Richard Rogers: how constraints spark successful buildings

As WORKTECH London 2017 takes place, we revisit an interview onstage with last year’s keynote speaker, the international architect Richard Rogers, whose new book on his life and work is published this autumn

On the eve of WORKTECH London 2017, which takes place on 14-15 November at the digital start-up hub Here East in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, thoughts are turning to the largest ever WORKTECH conference in the capital featuring more than 40 international speakers, but also to the highlights from last year’s event.

An undoubted highlight was an interview onstage with the architect Richard Rogers by WORKTECH Academy director Jeremy Myerson. Described by the Daily Telegraph as a ‘towering genius’ in his field, Rogers has an approach to architecture infused with enthusiasm for modernism and a strong sense of social justice.

From the once-controversial Pompidou Centre and Lloyds of London projects to the iconic Leadenhall building where his practice of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners is now based, Richard Rogers has demonstrated triumphantly how the most creative buildings can be realised in the face of social unrest and design constraints.

This autumn has seen the publication of A Place for all People, a memoir by Richard Rogers which examines his work and ideas for a better society. In the book, Rogers weaves his experience, relationships, projects, collaborations and stories together to create a vivid picture of how he has been influenced by people and place throughout his architectural career.

Many of the book’s themes were rehearsed at WORKTECH London 2016, where Rogers where discussed how negative conditions can actually produce some of the most successful and interesting buildings.

A problem is a gift

In the WORKTECH interview, Rogers revealed how he encourages opposition and controversy to spark innovation and problem solving in his creative process. ‘Excitement comes from breaking the mould’, he explained as he talked about the infamous ‘Cheese Grater’ building, Leadenhall Tower. This gained its name from a sloped slide that was only introduced because London’s building constraints meant the new building could not interfere with a view of St. Pauls Cathedral.

The Leadenhall Building’s sloped slide is the result of building constraints in relation to its environment context

The Florence-born architect went on to explain the political and social constraints of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, when it was proposed in 1968. At a time when French civil unrest was at tipping point, Rogers and his partner Renzo Piano proposed in their unfancied competition entry to develop a large public gathering space in the Plateau Beaubourg extending around the building.

The idea was accepted only with the greatest caution, in the teeth of opposition by the French authorities. Rogers insisted that if a place is created that can be enjoyed by everyone then there is no need to protest in the space. This Pompidou Centre later surpassed the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre in the number of visits in one year.

Questioning leads to creative outcome

‘The excitement of a building comes from questioning,’ Rogers also told WORKTECH London, citing the critical reception Lloyds of London received for ‘not fitting in’. Thirty years later he designed its neighbour, the Leadenhall Tower, receiving only minimal opposition despite incorporating an uncompromisingly modern design.

Lloyds of London received much criticism for not fitting in because of its modernism

As Rogers’ company grew from 20 people to 200, he realised the necessity to be his own client. The practice moved from its Fulham home at Thames Wharf to a single floor in the Leadenhall. This saw a move from a vertical work community to a horizontal one which Rogers suggested is much more manageable for larger businesses. However, perhaps the biggest advantage for Rogers was that Leadenhall was a ‘big, empty space with a great public domain’.

Emphasis on public domain

In the aftermath of Brexit and Trump, Rogers believes that political unrest can stem from dissatisfaction from the environment we have built in our cities. If a space is created which people can enjoy themselves, it relieves civic strain, which is why Rogers places so much emphasis of public domain.

‘The current negative environment we are in is because there is no sufficient satisfaction with our environment’- Richard Rogers

As a man who fundamentally describes himself as ‘pro-city’, Rogers believes that London has significantly improved in the past 20 years due to its expansion of public space. From labelling London as the ‘sick man of Europe’ in the 1980s, Rogers now believes the capital has a real sense of identity.

A Place for All People: Life, Architecture and the Fair Society by Richard Rogers is published by Canongate Books (2017)

WORKTECH London 2017 takes place on 14-15 November at Here East, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Keynote speakers include Anton Andrews of Microsoft, Lucy Adams of the BBC, and Aaron Taylor Harvey of Airbnb. More information here