade.'

Pankaj Patel, partner in Patel Taylor Architects, said clients and local authorities must allow time for architects to consider the range of uses which any public space should have. 'If there is demand for any activity then it will happen somewhere, so why not design for it?' he said. 'People flogging a bit of cheap perfume is not a bad thing - it creates a crowd and activity.'

Lord Rogers was unavailable for comment on his position.

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