The Andrew Davidson interview - Richard Rogers - The architect who challenged the established order with such visual leaps as the Lloyd's Building and Pompidou Centre has entered a new, more thoughtful phase as he focuses his optimism on the task of revitalising the environment in Britain's depressed cities.
Architecture, says Lord Rogers, is a slow job. You build very little and you prepare lots of work which just never happens. 'I once said to Norman' - Sir Norman Foster, his former partner and Britain's second most famous architect - 'I said, 'Norman, we do about one in 20, don't we?' He said, 'Richard, you're an optimist.' Hunhunhunha.'
Richard Rogers laughs in that quick, deep, excited way he has. He is sitting hunched over in a third-floor meeting room in his brick and steel London office by the side of the Thames. He cuts an extraordinary figure.
His long, blue figure-hugging jumper, worn over his trademark, collarless shirt, reaches to below his bottom. His green corduroy trousers are as baggy as Charlie Chaplin's. His grey, receding hair is clipped short and brushed forward like Julius Caesar's. His Roman nose, wide mouth and long, thin eyes are squished up like a saturnine Mr Punch. Women, I am told, find him very attractive. Men, as one management consultant put it to me, just find him 'surprisingly foreign'.
Rogers is Italian-born but British-educated. His very English name stems from a great-great-grandfather who moved from Sunderland to Venice and stayed. You get a sense of the split as Rogers talks. When he gets on a roll, explaining something he is passionate about, or just going over something he has explained hundreds of times before, he seems to click into speech mode, using English as if it is Italian, phrases hurrying into each other in an unstoppable stream with little change of cadence.
Sometimes it makes no sense at all. Occasionally a decipherable word or two will pop out like leaping salmon - Pompidou Centre, Millennium Dome, Tony Blair - then flop back into the flow. It's strange. I had heard him on the radio just days before and he was so smoothly articulate, no rush, no panic. One friend says, 'That's Richard. He comes across in two ways: either brilliantly or awfully.'
Other friends describe him as a visionary and a zealot. If there were a top 10 of the world's greatest living architects, Rogers, at 65, would be up there jostling it out with Foster, IM Pei, Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Cesar Pelli and the rest. Most of his buildings, including the Channel 4, Reuters and Lloyd's office buildings in London, are well-known and admired.
His pioneering of sustainable architecture - reducing energy consumption in buildings, for example - and his concentration on how space is used between buildings has impressed his peers.
He is also well-connected. His firm's idea for a vast Millennium Dome in Greenwich bowled over the last government; his Reith Lectures on the future of urban living, packaged into a thoughtful book, Cities for a Small Planet, wowed the current government. Last year it put him in charge of the Urban Task Force, a research study bankrolled by the Department of the Environment that aims to get people and businesses back into our depressed cities.
Many, of course, will know Rogers as a leading 'Labour luvvie' and the husband of the woman who runs the prime minister's favourite restaurant, The River Cafe. 'My wife, Ruthie, the chef' as Rogers describes her proudly to me. Ruthie, an American, is his second wife. He has five sons, Ab, Ben, Bo, Roo and Zad (I am not joking) and, as befits a former chairman of the Tate Gallery and deputy chairman of the Arts Council, a list of well-connected friends as long as Who's Who. He has it all, it seems.
Except for proper timekeeping. Today he is running late. I have been waiting in the ground-floor foyer for three quarters of an hour. The man from the ministry, sitting opposite, who has fixed up the interview, is looking tense. Rogers, amazingly for someone who is never out of the press, appears to be a reluctant interviewee. He probably feels overexposed of late - lots of accusations that he is a 'Tony crony'. But he is under pressure from the Environment Department to whip up public interest in the Task Force.
At last he leans over the balcony railing above the foyer. 'Sorry, I'll just need a couple more minutes.' We sigh.
He smiles and marches off, a crew of young attendants in his wake, looking like a hospital professor on rounds. Rogers, a friend tells me later, is a man constantly in search of the best audience. Like many who have had a difficult time at school (he was dyslexic) and have since suffered from depression, he is not terribly at ease in his own company.
