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© Royal Academy of Arts

Richard Rogers: 'buildings belong to people, cities belong to people'

The forward-thinking architect reflects on his six-decade career

By Martin Coomer
Richard Rogers confesses to not being 'a natural looker back'. For the designer of space-age buildings like the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Lloyd's of London and the soon-to-be-finished Leadenhall Building (the 'Cheesegrater') in the City, it probably goes with the territory. But as the Royal Academy stages the survey exhibition 'Inside Out' (a reference to Rogers's buildings, many of which wear their ducts, lifts, staircases and waterpipes proudly on their facades), the architect finds himself taking stock of a six-decade career that has seen him scoop major awards including the Stirling Prize and Riba Gold Medal, becoming Baron Rogers of Riverside in the process.

It's interesting in the City at the moment, with your Leadenhall building going up right across the street from Lloyd's. How does that feel for you?
'I love it. I believe very much in a dialogue between buildings - I believe it's always been there. I think buildings have different identities and live very well next to each other. We always have the shock of the new and that's fine. The renaissance style is totally different from the medieval and they have a dialogue across time. Looking at Lloyd's and Leadenhall is interesting because they're only divided by 30 years. I thought Lloyd's, when we were making it, was the ultimate in technology. It looks like it's been handmade if you look at it now. And that's the natural thing. You have to modernise, you have to change, you can't just be traditional for the fun of being traditional.' A retrospective is an opportunity for reflection, but I imagine architects prefer to look forward...
'You're probably right. I'm not a great looker back. But this show is not really about architecture. I really didn't want to make another show about that. It's called "Inside Out" because of the way I design - I put ducts and services on the outside which gives you greater flexibility. But the main thing about it is ethos. By which I mean fairness. In a society of greed I think it's very important, and I do think we are now in a society of tremendous greed. I'm not attacking individuals, I'm attacking the system that allows for that situation, and for the bank failure that we've all suffered from. It's basically deeply rooted in greed.'

How can architecture help?
'First of all, I think we have to see ourselves as citizens. I love cities, I spend most of my life talking about cities. And the design of cities does have an effect your life. You're lucky if you can see trees out of your window and you have a square nearby, or a bar, a cornershop, a surgery. Then you're living well.' These can seem like luxuries in a city as big as London…
'They don't have to be expensive but they have to be thought about, so I think architects do shape the society they live in. They have an important role. We have to get planning permission and things like that but in the end what we do is talk. I sit in parliament but you don't have to sit in parliament to discuss things, you can sit in your local pub, which is fine - I enjoy my pub - but in talking, in showing what you do and being proud of what you do and swearing against things that are going wrong, whatever it is, you're making a statement. And I think we should be doing that, we should be fighting our corners.'

People feel very alienated from the worlds of finance and politics. How do you think architecture can address this?
'One of the sections in this exhibition is called "Democratising Architecture". Most briefs are private, and, yes, if it's an office building, obviously it's got to work well, but there's also the passer by, the public to think about, and the public over time, so the building has a responsibility in terms of transparency, of activity. Take the Pompidou. That could have been just a box but the whole idea of the Pompidou is the piazza, which is very popular, and the façade, which is all about the public. Buildings belong to people, cities belong to people, so architecture has a role beyond the narrow private commission.'

What about office buildings?
'Offices are the most difficult. You get 60 floors, they're all the same, they all have to have a dimension between the core and the glass and then you think "what the hell am I doing on this." But what we've done with Leadenhall is put in a seven-storey atrium, which is a public space. And we've built it sloping back so you can see St Paul's while making a very striking skyline. As an architect you're playing with things that are basically public.'

That must require imagination on the part of the client?
'Yes, without a good client you can't do anything but it's a deals situation. With Lloyd's we put the ducts outside and they suddenly got extra useable space in return. So it's a negotiation.' The 'London as it Could Be' section of the show will be particularly interesting to our readers. How do you think London could or should change over the next few decades?
'I think first of all that we're coming to the end of the motorcar. We're already banning it from certain areas and making streets narrow, closing certain streets to traffic. Manufacturers are responding by making cars much smaller. More and more people are going by bicycle, more and more people are going by bus and so on. So all that land which is being used for laying highways, it will become public parks hopefully. I think in the next in 20 years, by which time I'll be 100, cars will play a really minor part.'

Does it frustrate you that you can have an idea in a moment but it can then take ages to happen, if it happens at all?
'You know, London doesn't change exactly the way that might put it together for an exhibition. But it does change. London is a much nicer place now than it was 30 years ago. It's a much friendlier place. We've just got same-sex marriage through in parliament. Fantastic. This couldn't have happened 30 years ago.'

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