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Rogers and Alsop on the role of the architect

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So what is the role of the architect? A tough question, and one laboured over by Will Alsop and Lord Rogers one sweltering evening earlier this week at Libeskind's new summer pavilion for the Serpentine Gallery in central London. The pair offered tortuous interpretations but, as the sun went down on Hyde Park, they failed to provide the 200-strong audience with a straight answer.

Chaired by cities programme director at the London School of Economics Ricky Burdett, the event kicked off a series of summer debates on urban design run by the Architecture Foundation.

Reclining in comfy chairs as casually as if they were debating last night's cricket score, Alsop and Rogers pondered the question in relation to architecture and public life in cities such as London, Birmingham and Manchester. Although inequality was rife throughout society, they agreed there was 'extra inequality' in the architecture of these sprawling urban landscapes. However, differences rapidly surfaced over the ways in which disengaged city dwellers could be drawn into urban planning.

Lord Rogers insisted an architect's mission was to act as a kind of cultural fairy godmother, to make cultural integration physically possible and (arguably of greatest significance) desirable to the man in the street. Unfortunately, his explanations were occasionally more complex than the questions they were intended to answer. 'I want people to jump to the next level of visual creative innovation, ' Lord Rogers said. 'Our job is to link architecture to the shape of the environment in which people live and excite people in that process.'

Predictably, the politicians were the bad guys, letting the side down, not delivering on their promises, even attempting by stealth to disenfranchise the public in the debate over urban architecture. 'In Europe there is a physical link between life and architecture and consequently a greater drop in urban crime, ' said Lord Rogers.

'Civic pride is clearly evident. If it can be done in Europe it can be done here in the UK.'

Alsop was clearly itching for the mike, eager to brush aside all this talk of decentralisation and Rogers' apparent fondness for the spread of new towns such as Milton Keynes. 'Surely, there has to be an edge, a clear definition of what is in and out of London. At the moment the only thing that defines the capital's edge is the M25. Please, no more building beyond the M25 and let's see a lot more brown field construction within the perimeter.'

All very well, interjected Ricky Burdett, but what was the answer to the real question - the role of the architect? Alsop had a definition held right up his sleeve. 'The role of the architect', he declared, 'is to respond to the needs of both the users of a building and the passer-by who uses the space between buildings. But it doesn't end there.

The architect must react beyond the needs of the passer-by to reach the life, work and leisure of the communities to which we have a responsibility.'

Lord Rogers and Will Alsop were speaking at the first of a series of summer debates run by the Architecture Foundation

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