Britain's urban gardener

January 26, 1996

Architect Richard Rogers has a vision of greener, healthier British cities; a vision the powers-that-be do not share. Kam Patel talked to him about Britain's disregard for culture.

If an architect's home can be considered a personal statement, Sir Richard Rogers's dwelling in Chelsea expresses his belief in an architecture more akin, as he has said, to jazz or poetry than "frozen music".

Standing on the corner overlooking the King's Road, the Rogerses' modernist home is the result of two five-storey terraced houses being knocked into one. "Arresting features," as estate agents would say, include a large stainless steel "island" in the huge living/kitchen area, a spiral staircase that connects all five floors and a spectacular double height open space at first-floor level that rises seven metres. With the judicious use of lighting, the overall impression is one of movement.

The creation of such "indeterminate" architecture, challenging the viewer's spatial awareness, has been a central theme of the 62-year-old architect's career; a constant of the various collaborations he has been involved in with front-rank architects ranging from Norman Foster to Renzo Piano, his partner for the Pompidou Centre project in Paris.

Team 4, Rogers's original team, launched in 1964, included Rogers, his first wife Su and Norman and Wendy Foster. Just before the creation of Rogers's latest partnership, he and Foster met to decide whether the two, who had by now firmly established themselves as leading architects in their own right, ought to get "married" again. They decided against. Why? Sir Richard says: "I suppose the main difficulty was that we were both a bit too mature by that time - I think we were enjoying our independence too much. We had really just become our own masters, I suppose."

Much of Rogers's architectural thinking has been driven by a desire to react to changing environments. And he certainly sees immense change taking place now. The emerging need, he says, is for architects to look at environmental problems in global terms. "From technology to ecology" is a phrase Rogers has dreamt up to convey his theories on the ideal relationship between buildings and the environment, a relationship based on the view that technological muscle, if deployed sensibly, can help rather than hinder moves to cut pollution.

Proposing ways of improving the quality of city life, particularly in London, has consumed his time recently. The Richard Rogers Partnership has already been given the task of face-lifting the capital's South Bank cultural centre but Rogers wants to do much more. He has energetically pushed his Millennium proposal, a bold plan to semi-pedestrianise Trafalgar Square and Northumberland Avenue. The two areas would be connected by a bridge that would in turn lead to another bridge linking up the North Bank with the South Bank cultural area and nearby Waterloo: "What we want to do is humanise that whole part of London," he says.

One only has to look at the projected future of urbanisation in the United Kingdom to appreciate the urgency of the predicament, he argues. Ninety per cent of people now live in conurbations which cover only 10 per cent of the land area. And in England, of the 90 per cent that live in conurbations, more than 80 per cent live in cities of more than 100,000 people: "We are now, in England, to all intents and purposes, a totally urban society. Only a minority do not live in cities. And the UK experience has global parallels: at the beginning of the century, 10 per cent of the world's population lived in cities compared to nearly 50 per cent today."

The answer, says Rogers, is to transform cities into "urban gardens". He is keen to grow as much greenery as possible, suggesting, for example, the planting of a million trees in London as part of the Millennium project. He laughs and says that he has not calculated that all the trees could be fitted nicely into the city but surely the idea deserves consideration? Trees are good at absorbing carbon dioxide and also deaden the hubbub of city traffic - so the project would also be functional. Beautiful and functional. So why don't we do it? For Rogers, the problem is the quick buck mentality that pervades the financial world. And it is having a damaging impact on the building industry: "Most developers are forced to think in ten-year cycles. One developer said to me 'why are you talking to me about trees, Richard? Trees take more than ten years and if I haven't got my returns by then I'll be bankrupt - so forget trees, Richard. I don't want trees. I just want the largest enclosure for the least money.'" Rogers is concerned that this kind of fast-buck mindset is influencing the training of architecture students, emphasising business acumen and fast, cheap building. "The idea is to sell these buildings and then ten years later when they begin to collapse, theoretically, you should destroy them but of course you don't. They are allowed to run down which in social terms is bloody disastrous. What must be realised is that the capital cost of buildings is much less important than their running cost." The point is that using quality materials would give the whole venture a longer lifespan and be more environmentally friendly.