And right now, at an age when most people have retired, he is working harder than ever, according to colleagues. 'Oh, I just don't have time for anything since I took this on,' Rogers moans to me, griping about the demands of the Task Force. He laughs when I ask if he gets paid for helping the Government. Not a penny, it appears. He and his 13-strong panel of colleagues on the Task Force give of their time freely and generously.
They have already produced a prospectus, detailing their general aims, and in January released a thorough and readable interim report, reviewing responses from local authorities, housing developers, community organisations and other interested parties. This summer they will submit conclusions to John Prescott, who wants to lead an 'urban renaissance'. Their recommendations, expected to include a raft of financial and planning instruments to encourage sensible brownfield development, may then be put in a White Paper. At the same time, of course, Rogers, ennobled by Labour in 1996, has the House of Lords to dismantle and a global architecture business to run.
So, lots on his plate. He leads us up into a featureless meeting room, barely more than three metres by three. It is a couple of storeys above the large, open-plan, groundfloor workspace where most of The Richard Rogers Partnership, including the boss, sit like secretaries in a typing pool, working on screens and drawing boards. Outside, a swollen Thames rushes past one side of the building. On the other side, the little terraced houses of backstreet Fulham jostle up close.
His business is not huge (120-odd employees, two-thirds of whom are architects), and Rogers runs the firm with the same ideals that permeate his politics. 'We are pretty democratic,' he says. People take turns on reception, there are monthly lunch meetings to discuss pertinent issues, collective birthday parties on Fridays, no-meeting days on Mondays when people just get on with their work. 'I think the idea of community is now much more common in companies,' he says. 'That reflects the fact that we live in a less paternalistic, more participatory society.'
Nor is this New Labour approach without reward nowadays. Rogers thinks he takes an annual salary of about £300,000 out of the business (he's not sure, really). As founder, he says, the rule is he is not allowed to earn more than nine times the salary of the lowest-paid architect.
Directors are not allowed to earn more than six times. 'That gives us a lot of incentive to get the lowest-paid salary up!' he laughs. Apparently he is a great one for drawing up lists of ideals (never be bigger than 30 people was another) which are invariably binned a year later.
But at least he is trying. Part of the profit is shared between employees, a lot goes to charity, the rest is ploughed back into the company. This year, under the name Richard Rogers Architects Ltd, the firm filed figures showing turnover of £13.5m for the 12 months to July 1998. It is not quite clear how much Rogers and the directors earn as some fees for their services go to a separate vehicle. He gives the impression he doesn't have time to follow those kind of details.
Developers say he has been successful not just because he is a great public relations and ideas man, but because he has always kept a strong team around him and has never had a monster ego to match some of his rivals.
Rogers' senior partners have stuck with him long-term, happy to let him take the limelight while they make the business work. Most are in or approaching their fifties, more than a decade younger than he. 'It's collaborative, like an orchestra,' says John Young, who has worked with Rogers for 33 years. 'Richard is the conductor. He's a great strategist. And the more he is in the public eye, the more we revel in our anonymity.'
And the better he is connected, the more business rolls in, perhaps.
Despite being labelled as an outsider who, with the commission to build the new Welsh Assembly, has now reached 'the heights of the Establishment' (The Daily Telegraph), Rogers has always revelled in taking public positions and has a string of high-achieving metropolitan admirers in train. When I ask him who knows him well in the business world, he says 'talk to Bob Ayling, and Alan Yentob, and Frank Law and Lord Jacob Rothschild, and ...' Later he gives me some more names, too.
And the buildings? Rogers is best known for visual quirks that border on the theatrical: the external pipes on the Lloyd's Building, the outside escalators on the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the sweep of glass at the entrance to Channel 4 in Horseferry Road. Of late, the desire to shock and surprise has been replaced by a more thoughtful style. Stuart Lipton, who works side by side with Rogers' younger brother at Stanhope, sums up the new approach: 'There are those that practice architecture to build buildings. There are those that do it to make money. Richard practices architecture to create environment.'
