At 80 years old, Richard Rogers has a portfolio like no other architect. The Royal Academy’s new retrospective searches for the man behind the Beaubourg, writes Rory Olcayto
Who could argue with the brilliance of Beaubourg, the art gallery in Paris also known as the Centre Pompidou? Looking more like a cartoon chemical factory than anything remotely cultural, with multi-coloured ductwork strapped to its facade, it startled all who laid eyes upon it in 1977 at least as much as the Eiffel Tower had done nearly a century before. Nothing like it had ever been seen, at least not in the heart of Paris. In Archigram’s techno-pop drawings perhaps, or Terry Gilliam’s cartoons for Monty Python, or in the North Sea oilfields where monstrous rigs bristling with pipes had recently been erected. Beaubourg had given modern architecture a very stylish facelift.
Beaubourg’s brilliance, however, was more than skin deep. Its architects, Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, then virtually unknown, had impressed the jury – Jean Prouvé, Philip Johnson, Jørn Utzon, Oscar Niemeyer et al – with their radical plan to give half of the site in the down-at-heel inner city district over to a public square, and maximise the remaining plot by sticking structure and services on the outside. That way the floorplates would be column-free and unencumbered by mechanical plant. Yet the most startling aspect of all is that Rogers, often presented as Beaubourg’s lone author, hadn’t wanted to bid for it. The competition was organised by the French government, and Rogers, who had fostered a loathing of establishment figures since childhood, felt nothing good would come of it. But his colleagues convinced him otherwise and thus a legend was born.
Beaubourg’s inside-out design has come to symbolise the Rogers way of doing things
Beaubourg’s inside-out design has come to symbolise the Rogers way of doing things. It doesn’t matter that its claims of flexibility have since been discredited; exposing services to the elements has proved rather costly and much of the open floorplates have been filled in to make them more useful as galleries. When he was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 2007, a Guardian leader column praising Rogers’ talents began: ‘He turns buildings inside-out…’ This year, the Royal Academy of Arts’ huge retrospective of Rogers’ life and work, is called Inside Out too. The Academy has even installed three huge brightly coloured ducts outside its Piccadilly home to alert passers-by to its big summer event.
Inside Out coincides with the architect’s 80th birthday and comes just five years after the Deyan Sudjic-curated show at the Design Museum. Those who visited that one, either at Shad Thames or in its expanded version in Beaubourg itself in 2007, may be disappointed to find key exhibits have been used once again. The giant pink-sprayed Terminal 5 knuckle joint model for example, or the wonderful photo from 1960 of Rogers and Norman Foster in hats and winter coats at Yale University.
For Inside Out, once again designed by Rogers’ son Ab, the curators are historian Jeremy Melvin and Rogers’ communications chief and former CABEspace director Sarah Gaventa. And despite the overlap with Sudjic’s show, they have gathered enough new stuff here to lure you in. Their retrospective sets out to explore in great depth ‘this leader of modern design’, by focusing on key projects and using previously unseen archival material, drawings and personal items including those of his childhood in Florence to present an intimate portrait.
Inside Out comprises two main exhibition rooms and a third forum space for evening lectures. Before you enter these rooms however, a bright pink landing zone shows a film of Rogers on loop alongside wall prints of his ethos, founded on fairness and collaboration, and his workplace constitution, which guides all aspects of his creativity. The exhibition rooms are packed with a number of intricate models of built and unbuilt works, some wall-mounted, others on red aluminium tables. White metal posters on the walls, seven in total, provide themes around which the content has been grouped. Some are poetic, ‘A sense of time and place’; some worthy, ‘Do more with less’; others a bit policy wonkish, ‘Democratising the brief’. Each has a loose enough meaning to allow any Rogers project to fit comfortably within it. A Dado level steel shelf which lines both exhibition rooms however, is the most interesting feature of Inside Out. It works like a scrapbook with personal items that reveal something of the man and those closest to him: a photo of a young modish Rogers you might mistake for Terence Stamp. The infamous AA report cards that dismiss his chances of success (but which also show that despite failing all other classes he did pass ‘services’ – which seems comically fitting, given the buildings he would go on to produce).
There is a snapshot of Ruth Rogers on a Vietnam War protest march, a letter from prime minister Thatcher’s secretary informing Rogers she would not be able to attend his 1986 Academy show ‘London as it could be’, alongside another from Rogers to Labour leader Neil Kinnock asking him to come, and a set of coloured pencils, a 75th birthday gift from Foster. Other notable curiosities include newspaper cuttings of his scuffles with Prince Charles and a snap of Rogers – Baron Rogers of Riverside – outside of the House of Lords. There’s even a poem by Craig Raine dedicated to Ruth Rogers in memory of son Bo, who died two years ago, aged just 27. It is a reminder of just how public Rogers has made his life.
