Hugh Pearman

Lost in the metropolis

It’s not enough for Rogers to be good at what he does: he must also improve society. But, at 84, is he out of his depth?

Richard Rogers is to architecture what Jamie Oliver is to cookery. It is not enough for either of them just to be very good at what they do and to bank the proceeds: they want so much more. They want to use their skills and money to improve society more broadly. They are old-school campaigning idealists (and Oliver trained in the kitchen at the River Café, run by Rogers’s equally committed wife, Ruthie).

The downside of being a do-gooder in the UK, of course, is that people can find you irritating. Just because you and a mate (Renzo Piano) won the competition in 1971 for the Pompidou Centre in Paris and went on to become international architectural superstars doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone’s going to accept your prescriptions on how to live — which Rogers famously offered as Blair’s urban advisor, a working peer of the realm alongside the deputy PM John Prescott. He was mostly right — urban densification is indeed what’s needed, not sprawl — but there will always be those who resent what they might see as preaching.

A Place for All People seems aware of this — Rogers, with his co-writer and fellow urban theorist Richard Brown, sweetens the manifesto stuff with plenty of self-deprecating autobiographical details. The privileged Florentine childhood, the family move to England as war threatened, his near-suicidal misery when — as an extreme undiagnosed dyslexic — he was sent away to school. But he developed a survival strategy: to use his charm and cleverness to recruit support. ‘A gang of us began to coalesce around a small muddy pond in Epsom, where we would catch newts and tadpoles, or practise falling through trees, using the branches to moderate and slow our descent,’ he relates. Practise falling through trees? Without missing a beat, he relates how he met another boy there called Michael Branch who became a lifelong friend, ‘…and Pat Lillies, my first girlfriend — a beautiful tomboy three years older than me’.

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