It is this holistic approach that the Government is keen to tap into. Whether it can channel Rogers' ball of imaginative energies into producing practical suggestions for reviving cities has yet to be proven. There are problems ahead. For one thing, the British have always believed that living in the country is somehow more desirable to being in town. It's ingrained in the national psyche. For another, many urban planners are rather peeved at the way Rogers has suddenly muscled into their area with a dangerous combination of high profile enthusiasm and little hands-on experience. They may put up considerable opposition to anything he suggests to Government. And anyway, wasn't it architects who caused half the problems in the first place with their alienating skyscrapers and shoddy buildings?
'I think architecture has served this country poorly compared to some countries abroad,' Rogers agrees, 'but I think that at some point we decided architecture was to blame for everything that happened in the 1950s and 60s. Rather than seeing it as a problem to be solved, we thought we would just avoid the problem by not employing them any more.' He sighs. 'As for psyche, well, I don't have a great belief in a British psyche.'
Who is he to judge? When I ask if he feels British, he says he feels Italian 'in his blood' (although he insists he could never work there). Let's look at it another way. How many of Britain's business leaders keep their main home in the city? Very few, I would bet. And the same for managers. Look how most big companies have pulled their workforces out of the city centres. No one wants to be there.
'Well,' says Rogers, 'the overall figures we have are that the command centres are still in cities. Although we all thought in the 70s that everyone would take their PCs to the tops of mountains, it hasn't happened. Big companies need face-to-face meetings between their chairmen and executives.' Anyway, he goes on, getting business back into cities is one of the keys to it all.
He wants to see the development of mixed urban communities where 'work, living and leisure' are within an easy bike ride of one another, not segregated an hour's drive away - where there is excellent public transport, beautiful public spaces, great schools, clean air, good local shops, easy access.
Cuckooland, you might say. But he has a point. In his book, he rails against the stupidity of developments like London's Canary Wharf, money-driven projects which have made little effort to integrate mixed communities among them. Elsewhere in London, while developers now head for the greenbelt, waste ground and empty properties abound. 'Why bother pouring money into hospitals and schools if the city is a brutal, horrible place?' he asks.
'We are at a radical moment of change in society. We expect to live till we are 90, and we are only working for 30 years of that. What do we do with the rest of our lives? Social participation, social services, creative society, those have become a very large part of life.'
Then he loses me completely and, even after listening to it all again on the tape recorder, I have no idea what he is talking about. But I get the drift. Unless we do some serious thinking about how we want cities to develop, and encourage developers to build sustainably on brownfield land, places like London are going to become an even greater mess as urban sprawl consumes Britain.
No one doubts that Rogers' enthusiasm is sincere. Of course, it's slightly easier to preach urban values when you earn lots of money and live in a gorgeous two-Chelsea-mansion knock-through as Rogers famously does, all gutted interior, steel and glass, and Warhols on the wall. Yet it is worth remembering that he has not always had it easy. His Italian parents - his mother was a potter, his father a doctor - fled Florence after Mussolini came to power. His father, a kidney specialist, found work at St Helier Hospital in south London and sent his boys to private school, but Rogers had a hellish time of it because of his dyslexia.
'At 16 I was told to go to South Africa and join the police,' he recalls. 'I think that was because I used to box. They probably thought I could hit the blacks on the head - that was a vision of what you got dyslexics to do in those days.'
Instead, he did national service 'till everyone had forgotten I had not got any exams' and then, inspired by an Italian cousin who was an architect, he signed up at architecture school. Throughout, when he was getting 'beaten over the head continuously for being stupid', the one person who stood by him was his mother, a pivotal figure in his life. She instilled a love of modernism in him, and a sense that anything was possible. Even after he had set up his first architecture practice, in partnership with Foster, he was never quite convinced he would make it.
Eventually they went their separate ways - they are not enemies, although people think they are - and Rogers found fame with new partner Renzo Piano, when they won the commission for the Pompidou Centre in 1971. It made his name but the periods of self-doubt had taken their toll. He still remembers crying while walking on Hampstead Heath in the 1960s. 'I thought I would never be a bloody architect,' he recalls. But he has that knack common to driven, successful people, of pushing on through bad times and not looking back. He says he doesn't even like walking round his old buildings.
