Richard Rogers was born in Florence in 1933 of British parents. He received his architectural education at the Architectural Association School in London and at Yale University, where he held a Fulbright Scholarship. At Yale, he heard lectures by Paul Rudolf and Louis Kahn and also met his British contemporaries, Norman Foster and James Stirling.
He began work by designing a family house at Creek Vean in Cornwall, with white walls and large windows, a house of impeccable modernity that still appears fresh after nearly half a century. His career took off when he designed a factory, in partnership with Sue Rogers and Norman and Wendy Foster, a double husband-and-wife group that set up under the name of “Team 4.” The Reliance Controls Ltd. Factory at Swindon (1967) became well known as an example of industrial architecture that makes its impact from the visual quality of its structural system, in this case a clear succession of rectangular bays stiffened by tensioned diagonal braces.
Rogers has become increasingly devoted to the architecture produced by structural tours-de-force. Of these, the Pompidou Center in Paris (1971–77, with Renzo Piano) is the most famous. As with Reliance, the building is essentially a shed, and the main elevation is similarly marked by a clear succession of rectangular bays overlaid by diagonal tension cables. The designs for Lloyds in the City of London and for Inmos at Newport South Wales both continue to gain their principal effect from the display of structure and service elements on the exterior. Rogers (like Foster) has therefore become a principal proponent of a “true” functionalist architecture, going beyond Louis Kahn in the analysis of form and mechanism, in an attempt to eliminate the arbitrary and willful character of facade making.
Through this development, modernism was pushed closer to the machine, but also closer to sculpture: Rogers’s work emerges from this conjunction. He was also influenced by Archigram, for whom expression was as important as technology. Disciples of the Archigram group, in fact, as employees of Piano and Rogers, realized the design development and working drawings for the Pompidou Center, so that it became the nearest thing we have to a completed Archigram building. But it is also the building that most completely expresses Rogers’s attitude to architecture: for it has no hint in it, as has the Lloyds Building, of a conventional interior dominated by ancient tribal rituals, but is entirely the product of an intellectual movement toward the “real” sources of functional truth: the exposure of the bones and guts along with devotion to the principles of change and indeterminacy in use, of which the prophet was the Archigram guru, Reyner Banham.
From 1977 Rogers’s work has had the benefit of a multidisciplined approach, with the formation of the Richard Rogers Partnership, bringing in the collaboration of John Young, Marco Goldschmied, and Mike Davies, and improved access to inhouse engineering services. With this improved organization, the firm has become something of an icon of the High-Tech aspect of modern architecture.
It is not that the High-Tech architect eschews beauty. But the beauty to be uncovered has to be identified with necessity, the result of applying reason along with engineering principles. The method of construction becomes an artistic strategy and hence an end in itself. In the Tokyo Forum Project of 1991, for example, the spaces of use are first enclosed in a gleaming semitransparent shell, then suspended from a metal armature, then approached by a complex of escalators. The object becomes a symbol of its own otherworldliness, a chapel to progress.
A more balanced approach is envisaged in the design for the European Court of Human Rights (1989–94) at Strasbourg. Here the elements into which the complex is broken down are not the service elements as such, but spaces of use; they stand on the ground, forming a composition that is less obsessively analytical and more expressive of human habitation and intercourse, whereas the building takes its scale and shape from its context on the curve of a river and from its situation within the city. This increased sensitivity toward the city is also evident in the very elegant project for the Alcazar, in Marseilles (1988). Within a seven-story height limit (surely a donné for the French city) he inserted a wedge-shaped volume closely into the texture of the adjoining blocks. Service elements are still lined up on one side, office space on the other, with between them, a “spine,” which at ground level becomes a pedestrian route linking the frontage on the Cours Belsunce to the quiet contained space of the Place de la Providence. The way the building draws back to allow the space of this quiet square to be drawn into the scheme, the way it curves gently to make an entrance from the Cours Belsunce, show a distinct sensitivity not only to an analytical idea of urban form but also to the sense of civic propriety. In France, where Rogers has many projects under consideration, there are several that seem to open up a less machine-oriented perspective, such as the master plans for Dunkirk Neptune (1990) and Port Aupec (1990) and schemes for Bussy St. Georges (1989–) and Sextius Mirbeau (1990). In all of these there is a distinct element of contextual relevance.
Rogers has been accepted as a master of modern design, to judge by his creation as a Chevalier de l’Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur in 1985 and in his own country, too, as is evident from his election to the Royal Academy in 1978, the award of the Royal Gold Medal of the RIBA in 1985, his knighthood of 1991 for services to architecture, and his peerage of 1996, the latter giving him a role that could strongly influence in political and therefore in practical terms the future of architecture within Britain. He will, of course, go down to posterity as the principle author of the Millennial Dome at Greenwich, a tour de force in which a tent suspended from steel gantries is given the spread and authority of an immense domed space. His designs continue to exploit the cutting edge of architectural technology, as with the Headquarters for the Lloyd’s Register of Shipping and the new Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport.
In 1995 Rogers was invited by the BBC to give the Reith Lectures, and he chose to build his lectures around the theme of the dense modern city. In his argument, although the city has in the past been a major pollutant, this is not necessarily so: It can be rethought scientifically so that it contributes to a sustainable environment while preserving the social vivacity that makes a society vital.