‘A Place for All People’ begins in July of 1971. Narrated by Richard Rogers, it is a passionate tale of a young British architect and his friend and colleague Renzo Piano, and their sheer surprise at winning the Centre Pompidou competition with their brilliantly left-field entry which had at its heart Rogers’ philosophy of adaptability, affordability and colour. It lit up and brought cultural life to an otherwise run-down Paris neighbourhood. It also gave Rogers his career break.
Up until then, Rogers had been designing minor residential buildings. He writes of that moment: ‘Ruthie and I dashed around London collecting partners and passports – we had so little work on that people weren’t coming into the office – and made it over to Paris just in time to join the celebration dinner.’
The competition had been to design a cultural centre in this neglected urban area. Rogers and Piano’s flexible structure had at its centre a public piazza. The young architects’ vision wasn’t for a ‘temple for high culture’, but rather a more utopian one. ‘A public space for all people, he writes, ‘a place driven by social and political responsibility.’
‘A Place for All People’ is part autobiography, part cultural manifesto. It is a collage of Rogers’ life, his work and crucially his ideology – his utopian vision to help forge better, fairer societies through architecture and design. He writes ‘architecture is inescapably social and political’. For many who may question this in connection to his more commercial buildings, most notably the Lloyds Building in the City of London, a stark symbol of capitalism, he has this to offer: ‘[it] was designed as a flexible machine for a financial marketplace, but also as a carefully considered expression of those activities, designed both for the user and the enjoyment of the passer-by.’
Born in Florence in 1933 to atheist Italian parents – his father a doctor, his mother a potter – Rogers was exposure to culture, travel, ideas from a young age. The family fled to London and then Surrey just before the war and; his childhood a mix harsh boarding school years, less harsh day school and exploring Europe, mainly Italy before embarking on a career in architecture.
Like him or not – and there are many who form the latter group – Rogers is one of the most interesting living architects of our time. For he is unpredictable both ideologically and stylistically – never being stylised or finding that fixed signature style in the way of other ‘starchitects’ like Frank Gehry.
Study his most famous civic and public buildings: the Pompidou Centre to the Lloyds Building, Madrid Barajas airport and Heathrow Terminal 5. They all make their own bold visual statements yet share very little else. Unlike most architects who profess to being collaborative designers, Rogers work, from the start, has been about collaboration. It is about the wider thinking of his practice. It is more about the building than the architect. It is about responding to its place and the use of space. Perhaps this explains this absence of a signature style.
Throughout the pages of this engaging book, Rogers writes passionately of architecture’s role in shaping society. ‘Architecture creates shelter and transforms the ordinary,’ he writes. ‘Good architecture civilises and humanises, bad architecture brutalises.’ Once a radical thinker, even if his work may no longer reflect that, Rogers remains an idealist and an architect who has left his bold vision on the architectural map.