Building people places

British architect Richard Rogers starts with people when he designs his striking buildings.

Richard Rogers is an architect in love with urban public spaces. In a word, he is a city man.

You only have to look at the sloped plaza outside the Pompidou Center in Paris, which Rogers designed in partnership with Renzo Piano in the '70s, to know this. It is a meeting place, a place of gatherings, of ad hoc entertainment, of strolling or lounging around on a summer evening.

Inside, the Beaubourg, as it is known, is just as much a people place. The "service" aspects of a building and its staircases are this building's external skeleton. The inside is a space freed up for people.

With its famous outside elevators, vast entrance hall, transparency, blatant celebration of "industrial" imagery, the Beaubourg is immensely popular. It is truly public architecture in a democratic age, a large-scale 20th-century cathedral of culture.

Similar ideas carry through in the Lloyd's Building in the City of London, the masterpiece Rogers designed after breaking with Mr. Piano. This insurance market has sometimes been described as "a gentlemen's club," but "Lloyd's according to Rogers" is as open to public view as he could make it. His clients drew the line, though, at the idea of actually allowing the public into the main entrance hall, which had been Rogers's intention. He did, nevertheless, succeed in displaying for all to see the company's brokers and other employees as they rise and fall in the external elevators. Reading their Financial Times as they arrive for work, or holding an umbrella at the ready as they head down for lunch, they are an exposed form of human kinetic sculpture, a delight to people-watchers in the street below. The whole complex building is like a hive into which outsiders can peer, a giant machine whose inner working parts are composed of endless human comings and goings - and meetings.

Even at home, he tells me, Rogers's own living room is known to friends as "The Piazza." This name not only reflects his Anglo-Italian parentage and early upbringing (the family came to Britain in 1938, when Rogers was 5, to escape fascism). It is also because the room is large, and "everyone is passing through it." It is where he likes to work. Again, a "public" space. "You don't have to be enclosed," he says. He remembers in his childhood watching "an accountant who worked next door to my parents' house in a cafe. He had his telephone and his coffee, and then he'd have lunch. And everyone would come and see him there. I thought this was a nice way of working."

Rogers is one of the seminal architects of the 20th century. His determination to become an architect came as a young man when he realized that architecture combines art and social consciousness. "I saw the light," he says. If you ask him about architecture, or about cities, he is as likely to talk about people as buildings.

A dome to remember

His most recent building of international note is the Millennium Dome by the River Thames. It encloses, without interior support, a vast area - a gigantic public space. In a small, overcrowded country whose inhabitants are often only too ready to throw up their hands in horror at ambitiously large-scale architectural concepts, Rogers has never been afraid to think big or bold.

He proposed a similarly radical, bold and big solution to the exposed, shadowy riverside arts complex in London called the South Bank. He loves this part of London, but on a wet windy day, it is appalling. His proposal was somewhat Italian. It involved covering over most of the buildings already on the site with a gigantic glass canopy.

"The aim was to change the weather, the climate, for those who visit there. And rather like the Dome," he says, "it's actually a quite low-cost enclosure system. And you can put a lot of other activities inside it - cafes, bookshops, all sorts of things." Once again, inspiration came from his fascination for public spaces, and for making them socially congenial. Unfortunately, this Rogers scheme turned out to be one of a number that have never been realized. Lack of promised lottery money was the killer on this occasion, even though he had actually won the competition for the South Bank regeneration.

It was in yet another rather public - though also rather privileged - space that Rogers talked to me. The enormous, high-ceilinged, Victorian-Gothic hall in the House of Lords. The architect is today officially Lord Rogers of Riverside. As we sit surrounded by a considerable amount of lordly air, he says with a chuckle, "I call this my office." He is an affable, infectious chuckler.

As a socialist peer, Rogers is "in" with Britain's present "New Labor" government, which asked him to chair an Urban Task Force. This brought together experts in different fields of urban renewal. "I enjoyed it greatly," he says.

Cities, he admits, are a "difficult problem. They combine everything. But the tendency is for them to separate into departments. So you find 'Education' not talking to 'Environment,' and 'Environment' not talking to 'Health.' It's all packaged.... The city is man's greatest artifact. It has function and art within it. Yet we tend to deal with it in little pieces. That is how governments deal with cities."

The final report (published in 1999) of the Urban Taskforce tries to answer, with recommendations to the government, the question: "How can we improve the quality of both our towns and countryside while at the same time providing homes for almost 4 million additional households in England over a 25-year period?"

Difficult indeed. But Rogers's optimism is as unflagging now as it was in 1995. His book "Cities for a small planet" (Faber and Faber, 1997), based on his earlier BBC Radio lectures, ended with the words: "Cities that are beautiful, safe and equitable are within our grasp." He is not to be cynically diverted from that conviction.

"With the end of the Industrial Revolution," he explains, "with post-industrial society, I think there is once more a very big chance to create cities where people will meet. And that's what cities are all about. Meeting friends and bumping into strangers."

He admits that "a beautiful, Hellenic vision of the city" is more possible "in more fortunate countries." He is acutely conscious of gaps between rich and poor.

One reason for his hope is the way in which "the information network is producing money. It's eroding borders and strengthening cities." Because of our ability "to network the whole of society," we "make comparisons. It allows a much more international view."

Rogers identifies "three principal drivers" toward a hoped-for urban renaissance: strongly changing family patterns; a growing global sense of ecological responsibility; and the revolution in information technology.

More singles means more city living

Changing family patterns involves smaller, more fragmented families. In England, the "government is looking at 4 million new homes in the next 20 years.... The stunner," Rogers says, "is that 80 percent are single-person dwellings. I've compared this with Holland and Germany, and it's not specifically different."

This means, he believes, more city-living. "If you're single, you're much more likely to live in a city. That's the pattern." A single 30-year-old man or woman "is probably more interested to be working and living in the city than in the suburbs. And it's the same if you're 65. We tend to be more lonely in many ways, I think, when the family isn't so central." And in the city, "you meet more people." There it is again: cities as people spaces.

"Sustainability" is a word much on Rogers's lips. In a small country like Britain, where cities since the Industrial Revolution have caused great suffering to the poor, they even now have a reputation to live down.

Adding to this reputation today are areas of dereliction, fragmentation, and abandoned housing as people have moved out (or have been moved out) to new housing on "green field" sites. Precious countryside is continually eaten up.

Speculators have much to answer for in this respect, Rogers says. But stronger government and better planning would help. Rogers advocates governments concentrating more on the cleaning-up of "brown field" sites - innercity sites - for better housing inside urban areas.

And on the promising effects of information technology, he adds: "I see cities as being centers of culture as well as of business. Research being done now shows that contrary to what we thought - that we would all escape to the country with our little laptops - we are tending to come back to the cities. People are saying it isn't enough to look at the screen, we need sometimes to meet other people! You know! It's rather encouraging."

Encouraging to an apostle of urban spaces.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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