'Ruthie is much better at taking you round my buildings than me. I would rather get on with something new.'
It is the same knack that enables him to push aside all those failed commissions, the 19 in 20 that never make it off the drawing board. Most recently it was his scheme for roofing the South Bank in a wave of glass. For months it looked like the scheme would go ahead, providing a focus to the regeneration of that side of the Thames in central London. Then it was deemed too expensive. That kind of defeat would drive most people mad. Doesn't he get angry?
'Yes, I'm furious,' he says, eyes flashing - and for a moment I believe him. Then he laughs and says, 'No, you battle till you lose it.' He is mollified by the fact that a great swathe of the South Bank, from Tower Bridge to Battersea power station, is due for redevelopment. 'That degree of change will make even the Left Bank in Paris look unimportant. That is amazing! Admittedly, it has crept up on us. The French would have planned it, of course.' He bangs on about the benefits of planning, citing social housing in the Netherlands, which clearly impressed him, then complains of London's refusal to utilise the Thames properly. It is extraordinary, he says, that no one has ever managed to set up a profitable, efficient riverboat service. 'People like me moan till we are blue in the face, but there are still lots of people against it.'
Maybe the Millennium Dome will help. Despite the controversy over the structure, says Rogers, it hasn't really been bad publicity for the firm or the profession. People misunderstand, he argues, that it was commissioned as a cheap way of covering 15 pavilions, not just as a signature building for the end of the century, and that the cost quoted invariably includes the contents. 'The cost of the Dome itself is cheaper than the cheapest out-of-town shopping centre!' he says, sounding slightly exasperated. As for the criticism that it is temporary, well, it is no more temporary than the Eiffel Tower, and that is still hanging around.
Even so, unlike the Eiffel Tower, the Dome doesn't really make the spirits soar, does it? Rogers runs his hand through his thinning hair. 'I don't know,' he says. 'I've never had my buildings welcomed when they're first built.'
He pauses, then launches into an anecdote about Sir Christopher Wren getting his ideas for St Paul's Cathedral rejected so often that he decided to build a 20ft wattle fence round the site and just start building. 'By the time people saw what it was, it was too late, haha,' says Rogers. Then he looks rather worried. 'Not that I am suggesting that the Dome is like St Paul's ...'
People in Britain don't really like the shock of the new, do they? If Mondeo Man wants to live with reproduction antique furniture in a mock-Tudorbethan estate on the greenbelt edge of suburbia and call his children Oliver and Charlotte, really there is nothing Rogers and the design-led, urban intelligentsia can do about it, is there? The fact remains, heritage is popular.
'I don't know,' he says, looking thoughtful. 'I tend to blame the critics more than the public. The public use the Pompidou Centre; it is the most visited site in Europe. Lloyd's was one of the most visited buildings in London. The public don't say: 'Why are you building differently?' That's the critics.'
But no one wants to live in the Lloyd's building, do they? No, of course not, and that's not his point, anyway.
'Heritage is a dead hand,' he says portentously.
Well, it's surely more complex than that ...
'Anyway I'm afraid I have to go.' And he's off, no doubt to reapply his softly jumpered shoulder to the heavy weight of history and to further roll back British distaste for the modern. You cannot help but admire him. He really is, as Foster says, the great optimist.
Two days later he sends a fax. He is worried we haven't talked in enough detail about the Urban Task Force.
My first reaction is - 'Help!'
LORD ROGERS IN A MINUTE
1933: Born in Florence, Italy; educated in UK at St John's, Leatherhead, Architectural Association, London and in US at Yale University
1963: Formed Team 4 architects with Norman Foster
1971: Winner with Renzo Piano of an international competition for the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris
1977: Formed Richard Rogers Partnership
1978: Lloyd's building opened
1981: Chairman of the Tate Gallery
1994: Deputy chairman of the Arts Council; Channel 4 headquarters building opened
1995: Invited to give BBC Reith Lectures
1998: Invited to chair Government's Urban Task Force.