‘Carbuncle’ Prince Makes Architects Quake: Richard Rogers

Richard Rogers cheers as a bicycle-operated espresso machine cranks out cups of quality brew.

The Italian-born architect, who turns 80 next week, is opening his retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. He wears a tan, an orange shirt, and hi-tech, perforated running shoes.

Besides maquettes -- of London’s Lloyd’s Building, Madrid’s Barajas Airport terminal, and Paris’s Pompidou Center (co-designed with Renzo Piano) -- the show features his mother’s pottery, an unflattering report card, and a dyslexia helpline poster with his face on it (he suffers from the condition).

I ask if Pompidou is what he wants to be remembered for. Rogers -- winner of the 2007 Pritzker Architecture Prize -- says buildings are “a bit like children: we tend to love them all.” He then lists the modernist glass home he built his parents in Wimbledon as “still my favorite personal house.”

As for who did what on the Pompidou (between him and Piano), Rogers won’t say. He draws a first analogy with ping-pong, then a bolder one: “It’s a bit like making love,” he says, and bursts out laughing.

Born in Florence to Italian parents who fled fascism in the 1930s, Rogers was educated at London’s Architectural Association and at Yale University. He co-founded a practice with fellow Yale student Norman Foster in the 1960s, then another with Piano in the 1970s, until he set up his own in 1977.

Elevator Malfunction

We turn to the Lloyd’s building, with its inside-out design and outer elevators -- now listed by English Heritage as a Grade I building (“of exceptional interest”). The occupants, Lloyd’s of London insurers, have said it’s costly to maintain, and suffers from frequent elevator malfunction.

Rogers says he has adapted the building over the years so the occupiers could make changes. As for the elevators, they’re standard.

Another Rogers landmark is the Millennium Dome, now the O2 entertainment arena. Completing soon are the towering Leadenhall Building, nicknamed the Cheese Grater, across the river from Piano’s pointy Shard; and the unflamboyant British Museum extension by his practice Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners.

Were it not for Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, there would have been more. Rogers’s futuristic plan for the National Gallery’s new wing drew Charles’s attention to the overall competition, and led the prince in 1984 to doom a rival design by calling it “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.”

Emir Letter

In 2009, the Prince prevented Rogers’s office from building luxury apartments on the site of a former Chelsea army barracks -- by writing to the Emir of Qatar. (The client was Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Co., a unit of Qatar’s sovereign-wealth fund).

How does Rogers get along with the prince now?

“Raising money for charities, our rapport is fantastic,” says Rogers. “If he is making criticisms of, whether it’s agriculture, medicine, or architecture, I think he needs to join in the debate. His reply is, the prince does not debate. And I don’t think that’s democratic.”

“You know, he has tremendous power,” says the architect, himself a Labour lawmaker in the House of Lords since 1996, and an ex-adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair. “Every developer, and I mean it with very few exceptions, goes to see the Prince if they’re worried, because they’re going to minimize risk. It’s not just us -- any building which doesn’t meet his level of what he believes to be good architecture. And he believes, for some unknown reason, that classical architecture is the only one.”

Italian Cooking

Rogers is wedded to Italian architecture, food, and lifestyle. He loves a good espresso (“it’s the meeting of people that’s interesting”), and eats at the pricey but excellent Italian next to his office: the River Cafe, run by his wife Ruth. He’s doesn’t cook himself. “I’m the let-down,” he says. “I had an Italian mother who did everything.”

Soon, he’ll be sailing, as every year, with his friend Piano. They like to go around Sicily, Corsica, and the Greek islands. Just don’t ask which of the two will be at the helm.

“Richard Rogers RA: Inside Out” is at the Royal Academy of Arts through Oct. 13: http://www.royalacademy.org.uk or call +44-20-7300-8000.

(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Muse highlights include Jason Harper on cars, Rich Jaroslovsky on technology, Richard Vines on food, Jorg von Uthmann on Paris culture and James Russell on architecture.

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