Last week Richard and Ruth Rogers visited the GSD for the seventh year of the Senior Loeb Scholars program. Lord Rogers spoke twice publicly over the week, on Tuesday giving the annual lecture for the Harvard Center for Green Buildings and Cities, and speaking the following day with Loeb Fellowship curator John Peterson on the civic role of the architect and the social implications of architecture. In both talks, Rogers emphasized the importance of architects engaging with and strengthening the public realm, and the critical role of cities in building a more just and sustainable future.
On Tuesday night in Piper Auditorium, Rogers gave a lively account of some of his best-known work, as well as some unbuilt and less known projects. In his introduction, Professor Ali Malkawi emphasized the issue of sustainability, pointing out the important role that technology and environmental performance has played in Richard Rogers’ work, even before such an approach was fashionable. In his talk, however, Rogers downplayed the role of technology, instead choosing to address sustainability as a humanistic and design question. Using the open plans of “inside-out” buildings like the Centre Pompidou or the Lloyd’s building in London as examples, Rogers argued that their openness was key to their long-term success, saying “that which cannot adapt is not sustainable.”
Rogers also spoke eloquently about the idea of community and cooperation, both within his architectural practice and the world at large. Rogers described his career as defined by collaboration among architects as well as planners, landscape architects, engineers, and sociologists. This is a theme he would continue in his conversation with John Peterson on Wednesday morning, arguing for a more holistic, interdisciplinary approach to architectural education, and challenging the idea of the “self-made man.” Rogers showed a characteristic modesty when discussing this point on Tuesday night, saying that he had often relied on others to make up for some of his own limitations, especially early in his career.
Speaking about his body of work, Rogers framed many of his projects in an early love of the city and in a hope that architecture might extend and strengthen the public realm. Nearly all the projects presented on Tuesday night contained some extension of public space, often using an open ground floor linked to an exterior plaza, or in the case of the Centre Pompidou, extending the public up the facade of the building. Rogers also lamented that in projects like the Pompidou and the Lloyd’s building, recent concerns about security had closed off some of the intended open spaces.
The questions of citizenship and architecture were particularly important in two of Rogers’ public projects: the Welsh National Assembly building, and the Bordeaux law courts. Rogers described both projects as schools of a sort, which use openness and transparency as a means of educating individuals about their role within democratic institutions. This was also an emphasis in Wednesday’s conversation with John Peterson, where Rogers argued that architects should work towards a civil society, defined more by a shared sense of citizenship than by narrow self-interest. The theme of citizenship reverberated throughout the two events, particularly as defined in relation to the city. While expressing concern about the prevalence of extreme nationalism in contemporary society, Rogers remained hopeful about the ability of cities to lead toward a more just and sustainable future.
Roger’s week at the GSD also coincided with the announcement of the Richard Rogers Fellowship, to be based in the Wimbledon House in London. The house was originally built by Rogers for his parents in the 1960s, and was donated to the GSD in 2015, which will use it to promote research on issues facing the contemporary city. On Tuesday night Rogers spoke fondly about the house, which he worked on just before the Centre Pompidou and which contains elements that would be expressed in his later work. When asked, at the end of the night, which of his projects had brought him the most joy, it was the Wimbledon House and the Pompidou, both from early in his career, which came most quickly to mind.