Charles Wright: London still needs the bold urban vision of Richard Rogers

Charles Wright: London still needs the bold urban vision of Richard Rogers

Richard Rogers, who died shortly before Christmas, was a global “starchitect”, quintessentially cosmopolitan, above all a Londoner and rightly celebrated, in Sadiq Khan’s tribute, as the “brilliant mind” behind some of the capital’s “most iconic buildings”.

Rogers’s “inside-out” Lloyd’s building, following the still-extraordinary Pompidou Centre in Paris which made his name, remains a distinctively modern, powerful and challenging City landmark some 35 years after its completion. And from the Mossbourne Academy in Hackney to Heathrow Terminal 5, the spectacular Leadenhall Building – or “Cheesegrater” once the tallest building in the City’s skyscraper cluster, to the Millennium Dome, his work has been central to London’s post-1980 renaissance.

His influence goes further. Rogers’s notion of a compact, polycentric, walkable city – a “15-minute” city well before that idea was popularised – set out in writings, lectures, and in his 1986 Royal Academy exhibition “London As It Could Be”, underpins strategic planning in the capital to this day.

Those radical 1986 proposals, including a linear park along the Thames with the Embankment’s traffic sunk in a tunnel below, and pedestrianising the north side of Trafalgar Square, didn’t find favour and led to frustration with the lack of strategic government in the city. Typically, Rogers channelled this into A New London, a polemic published in 1992 written with the MP Mark Fisher, later to become arts minister in the first Tony Blair government. It pushed city mayor proposals which came to fruition at the turn of the century.

After advising the new government on policies for regenerating the UK’s long-declining cities, Rogers was invited to meet the newly-elected first London Mayor, Ken Livingstone. “Ken waved a copy of Richard’s Urban Task Force report, which had been published the previous year, saying ‘I want you to do this in London’”, recalls Richard Brown, in a warm and astute reminiscence of his time working with Rogers in City Hall’s new architecture and urbanism Unit and after.

It was a unique chance for Rogers to promote real change in the city he loved, under a Mayor who both welcomed economic and population growth within London’s boundaries and embraced sustainability. The vision he set out in the unit’s first prospectus still resonates – high-density mixed-use development on brownfield sites, with design underpinning sustainability and social integration rather than the polarisation he had long criticised.

Tall buildings and development around transport hubs were very much in the mix, as they are in today’s planning battles. “We should worry more about low ceilings and less about high buildings (which can improve London’s unremarkable skyline, especially if grouped in clusters),” Rogers wrote.

Faced with the “trundling beasts of public sector procurement”, as Brown recalls, things didn’t always go to plan. “Richard often became frustrated (“Where are my million trees? Where are our 100 Public Spaces?”), exploding that he was wasting his time or, more amiably, deciding he had had enough and we all needed to go out for lunch or to the pub”.

Rogers came to see his time at the GLA as “something of a missed opportunity”. But, as Brown concludes, his concepts “had a long afterlife and the cultural changes in how design and planning are done in London government were subtle but profound. The legacy is still there”.

Certainly the London Plan, City Hall’s overall development blueprint for the capital, has remained infused by Rogers’s vision under successive Mayors. The battles Rogers fought to curb car use, to develop around transport hubs and, most memorably, with Prince Charles who intervened in 2009 to oppose his “unsympathetic” steel and glass apartments scheme for Chelsea Barracks, remain current too.

Is the tide turning against the sort of iconoclasm Rogers displayed particularly in his early works as the government seeks to enshrine a particular notion of “beauty” in the planning system and the “war of the suburbs” over tall buildings, local “character” and car parks rages? Rogers’s commitment to sustainability, to the liveable city, is probably not so far from that of his critics. But, importantly, he continued to contend that architecture was an “evolving language” of technology and materials, not fixed in any one time or desirable style, as he argued Charles would have it.

As he said of his own Leadenhall tower, going up in 2014 across from the Lloyd’s building and the historic Victorian Leadenhall market: “I believe very much in a dialogue between buildings…Buildings have different identities and live very well next to each other. We always have the shock of the new and that’s fine.”

Above all, as Brown says, Rogers had “brilliant ideas and – an overused word but right in his case – a vision for what places and societies could be”. And, at least partially, he was able to make that vision a reality, leaving London better than he found it. Facing an uncertain future again, the capital needs such advocates.

Photograph of Richard Rogers from Wikimedia Commons/Dezeen

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Categories: Comment

2 Comments

  1. I have mixed feelings about this . Too many cities lose their individuality by building clusters of tower blocks : Grenfell and the attacks on New York towers and IRA attacks on London , make me wary of building towers . The quality of post-war towers was low , many have had to be demolished . Are more recent towers more durable or not ? Historically , attempts by architects to impose their visions London-wide have not worked . London thrives on its huge variety of buildings . The renewal of central London seems to benefit the global rich ; London is divided now more perhaps than ever .

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