Richard Rogers, architect behind landmark Pompidou Center, dies at 88

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Richard Rogers, architect behind landmark Pompidou Center, dies at 88
Richard Rogers, Terminal 4 Madrid Barajas Airport. Photo by: Manuel Renau. AENA.

by Penelope Green

NEW YORK, NY.- Richard Rogers, a Pritzker Prize-winning British architect whose inviting, colorful modernism forever altered the cityscapes of Paris and London, died Saturday at his home in London. He was 88.

His son, Roo Rogers, confirmed the death. No cause was given.

With his striking designs for the tubular Pompidou Center in Paris; the vast Millennium Dome in London, which seemed to hover like an alien spaceship; and the brash Lloyd’s of London building, with its soaring atrium, Rogers turned architecture not just inside out but also on its head.

When he was awarded the Pritzker, architecture’s highest honor, in 2007, the jury cited his “unique interpretation of the modern movement’s fascination with the building as machine” and said he had “revolutionized museums, transforming what had once been elite monuments into popular places of social and cultural exchange, woven into the heart of the city.”

He did have his critics, however, particularly early on.

One rainy day in 1977, the Italian-born Rogers was standing on a street in Paris admiring the soon-to-open Pompidou Center — then a beleaguered, much pilloried, radical-looking structure he had designed with his friend Italian architect Renzo Piano — when an elegantly dressed woman offered him shelter under her umbrella. She then asked him if he knew who had designed the building. When he announced proudly, “Madame, it was me!” he recalled in his 2017 memoir, “A Place for All People,” she whacked him on the head with the umbrella and marched off.

Six years earlier, Rogers and Piano had entered a competition to design that cultural center, over a grotty parking garage in a red-light district. They called their design, with its transparent steel carapace, tubular escalators and exposed systems painted in primary colors, “a place for all people.” With a street-level piazza and flexible interiors to house a library, an art gallery and a music stage, the building (named after former French President Georges Pompidou) was intended to be a lively forum for public life, rather than a mausoleum of high culture.

Yet the whole endeavor seemed doomed from the start: Their submission was initially returned because of insufficient postage. After they won the competition, there was constant, vitriolic opposition to their funky, gutsy design, deplored by many as a desecration of the Paris skyline. The heir of one prominent artist swore that she would rather burn the paintings than have them hung there.

When the Pompidou Center finally opened, in January 1977, reviews were predictably mixed — “Paris has its own monster,” Le Figaro declared, “just like Loch Ness” — but the public loved it, and people lined up by the hundreds each day. Seven million visited that year, more than attended the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower combined.

Writing in The New York Times, art critic Hilton Kramer called the building “one of the most breathtaking architectural accomplishments of recent times.”

“It simply does not look like anything one has ever seen before,” he wrote, “and is therefore especially frightening to people who cannot bear the thought of something really new in the art of building.”

Richard George Rogers was born July 23, 1933, in Florence, Italy. He was the grandson of an English dentist, which meant that he had not just an Anglican surname but also a British passport. His father, Nino, was a doctor and an Anglophile; his mother, Dada, was the daughter of an architect and an engineer. Cultured and politically progressive, the family fled fascist Italy in 1939 and moved to England with war coming to Europe.

At that point Rogers’ world, as he wrote in his memoir, went from color to black and white: London was engulfed in smog from burning coal. His father worked in a tuberculosis clinic, and his mother worked with him. When she fell ill with the disease and went to recuperate in the Alps, Rogers, age 6, was sent to boarding school.

Dyslexic and foreign to his schoolmates, he was bullied and beaten, and by 9 he considered hurling himself from his bedroom window. His learning disability was not widely understood or even recognized in those days; he was, he said, seen as stupid.

“People have asked me whether dyslexia makes you a better architect,” Rogers wrote in his memoir. “I’m not sure whether that’s true, but it does rule out some careers, so it focuses you on what you can do.”

Adrift after school, he joined the British army and served two years in Trieste, Italy, during which he spent time with a cousin, Ernesto Rogers, a celebrated architect and urbanist, and worked in his Milan office. Ernesto Rogers’ work — the civic promise of modernism and his own warm version of it — inspired Richard Rogers to join the profession. After a year of art school, he enrolled at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, at the time the only such school in Britain.

In his third year, he met Su Brumwell, a sociology student whose father was a founder of the Design Research Unit, a British design consultancy; they married in 1960. The couple spent their honeymoon on a kibbutz in Israel, then moved to New Haven, Connecticut, to attend Yale University — Richard Rogers on a Fulbright scholarship to study architecture and Su Rogers to study city planning. There they met Norman Foster, a fellow student, with whom they became fast friends and, later, collaborators.

