The Rolls-Royce of architecture who was born to break rules

The Rolls-Royce of architecture who was born to break rules: A fond farewell to Millennium Dome designer Richard Rogers after his death at 88

During a brilliant career spanning six decades perhaps Richard Rogers’ least remarkable achievement was to be the architect of ‘Cool Britannia’.

As such he oversaw the design of the Millennium Dome and, along with everyone else involved in the New Labour project, suffered the backlash when the opening night turned into what he called a ‘nightmare of nightmares’.

In fact Lord Rogers, who has died aged 88, was one of the most innovative and influential architects in the world during the second half of the 20th century. 

Like Rolls-Royce, Paul Smith or David Beckham, Rogers was in his own field a British global icon of excellence and style.

During a brilliant career spanning six decades perhaps Richard Rogers’ least remarkable achievement was to be the architect of ‘Cool Britannia’. He is pictured with his wife Ruth

He was also an exemplar of the dictum that a prophet is not always recognised in his own land. His most celebrated – and controversial – creation, the Pompidou Centre, is to be found in the capital of our ancient rivals.

Rogers’ influence went beyond the design of extraordinary buildings. What had started as his London studio’s staff canteen became, under the guidance of his second wife Ruth Rogers, a zeitgeist eating place and Michelin-starred training ground for celebrity chefs. Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Theo Randall cut their teeth at the River Café.

Rogers’ life had drama and exoticism from the very start. He was born in Florence, Italy, in 1933 into what he described as a ‘rather spoiled upper middle class’ Anglo-Italian family. His paternal grandfather was a dentist who had emigrated from England. Young Richard – never Riccardo – had an Anglophile upbringing. 

Opposed to Mussolini and with war looming, the family moved to ‘smoggy and cold’ London, where they lived in far more modest circumstances. It was ‘hell at first’, he later recalled.

His most celebrated – and controversial – creation, the Pompidou Centre, is to be found in the capital of our ancient rivals

An undiagnosed dyslexic, Rogers left school without A-levels. It was not until his National Service that he found his metier. 

Thanks to his ability to speak Italian, he was posted to his mother’s home town of Trieste, under British and US military rule, where he was able to meet an architect cousin, Ernesto Rogers.

While on leave he worked in Ernesto’s office in Milan. Back in the UK, Rogers applied to the Architectural Association to be taken on its diploma course.

In spite of his lack of formal qualifications, he was accepted.

During his studies he met undergraduate Su Brumwell. They married in 1960 and soon after left for America, where Rogers took up a Fulbright scholarship at Yale. While studying there for his Master’s, Rogers met another outstanding British student of architecture called Norman Foster.

Their mutual inspiration and brief working relationship were to have a profound impact on their profession and the world’s urban landscapes.

When they returned to Britain, Rogers and Foster, along with Su Rogers and Foster’s wife Wendy Cheeseman, formed a firm called Team 4. Although the partnership ended before the decade was out, a significant course had been set.

Rogers and Foster became the major figures in a new British-led school of design known as high-tech architecture. It has been called the last major architectural movement of the 20th century.

In 1972, in partnership with the young Italian architect Renzo Piano, who would later design The Shard, Rogers won a competition of 681 entries to design a new cultural centre for Paris.

What would become known as the Pompidou Centre was finished in 1977. But long before, the multi-coloured, six-storey steel and glass leviathan had become the focus of outrage by traditionalists.

Like the Parisian ‘blot’, the Dome – renamed The O2 arena – is now part of the London landscape and used by millions each year. Rogers did not ‘do’ regret, though he could be scathing of others’ projects

Less than a kilometre from Notre Dame, this was a prefabricated temple of the high-tech style inspired by industry, engineering and functionality.

The ‘guts’ had been turned inside out so that air conditioning, electrical and water systems and even the structural load bearing were on the exterior. A glass enclosed escalator zig-zagged outside from ground level to roof.

The centre housed Europe’s largest modern art museum. But it was an artwork and provocation in itself. Le Monde called it ‘an architectural King Kong’.

Rogers said later: ‘The shock of the new is always really rather difficult to get over. All good architecture is modern in its time.’ Parisians have come to love the Pompidou – or at least accept it as an eccentric part of the landscape. After the Pompidou, ‘everything changed’ for Rogers professionally. It had already done so in his private life.

At a dinner party in 1969 he had been introduced to young American design student Ruth Elias. They fell in love and he divorced Su, mother of his three sons. ‘The most painful thing I’ve ever done,’ he said. In 1973 Rogers and Ruth married and he had two more boys, one of whom, Bo, died in 2011.

In 1986 Rogers delivered his second major project, the Lloyd’s building in London. Like the Pompidou, it had its innards on the outside including 12 glass lifts, the first of their kind in the UK

In 1986 Rogers delivered his second major project, the Lloyd’s building in London. Like the Pompidou, it had its innards on the outside including 12 glass lifts, the first of their kind in the UK. 

In 2011 it was given Grade I listed status, the youngest UK building to have received the accolade.

Among a number of distinctive projects, Rogers’ firm designed the European Court of Human Rights building in Strasbourg and Terminal 5 at Heathrow.

He was made a Labour peer in 1997 and became something of a guru to the Blairites. But his involvement as a creative force in what became the Millennium Dome project began during the previous Tory administration. New Labour seized on the plan as a symbol of their political triumph in the age of ‘Cool Britannia’.

Rogers’ firm designed a 365 square metre, glass fibre tent on the Greenwich peninsula.

The structure was to house an exhibition; a mishmash of displays and ideas by other artists and thinkers. Alas, many were lame. Worse was the grand opening, described as ‘one of the greatest PR disasters in history’. 

The great and the good lined up for hours on Millennium Eve and way into the New Year, waiting to get past the hopelessly ill-prepared security. The world fell in on the heads of those linked to the Dome.

For Rogers, it was reminiscent of the opening of the Pompidou Centre. But like the Parisian ‘blot’, the Dome – renamed The O2 arena – is now part of the London landscape and used by millions each year. Rogers did not ‘do’ regret, though he could be scathing of others’ projects.

He loathed the Fenchurch building aka the ‘Walkie Talkie’ in London and lamented Prince Charles’s traditionalist influence. Nor did he apologise for being involved in some of the world’s most expensive private residential developments, such as One Hyde Park, in spite of his Leftist views.

In September 2020, he announced he was stepping down from the practice he founded 43 years earlier. He said: I will enlighten myself and let them [his partners] go ahead.’ His retirement has been a short one. His legacy is profound.

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