Prose & Politics
Upon entering the latest Richard Rogers exhibition, ‘Inside Out’ at the Royal Academy, London, you’ll find yourself entombed by large Day-Glo walls plastered with bold type. A chorus of political buzzwords radiate from these walls – ETHOS, CONSTITUTION, COLLABORATION, ETC – indicating the policies of the protagonists and his party. The prose teeters on being archaic in its simplistic conveyance of social advancement; it’s something you’d imagine a Victorian social reformer to preach to impecunious orphans. Richard Rogers has certainly eaten his Quaker Oats, for his architectural practice is all about DEMOCRACY and FAIRNESS. This can be construed in two different ways: the way practice is run, and the way the architecture serves les masses. Firstly, there is plenty to admire in the very egalitarian principles that govern Richard Rogers, Stirk, Harbour Architects, especially in their co-operative policy. Unfortunately, the architectural and urban proposals create a very mixed picture that flies in the face of the bold optimistic maxims that he pontificates. Complexity and contradiction rule supreme in the Republic of Richard Rogers, unfortunately it’s not quite what Robert Venturi had in mind.
Civic space forms the meta-narrative that runs through the exhibition, and much of Roger’s rhetoric. The notion of civility is expressed in a number of phrases –places for all people, democratized space – and is hammered into you throughout the show. The use of the word civil is revealing, as it expresses a certain paternalistic yet autocratic idea of space.
Part of this narrative relates to how Rogers has been influenced by the civic spaces in his home city of Florence. Having sauntered around Florence, I can state that this is a tenuous comparison. The public spaces of Florence are abundant with multiplicities, and despite often being large in scale they’re very intimate. The ‘civic spaces’ found within Roger’s buildings are vast expanses of rectilinear land. They’re like open air sheds – Rogers is a shed architect par excellence, and that’s no insult – and follow the same simplistic formula: a large commercial mass with a vast blank public space in front.
Rogers’ notion of civic space is equally simplistic and comes with a hint of the petite-bourgeois, usually involving coffee, museums and shops. This is represented in the exhibition by a large blank room, featuring a man peddling coffee. He is also pedalling coffee – a bicycle generator powers the coffee-machine. Residing in the corner is the Shanghai Master plan. This is a huge top-down urban proposal, based around a large public void, crowded by a circle of symmetrically massed buildings. If you want to be reminded how tyrannical symmetry can be on a large-scale, take a brief stroll down to the Thames to see Terry Farrell’s MI5 building in all is gauche glory. This proposal manages to funnel all the negative facets of Roger’s urban ideas – ham-fisted classicism, imposing hierarchy -into one project. The resultant plan resembles a steroidal version of Paris’ Place de l’Étoile, which is indicative of a bizarre form of classical symmetry that often finds its way into Roger’s urban proposals. On the other side of the room are images relating to his work for the Urban Task Force; a series of strategies aimed at combating urban sprawl whilst developing mixed use, polycentric cities. It’s pragmatic, combining bottom up and top down planning, and sits in complete contrast to the Shanghai scheme.
In lieu of becoming too negative it must be noted that Roger’s has produced some very decent public spaces, allowing the masses to mill about in unique ways. Examples include the Cardiff Welsh Assembly building – a giant translucent shed that allows the public look down on the parliamentary chambers and the ‘piazza’ in front of the Pompidou Centre, allowing for all manner of public spectacles. One of practices latest projects, the Leadenhall building, more widely known as the Cheesegrater, is by far the most interesting of the batch of attention seeking skyscrapers currently cropping up in London, for two simple reasons. Firstly, it actually creates an open public space located on the ground, and not some pay-per-view, viewing platform (the Shard), and secondly it’s massing actually relates to its surroundings by responding to views of St. Pauls.
Unfortunately, for every great public space that Rogers and his practice bestow on the world, there’s a bevy of pseudo-modernist office blocks, and uppermarket towers. This is practically damning as Rogers presents his architecture as being democratic and beneficial for all city dwellers, yet here he is creating some of the most anti-urban forms of architecture imaginable. By adopting the rhetoric of a grand social reformer, but one who creates exuberantly priced vertical cul-de-sacs, Richard Roger’s comes of like an architectural Falstaff – hypocritical in an almost cartoonish manner.