A road trip to Southern California after graduation introduced Su and Richard Rogers to the bright Mondrian colors of the Case Study houses, prototypes for economical housing designed by modernist architects like Richard Neutra and Charles and Ray Eames. When they returned to Britain, Richard Rogers formed an architectural practice with Foster and two architect sisters, Wendy and Georgie Cheeseman. They built houses for all their parents, inspired by those the couple had seen in Los Angeles.

These houses in turn inspired the work that followed, igniting in Rogers an enthusiasm for the efficiencies of technology, modular construction and a commitment to the more humane side of architecture.

The members of the practice soon went their separate ways. Through an introduction by his doctor, Rogers met Piano, and with Su Rogers and others, they established a firm just before the Paris competition. Decades later, Richard Rogers, Foster and Piano would be among the most successful and well-known modernist architects in the world — Les Starchitects, as the French called them.

Richard Rogers and his wife also parted ways when, in a coup de foudre in the early 1970s, he fell in love with Ruth Elias, an American book designer and later a chef. They married in 1973. A year after the Pompidou opened, Rogers and Piano, too, parted ways professionally, although they remained friends.

“Richard has always been four steps ahead of me in everything,” Piano said in an interview for this obituary in 2020. “From the beginning he was preaching about architecture as the art of making a better world. He has a kind of civic strength.”

Rogers said his buildings were designed as much for the enjoyment of those just passing by as they were for their users. His Lloyd’s of London building, completed in 1986 and wedged into London’s financial district, is one such stunner, with a barrel-vaulted atrium supported by chunky concrete pillars; service towers, roped with ductwork, are brazenly planted on the outside. Writing in the Times, critic Paul Goldberger called it “a high-tech extravaganza.”

His other high-profile works include the law courts in Bordeaux, France, lovely cedar pods set in glass walls under an undulating copper roof around a central public square; and Terminal 4 at the Madrid-Barajas airport, completed in 2005, a soaring light-filled corridor set with rainbow-colored struts.

The Millennium Dome in southeast London was not as beloved. A series of tented structures designed to hold interactive displays on the site where Greenwich Mean Time was introduced in 1884 — and where the 21st century would officially begin — it was widely panned as an overpriced joke (it cost more than $1.2 billion). The Guardian likened it to a home for very large Teletubbies; Prince Charles, a longtime critic of modernism, described it as a “monstrous blancmange.”

Prince Charles had been lobbing salvos at modernist architecture ever since he announced in 1984 that a proposed addition to London’s National Gallery was like a boil on the face of a much loved and elegant friend. He criticized many new buildings, causing some developers to avoid and even scuttle work by Rogers and others for fear of losing royal favor. Rogers was one of the prince’s most vociferous opponents.

“If there is any continuity at all in architectural history,” he wrote in a long article for The Times of London in 1989 titled “Pulling Down the Prince,” “it lies not in some illusory aesthetic, but in the fact that all departure from tradition had provoked ferocious controversy and opposition.”

Rogers was a champion of sustainability — his National Assembly Building in Cardiff, Wales, which looks like a buoyant, redwood spaceship, halved the Welsh Parliament’s energy use. He advocated for compact developments and affordable, equitable housing as well as for car-free cities. For nearly a decade he was the mayor of London’s chief adviser on architecture and urbanism. He was knighted in 1991 and made a life peer in 1996.

Rogers’ populism extended to his practice. At Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, a London-based firm with a staff of 160, each employee shares in the firm’s profits, a percentage of which is donated to charity. “I don’t believe in the ownership of work,” he told The New York Times. He retired in 2020.

His legacy is his buildings, of course, but also “the idea that modernism doesn’t have to be cold, or to deny us sensual pleasures,” Goldberger said. “He loved color, and he wanted his buildings to inspire an emotional connection. And most important of all, he wanted urbanism to be a positive force; he worked all his life to make cities civilizing places, not just collections of disconnected buildings.”

In addition to his son Roo, Rogers is survived by his wife; three other sons, Ben, Zad and Ab; a brother, Peter; and 13 grandchildren. His son Bo died in 2011 at 27.

Rogers dressed himself in as colorful a manner as he did his buildings — for example, in an orange shirt, cobalt blue pants and a pair of socks from his rainbow wardrobe.

Ruth Rogers, known as Ruthie, brought the same warmth to the River Cafe in London, the restaurant she founded in 1987 with her friend Rose Gray, like her a self-taught chef.

Nestled into Thames Wharf, a former riverside industrial building that was owned by Richard Rogers’ firm at the time, the River Cafe was at first a lunch canteen for architects. With its earthy Italian fare and an eye-catching design by Rogers — its wood-fired oven is a bright pink pod — it soon became part of a new wave of farm-to-table cooking in London and a go-to spot for rock stars and politicians.

Ian Parker, writing in The New Yorker, noted how the couple together had encouraged Britain to see itself “in a Mediterranean light.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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