Rogers believes that Britain has caught many of the worst symptoms of the building-cheap-and-nasty disease and he does not think that the problem can be alleviated without coordinated action. "The real challenge is to get the different institutions involved to be publicly orientated. We should have an open debate on what kind of built environment we want. In a way I feel that many of our institutions should pull down their walls and get out on to the streets," he says.

He himself has battled hard with the powers-that-be to push through a more enlightened approach to urban regeneration. Is it a question of politicians being reluctant to cough up the money or are they just not persuaded by the arguments? He says: "Change is always difficult. There is no danger if you say we don't want to change." Even when the opportunity is there for prudent, strategic financing of the sort of projects Rogers and other like-minded architects are promoting, the Government still manages to shoot itself in the foot. Look at how lottery profits are allocated: "A lot is being poured into little pieces. I am saying that you cannot always react like that. You have to start planning so that the parts come to a whole."

The city of Barcelona is an example of Rogers's kind of vision realised. The city did not just agree to host the 1992 Olympics. It also had a "wonderful vision" of the Olympics and built 150 new squares as part of that vision. The result is that Barcelona, already beautiful but slightly dated, was transformed into one of the world's most elegant and modern cities. "That is the result of really advanced thinking. Barcelona is not a rich city either - it is actually poorer than London. It is all a matter of where you decide to put your money and here we do it piecemeal - if we do it at all."

He despairs that London has no voice, that the environment is low on the official agenda and that culture - "we don't even dare use the word" - is deemed insignificant. He recalls spending a weekend with Jack Lang, the highly regarded former French minister of culture: "I said to him that the British do have wonderful music and theatre, but as a totality they do not see culture as being very important." The British tendency towards pragmatism could partly account for this but for Rogers, it is the lack of leadership in the field of culture that is most to blame. In England, the Government cannot even get the labelling right: the minister of arts is also the minister of heritage. The very fact that the post is labelled heritage is significant, says Rogers, suggesting a tendency to look backwards. He says: "During his time, Jack Lang was the most popular minister in France and the one everyone knew. The idea that in Britain the most famous minister is the one for arts and culture is just not on. Very few people can think of who holds the post of what one would like to call minister of culture - it's a job that is often given to someone on their way out."

With the current massive upheaval of family and working practices, Rogers believes the time is ripe for Britain to revise its notions of culture. The unlikelihood of seeing full employment again and the contraction in career spans is leading to an increasing number of "empty years" in people's lives; a state of affairs that for him means that there has never been a greater need for culture - in the broadest sense - to help give people a social identity. "We are so isolated and that is part of the problem we have. People have no responsibility to their neighbour, the community or their society."

Government short-sightedness is a source of considerable despair for Rogers. While he often works with Whitehall he feels it practically never gets round to doing anything. He likes and respects John Gummer but says that even Gummer's power as minister of environment is tremendously limited. "I don't want to be negative but I do not know what can be done I well I do know what can be done: the public have got to first of all make their views known about culture and leisure. We all have to recognise that this is absolutely related to, for example, all these young kids who are unemployed, who have no identity and nothing to do. Only through the social glue that we call culture will they have an identity. We should guard against using marketforces as an excuse for everything that goes wrong - it's not all about economics."

Cautiously optimistic that things would improve were Labour to achieve power at the next election, Rogers says there has been a general tendency for the arts to "blossom" under Labour governments. But nothing is certain.

The view that architecture and social responsibility go hand in hand is one which Rogers has held throughout his career. "How can you ignore the fact that there are thousands of people walking around homeless? We have a responsibility to try to do something about that and that is not only good for society it's good for me too because we are now getting into a situation where people don't dare walk in certain parts of London. The city is turning into something from 100 years ago I we're going back to the days of bandits, and that is a fearful thing."

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