This exhibition is just as much about Richards Rogers the human being as Richard Rogers the architect, and comes complete with a menagerie of personal paraphernalia that help colour his life. Like all good politicians he uses his personal experiences and inspiration to aid the grand-narratives that he wants his work to fit into. So we see worn copies of books by Buckminster Fuller, and various environmental prophets that relate to his love of technology and environmental concerns. For a man who uses so much steel and glass that last one is obviously bogus. They’re photos of him posing outside the Maison de Verre that relate to his love of transparency and industrial components; they’re construction drawings by Brunelleschi that signify his love of building techniques. Most of these are fair parallels but there is a host of other influences and forbears, which are barely mentioned, if at all.
Le Corbusier’s 1924 utopian proposal, the Ville Radieuse, has clearly influenced a platitude of different small-scale urban master plans that the Rogers’ firm has been involved in; the majority being expensive vertical penthouses located in London. They’re publicly inaccessible objects placed in a ‘green’, ‘public’ field, usually consisting of the same repeated symmetrical shape. This was what was so amusing about the Chelsea Barracks furore, which saw the meddlesome Prince Charles
Gotha Saxe Coburg successfully have the project cancelled. Rogers’ proposal was a 90-year-old modernist scheme decorated with hi-tech mannerism, and some green roofs; it was almost as archaic as the classically inspired scheme that the Dauphin had drawn up as a possible replacement.
Another omnipresent influence that is barely mentioned is Russian Constructivism. I actually found myself agreeing with one of the exhibitions brightly coloured billboard that simply states “Buildings of all epochs celebrated the technology of which they were built“. It is this celebration of contemporary technology that can be found in Constructivism and in many of Roger’s most beguiling projects. The Vesnin Brothers proposal for the Leningradskaya Pravda newspaper offices, 1924, acts as precursor to many of Roger’s buildings. Most noticeably in the way it boldly displays its technological components and structural framework.
Interestingly, the aforementioned project by the Vesnin Brothers predates one facet of Roger’s architecture that he never mentions – the use of technological components as a type of hi-tech ornamentation. The electronic equipment that clad the Vesnin Brother’s newspaper tower would in reality be rendered functionless due to severity of the Moscow climate. In many of Rog’s buildings the hi-tech equipment has become completely useless. The cranes that adorn the Lloyds building are testament to this fact, having never been used, and the exterior placement of the pipework has in reality proved to be very nonfunctional. In many subsequent buildings, Rogers and Co give their work the appearance of flexibility when they are completely static and unadaptable. This is an interesting post-modern quality (more in the architectural, not philosophical sense) that is rarely discussed. In fact the Lloyd’s building is outrageously PoMo, as it directly quotes Joseph Paxton’s famous Crystal Palace, which has often been acknowledged as a major influence for Rogers.
Rogers’ best work seems to be the result of an unabashed celebration of modern technology, coupled with a series of challenging functional requirements. A couple of Japanese projects demonstrate this, for example the Kabuki-Cho offices in Tokyo is forced to respond to strict planning regulations, provide lighting to a commercial area and withstand earthquakes. The result is a fantastic assortment of metallic armatures that swarm around a vertical circulation tower.
Another project in a similar vein is the Tomigaya Exhibtion Building, that has thankfully been given a prominent place in a the show as a ‘proper’ model, and as a mechano maquette. This unbuilt project is partially shaped by the neighbouring highway, and by the need to maximise the flow of wind to power the buildings internal wind turbine. These intriguing projects are in complete contrast to the repetitive and vacuous offices/luxury flats that the office has become known for in more recent times.
In similar vein we have the Pompidou Centre, which is often presented as being a built manifestation of Cedric Price’s Fun Palace. The only real similarities is that both projects reveal their structural components; Price’s Fun Palace was designed to be adapted by the visitor’s cultural needs, whereas the Pompidou dictates what cultural attractions the visitor can experience. A more appropriate term for the Pomp would be the people’s palace – a transparent building that transforms the movement of the visitors into a piece of theatre, via the elevate conveyor belts floating above the huge public square.
Wondering through the exhibition is a schizophrenic experience; you feel both admiration and exasperation for the displayed works. Unfortunately, the brightly coloured boards of Roger’s rubbish rhetoric that litter the exhibition, only make matters worse, as they attempt to frame the projects within a moral narrative. Augustus Pugin was a British architect who in many ways is as fore bearer for Richard Rogers, especially in his espousal of Gothic structure and the honesty of materials. Unfortunately, Rogers has also inherited Pugin’s architectural moralising – the 19th century architect declared that stucco covered buildings were immoral, as they hid their structural material. Rogers and his practice, has in my opinion, produced work that far surpasses his fellow native hi-teckers, such as Norman Foster and Nicholas Grimshaw, but like his contemporaries he has produced some dire, formulaic pap. It’s a shame to see him sully his many decent buildings by forcing them into incompatible moral, and political narratives.