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British Architect Receives Top Honor in Field

June 5, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: In his first internationally acclaimed project, the 1977 Pompidou Centre in Paris, British architect Richard Rogers and co-designer Renzo Piano turned the building inside out, exposing structural underpinnings, ducting, service lines, many of the component parts that make a building.

Rogers would go on to design numerous high-profile and acclaimed projects, including the Lloyd’s of London office tower from 1984, and his award-winning terminal design for Madrid’s Barajas Airport, completed just last year.

Over a career spanning four decades, he’s taken on a wide range of projects: offices, homes, schools, cultural centers, and much more. And now, at 73, Rogers, who was born in Italy and educated in London and at Yale, has won the Pritzker Prize, his profession’s highest honor.

In its citation, the Pritzker jury said, “Rogers is a champion of urban life and believes in the potential of the city to be a catalyst for change. We celebrate Richard Rogers, a humanist, who reminds us that architecture is the most social of arts.”

Rogers has, in fact, played a very public role in Britain, as head of a national task force on planning and development, which released a report called “Toward an Urban Renaissance.” And he has long emphasized fitting his buildings into the city life around them. Most of his work to date has been done overseas, but he’s had several projects in the U.S., including four currently underway in New York City, one of them, the new Tower 3 at the World Trade Center site.

Exposing the building's structure

JEFFREY BROWN: Richard Rogers heads an architecture firm in London and joins us now from New York.

First, congratulations to you. Why don't you tell us, what was the idea in the Pompidou and Lloyd's and other works of showing the components and the structure of the building?

RICHARD ROGERS, Architect: There are a number of different reasons. One was to get real flexibility within the floors, to have no vertical interruptions. And, therefore, we put all the things that are usually inside a building on the outside; in other words, the elevators, the structure, the mechanical services are all on the outside so that you could use the building for different types of uses over a long period.

Secondly, it was a way to have a play of light and shadow on the mass, which is what architecture is about, and also to have a scale that you could understand, not just a big box, but something which is articulated.

These were all reasons for having that form of architecture, but perhaps the most important thing, as far as the building is concerned, to draw people. And the success of the building has been that it's the most visited building in Europe. It has 7 million people a year. And it's very much a people's palace. It's a place for all people, all ages, all creeds; that was the first line in the competition brief which we wrote.

JEFFREY BROWN: It actually wasn't in the beginning, wasn't it? A lot of people felt quite quizzical about it and weren't quite sure.

RICHARD ROGERS: During its construction, nobody liked it. Once it opened, people queued up or lined up, fortunately, and it became more or less immediately a success.

Creating better cities

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, right after the Pritzker award was announced, you were quoted as saying, "What would I do with the Pritzker? Use it as an excuse to get out there and argue for better cities." What is the problem that you see with our cities?

RICHARD ROGERS: People have been leaving cities, especially after the industrial revolution, for a long time. We're now drawing them back. Cities are secure. You can walk, you can bicycle, you can use public transport, which is also environmentally friendly.

But most important of all, it's a mix of people. We want to avoid cities being ghettos for poor or for rich or for one activity or the other. We're looking at cities where you contain the people inside and discourage them to build a shopping center outside or business parks outside. We more or less create the cities, which are really an invisible wall, which gives them a lot of security, because the most security comes from eyes on the street.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what do you, as an architect, do specifically to address that? How do you judge the success of a building in that context?

RICHARD ROGERS: Well, you may not judge the success of the building, but the success of the city is whether people want to live there rather than to escape from it. And you can tell that because people are beginning to move back.

I was chief adviser, first of all, to Tony Blair, and now I'm the chief adviser to the mayor of London in architecture and urbanism, and we're trying to create cities where people want to come back, and live in them, and meet, and discuss, and have a really good life.

Architecture for public consumption

JEFFREY BROWN: I came across an essay that you wrote a few years ago called, "Beauty is Not a Dirty Word," in which you said, "It seems glaringly obvious to me that raising architectural standards is just as important as raising standards in our schools and hospitals." And I thought, really? Is it that important?

RICHARD ROGERS: I would argue that, without culture, there is no real quality of life. That's really what separates man from animals, that culture is a big thing.

But where do you go on holidays? You go usually to beautiful places. Why do you listen to good music? Can you say that -- you can't really make this comparison, but you can't really say that Beethoven is less important or more important than, let's say, Einstein. Science and art are extremely important, and I think art is absolutely critical to the quality of life.

JEFFREY BROWN: So it often strikes me with someone like yourself who does the grand public architecture that you create these works, and they're really out there for people who see. There's no hiding. And, of course, not everybody loves everything you do, and you've had -- going back to the '80s, you had Prince Charles challenging some of the contemporary architecture that was being made, including yours. What happens? How do you respond when there is this criticism?

RICHARD ROGERS: Yes, I've certainly been criticized, but one then has to remember that modernity has always been difficult. All buildings were modern in their time. Most buildings had great problems in their times. I always tell the story of St. Paul's. Wren couldn't get it built, because people kept on saying, "It's too modern." And that's in the 18th-century building.

JEFFREY BROWN: St. Paul's Cathedral in London?

RICHARD ROGERS: Yes, 17th century, to be exact.

Designing different projects

JEFFREY BROWN: The range of projects that I mentioned in our introduction, is that by design, as well? Is it important to you to take on different kinds of things?

RICHARD ROGERS: I enjoy different types of projects, anything from a small house to designing master plans for a city. But we work with teams. You know, architecture is not about an individual person. Architecture is about working with comrades, working with fantastic clients, with good contractors, and having a dialogue. It's not something you do sort of lying down. It takes a long time to build something. It takes a long time to design something.

But there's a great history of architecture. And when I go to -- I was born in Florence. You know, millions and millions of people go to Florence just to see the quality of architecture. It lifts you up, if it's well-designed. I think it has an important role in giving quality to one's life.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you finally about the project you're working on at the World Trade Center, the Tower 3, a place that, of course, is so fraught with meaning and a sense of history for so many people. Do you approach it differently because of that?

RICHARD ROGERS: Yes, I think it has tremendous importance in people's memory. Nobody will ever forget it, for thousands and thousands of years. You cannot but be affected by this. You cannot but look at the memorial garden and think, "What is it there for?" And try to relate your building to that memorial garden and to that memory, and in creating something which we will try to make beautiful, it is in itself a form of accepting that we need to memorize, to remember the horrible things that happened there. And that's a form of memorial.

JEFFREY BROWN: Richard Rogers is the winner of the Pritzker Prize for Architecture. Congratulations again, and thanks a lot for talking with to us.

RICHARD ROGERS: Thank you very much.