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An urban message

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Richard Rogers: Complete Works, Volume 2 By Kenneth Powell. Phaidon, 2001. £59.95

Kenneth Powell provides a typically solid and authoritative account of the second phase of the Richard Rogers Partnership (RRP), covering the years 1987-93. Looking back now, it comes over as an era of consolidation and uncertainty, with younger designers being drafted in to aid Rogers and established figures such as Mike Davies and John Young, on projects in cites from Tokyo to London which ranged from small private house designs to huge urban masterplans.

The book suggests RRP was trying to anticipate the shape of things to come - in a sense treading water, waiting for the injection of life that came with the New Labour landslide in 1997. For RRP, this period was marked by a struggle against two negative forces. The first was the dreary rationality of international capitalism - the savage economic downturn that did so much damage to British architectural ambitions. Indeed, this volume could easily have been subtitled 'Architecture in an Age of Recession'.

The second was the crushing cultural banality of Thatcherite politics, reinforced by neo-conservatives who were suddenly full of passionate (but misguided) intensity. Powell rightly emphasises that Rogers was one of the few prominent architects to attack the retrogressive meddling of Prince Charles during that era. Partly this arose because of Rogers' suspicion that Charles had secretly scuppered his scheme for Paternoster Square, but it was also prompted by his socialist, and Italianate, distaste for unelected elites.

This means that there are a lot of unbuilt projects in this volume - in some cases, thankfully so. There are rather too many dullish office designs, and of those that were built, Powell probably overstates the case for such projects as 88 Wood Street and Lloyd's Register of Shipping. It is not that they were not well designed, but just that they added very little to the impact of the Pompidou Centre or the first Lloyd's building. (In a similar way, Heathrow Terminal 5 and Channel 4 also seem somewhat dated. ) We are told that members of RRP do not like the use of the term High-Tech. But so many of their designs lazily perpetuated the myth that the fully-glazed steel- or concreteframed box was the most advanced condition of architecture.

The built projects that stand out are for two legal institutions: the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (though it is a pity that the built version did not match the early models), and the Bordeaux Law Courts. It is the latter, with its primitive and sumptuously curved courtrooms (like giant wine vats), and honeyed surface of wood panelling, which represents the practice's most ambitious attempt in the early '90s to embrace new forms of design (see picture).

The subtext of Powell's book is that he is preparing the reader for the next (and more dramatic) volume, in which Rogers will emerge as a crucial cultural player, brandishing the twin swords of environmental sustainability and urban density. We get hints throughout that in the late '90s, working in uneasy but necessary alliance with the Blair government, Rogers will score big hits with Cities for a Small Planet and the Urban Task Force report.

Powell is right to stress the role of urbanism, since it is the issue on which Rogers excels. He is the only leading architect in Britain who seems genuinely convincing on the need to create denser, livelier cities across the world. His growing theme is of the need to think globally and act urbanistically.

Most of the urban design proposals in the book - whether for Docklands, Berlin, or Shanghai - remain unbuilt. Yet there is a seriousness to Rogers' urban message that has come to exert genuine influence, and full credit should be given to his office's willingness to engage in such speculative and idealist issues. It is not to diminish his earlier contribution in terms of individual buildings, to hope that Rogers' most important work is still to come, and at an urban level.

Dr Murray Fraser teaches at Oxford Brookes University

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