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Richard Rogers: 'We had a mission, and that has gone'

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Speaking out in a video interview conducted by AJ editor Christine Murray, Richard Rogers discusses greed in the profession, navigates the moral issues surrounding airports and City towers, and describes how his practice has tethered its commercial success with the practice’s social ethos.

Shot on the occasion of the 79-year-old architect winning the AJ100 Contribution to the Profession award, Rogers discusses his early life in the profession, and the social vocation for architects that existed at that time:

‘In my generation, everybody who left the AA at the end of the 1950s, as I did, went to work for schools, hospitals, councils,’ he says. ‘That was part of the social responsibility of architects. We were trying to build houses for the heroes who were coming back from the war. There was a search for a better quality of life.’

‘We had a mission then, and that has gone. Making money has become much more important. That has driven a wedge between those who still have a social responsibility and others who go with the flow and think “as long as I’m making money and it pays well, I’m going to do it”.’

‘The problem is not luxury housing: there should be less disparity between the poor and the rich.’

Rogers also admits that he has come under pressure for what seems an inherent contradiction between his views on social responsibility, climate change and affordable housing and his work on luxury flats, City towers and airports.In the interview, Rogers says that there are limits to what architects can influence. He believes it’s better to question the brief and try to create a generous piece of city than turn down the job:

‘You have to run a business,’ he says. But he also asserts that social and commercial practice are not in contradiction. ‘I have created my own small civil society here,’ he says, referring to Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. ‘We have a constitution; the partners have no ownership of the company and we are structured as a charitable trust. All of us give some aspect of our profits to charity after two years. You can do those things, once you are making some money.

‘Our constitution states certain things like: “We will not get involved in military buildings”. But we have not said that we will only do affordable housing. There must be questions about airports - I keep defending our involvement in airports by saying the problem is not the gas station; there should be a carbon tax.

‘And in a sense, the problem is not luxury housing: there should be less disparity between the poor and the rich. We as architects can do very little about it but, as citizens, we have a responsibility. Everybody plays a little part.’

Rogers was interviewed live on stage at the AJ100 dinner on 8 May at 8 Northumberland Place, where Rogers praised the AJ for its work in promoting the role of the architect. ‘The AJ supports us,’ Rogers said.

The video interview took place at the Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners offices in Hammersmith. A model of Centre Pompidou can be seen behind Rogers.

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