• Chris Evans

Richard Rogers remembered: the journey into Architecture

Updated: Apr 4

We are at the turning of the year; 2021 is almost at an end but I don't want to leave it without marking the death last week of Richard Rogers, nor without saying how important he was to a generation of architects, including me.

His buildings influenced so many and for me personally, this one, the Pompidou Centre in Paris has a special significance. I was eighteen, out of school and clueless as to what I really wanted to do. I had applied to St Martin's School of Art thinking of fine art, having previously looked at combined degrees in English and Art/ History and Art as a possible next step and interviewed for an apprenticeship in journalism, but nothing seemed obvious until I opened a copy of Reader's Digest magazine that summer . Inside was an article about an extraordinary new cultural centre in Beaubourg designed by Piano and Rogers, which turned itself inside-out exposing escalators, service pipes and air -conditioning units to the elements. Painted in bright, primary colours these hung from, or threaded through an exposed steel frame more akin to a scaffold than a structure. The whole assembly celebrated a new architectural language ( a style?) that I'd never seen before that I soon discovered was coined 'High-tech'.

A few weeks later I responded to an advert in a Sunday newspaper educational supplement for entry to first-year of a BSc degree course in Architecture at North East London Polytechnic (now the University of East London). I attended for interview, taking with me some drawings and paintings and the article from Readers Digest- cut and pasted, as a small poster / montage. We were asked to bring something that interested us about the subject. The interview included a discussion on the topic of our favourite building. Mine was the Pompidou Centre.

I'd discovered there was more to this building than its playful exterior and powerful visual analogies with industrial plants. Whilst it seemed to have arrived from nowhere, without precedent, the building followed some very simple rules. It has a front and a back. Service pipe-ducts climb dramatically upward, facing a busy street behind, whilst on the front an elegant bank of escalators travel diagonally, carrying a stream of visitors visibly across the facade to all levels, seen from the square. The building also obeys the Parisian rule of a maximum number of horizontal storeys making an outlandishly gigantic intervention somehow strangely comfortable and sympathetic to the skyline.

The structure not only married form and function but celebrated the relationship. Engineer Peter Rice's elegant structural solution provided clear-span interiors as big as any department store, that allow unrestricted and flexible open space very suitable for a range of layouts and multi-purpose uses.

Placing all the accommodation asked for in a single box to achieve a much higher density released enough of the site area to create a new city square. The judges saw the generosity of Piano and Rogers' vision and their creative approach to the competition brief, Centre Georges Pompidou was a spectacular success for the partnership and for Richard Rogers.

The ideas embodied here go beyond 'hi-tech' style and objectivising 'form and function' to embrace urbanism. This was something that Richard Rogers was passionate about and it informed many of his buildings. The relationship between architectural form- the structures and objects created and the quality of public space enclosed - within and without.

The openness and generosity of his approach can be seen at the Senedd in Cardiff Bay, another of Roger's major buildings, and also a competition winner, this time for the newly-created Welsh Assembly. Elevated on a podium with steps flowing down to the water, its roof canopy floating above a glass envelope, the Senedd building clearly symbolises transparency. This, combined with actual public access to the debating chamber links the elected members of the Welsh Government with their people.

I accepted the offer onto the degree course, which turned out, surprisingly (to me) to be nothing like I'd expected, opening up a world I didn't even know existed. Our tutors included a filmmaker and journalist as well as practising architects. Walter Segal, Will Alsop and Erno Goldfinger all made guest appearances to talk about their ideas and their work in that first year. The following year, one of our part-time tutors, Mike Dowd, who worked for Piano and Rogers arranged a visit to the Pompidou Centre and to their design office nearby. I went on to study post-grad at the Architectural Association and then teach First Year at the AA until moving to Wales in 1990. On one occasion I recall the 'buzz' in the foyer at 36 Bedford Square as Richard Rogers came in to give an evening lecture.

Rogers' interest in fusing technical innovation with construction excellence, combined with a strong sense of social purpose and design flair (having an Anglo-Italian heritage) has continued to inspire our own practice at iDeA Architects. Through our teaching and built projects iDeA has explored a wide range of interests in sustainable and ecological design, including bespoke designs as well as HouseKit - more conceptual low-energy kit homes. Stepping out of the traditional roles associated with architects, we have also engaged in arts-led, socially-engaged initiatives for 'soft -regeneration' in our local community. Working with our cross-sector partners in the Confluence partnership, we delivered a three-year programme funded through Arts Council Wales ( 2015-18 )

Looking back, I recognise that my own journey into Architecture may never have happened had it not been for the chance reading of an article about The Pompidou Centre and the 'hi tech' architect who made his buildings from 'inside-out', but I'm so glad I did.

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