Famously, Rogers has no talent for drawing although there are many great drawings to see in Inside Out. Two isometric studies by Jan Kaplicky, who worked for Rogers before he began Future Systems, stand out. As there are none of his own sketches, the best evidence of Rogers design contributions are his notebook scrawls outlining his building ideas: for his unbuilt Tokyo forum project for example, a diary entry outlines his thoughts. The phrase ‘a new type of meeting place’ is just about decipherable.’ (Rogers is up-front about his dyslexia, and there is a copy of an advert for the British Dyslexia Association he did on the shelf.)
How can you always tell a Richard Rogers building when you see one?
Yet, given his skill as a politician – and there is much to see about his role as a government and mayoral advisor on cities, his stint as chairman of the Tate Trustees and of the Architectural Foundation too – and his ability to build strong teams around him, there is little sense of how he works his magic. How, for example, can you always tell a Richard Rogers building when you see one, when evidently he doesn’t ‘design’ it in the manner we expect of an architect? How exactly do his buildings come about?
There is one exhibit worth the £8 entry fee alone: the original competition drawing of Beaubourg, the magnificent section-cum-elevation that so enthused the jury (although Johnson complained there was a lack of plans). For architectural nerds it is like a holy relic: sacred, numinous, a real Turin Shroud.
Beaubourg looms over every other exhibition in the show. Literally in the case of the pink gerberette gifted to Rogers by Piano for his 80th birthday. Its importance to Rogers’ development as an architect and urbanist is fundamental. Besides the inside-out strategy, all its other key aspects have come to embody the essence of Rogers’ methods too: the focus on cultural and leisure activities and landmark icons to regenerate inner cities; the reliance on talented collaborators to see through his vision; and, despite his self-proclaimed resistance to aligning with authority, a habit of doing exactly that, time after time. Yet while all these points surface in the Academy’s enjoyable show, none of them is made explicitly. Instead we get woolly maxims defining Rogers’ buildings such as: ‘A place for all the people’.
Just one quote reproduced on the walls is genuinely provocative: ‘What I stand for is far more important than what I have achieved.’ It is a strange claim to make, a kind of inverse to ‘action speaks louder than words’ and hints at the naivety that shapes Rogers’ outlook. It is perhaps a mild confession that his legacy has been co-opted by forces beyond his control, that his buildings do not mean what he meant them to mean. Despite Inside Out’s feel-good vibe – naturally, it is a celebration, and Rogers’ practice covered much of the cost – Rogers remains a divisive figure with a portfolio no other architect, not even Foster or Frank Gehry can match in terms of symbolic power. His keynote projects through the decades perfectly capture the spirit of the times in which they were built. Beaubourg in hindsight, seems a fitting monument to wild creativity tamed by market forces, as if the explosive youth culture of the ’60s had been capitalised, boxed and ribbon-wrapped within Rogers’ factory of dreams.
In the ’80s, as regenerations took hold, Rogers monumentalised the emerging market economy. His new building for Lloyd’s became a symbol of London’s renewed status as a global banking centre, and while its pipework and ducts resembled the Pompidou, this time it was shorn of colour, much like an actual oil rig. The metaphor was ripe: the industrialisation of financial services was under way, while heavy industry elsewhere in the UK was strip-mined and ditched, a process smoothed over with North Sea profits. It remains a magnificent building and a startling feat of design, but its cruel iconography is hard to shake.
Similarly, in the ’90s, the Millennium Dome, a smartly engineered tent with nothing much inside, for those on the left at least, became a symbol of New Labour’s empty promises, despite the project’s Tory origins as a turn-of-the-century big top. That it was to be reworked in the noughties as The O, a music venue with cinemas, restaurants and bars, and ubiquitous corporate sponsorship – the ingredients cities now crave when rebranding and which grew out of Rogers’ policy reports for Tony Blair’s Urban Task Force in the ’90s – has only served to further enhance its status as a very contemporary icon. Heathrow’s Terminal 5, another Rogers’ icon for the noughties, is also a tricky sell: a temple to fossil fuel transport in an age of carbon cutbacks.
Then, in 2011, came One Hyde Park – a building for which few are willing to make excuses. Billed by its brokers, the Candy Brothers, as the world’s most expensive apartment block, the multi-storey west London development perfectly embodies London’s out-of-control property market, distorted by a global oligarchy who use international property hotspots to bank and grow their savings. A similar scheme alongside Tate Modern, NEO Bankside, which deploys decorative structure as a form of brand recognition for investors – ‘you too can have your own Richard Rogers’ – suggests the firm’s socialist roots have long since been ploughed over.
It’s hardly news: the closer you are to real power – property magnates, banking elites, airport chiefs, presidents and prime ministers – the greater the risk of being turned inside out. Rogers’ gilded portfolio is surely proof of that.
Richard Rogers RA: Inside Out, Royal Academy of Arts, 6 Burlington Gardens, London W1S 3ET, adult £8 concessions available