My last visit to the once revolutionary Pompidou Centre in Paris was a long time ago; other buildings associated with Richard Rogers have featured more recently in my life: Lloyds of London, Heathrow Terminal 5, the Millennium Dome, The Leadenhall Building or ‘Cheese Grater’ now rising above the City of London as its tallest building. These, and the many others that have spilled from the minds of Rogers and his collaborators, are now so much a part of our everyday consciousness that it’s easy to take them for granted. Visiting Richard Rogers RA: Inside Out, the Royal Academy’s retrospective, I’m reminded that we shouldn’t.
Famously, Richard Rogers is an architect who has little talent for drawing. Consequently, Inside Out isn’t the typical exhibition of an architect’s life. Yes, there are notebooks and many models but there is not the usual profusion of sketches. For me there are two key features that bring context, depth and understanding to the 80 years of the man’s life. The first is a dado level shelf that runs around the walls of the exhibitions rooms. On it are the objects that reveal that life and tell its story: letters, ephemera, photographs and even a set of colored pencils given to him as a 75th birthday gift by Norman Foster. The second are the words: in large type on the walls but also on small panels on and above the shelf – quotes and thoughts from a life that speak volumes.
Words don’t always appeal in exhibition spaces and tend to be skimmed. Here I found I was reading and jotting them down. Rogers believes passionately in the power of architecture to shape and change society and there is an underlying message of sustainability in the words and groupings chosen to tell the Inside Out story: ‘Do More with Less’, ‘Adaptability and Change’.
Within ‘The Power of the City’ grouping there is the call to build mixed-use communities on brownfield sites. We are told that London has 3600 hectares of brownfield land and that this is enough for 500,000 homes at medium density. “We need a strategy that creates vibrant mixed communities on these sites, with high design standards to create new types of homes, workplaces, civic buildings and public spaces.”
Rogers believes that a vibrant public realm is essential to support fair and just communities. “When buildings contribute to the public realm, they encourage people to meet and converse… They humanise the city,” he says.
Interestingly, even in the late seventies and early eighties, natural light and energy efficiency were on the agenda for the Lloyds building. Dimpled glass was developed that had a texture which reflected and refracted light; a pioneering triple-glazed wall construction allowed heat generated by solar gain in the outer cavity to be re-used for heating water or spaces.
As Rogers says: “Architecture is measured against the past, you build in the present and you try to imagine the future.”
Richard Rogers RA: Inside Out is at the Royal Academy’s Burlington Gardens building, London W1, until 13 October.
Image: Brightly coloured ducts have been installed outside the Royal Academy of Arts to mark the exhibition. Credit: Roger Hunt