Richard Rogers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am


FAREWELL TO FLORENCE I found the first half of my life much more difficult than the second half. My parents were Italian, my mother was a potter from Trieste, and I was born in Florence. My father was a doctor, he wasn't English - somebody called Rogers left Sunderland in about 1800 and went to Venice, clever guy, and that's where the 'Rogers' came from - but he was absolutely mad about England and democracy. When I was born, I wasn't called Riccardo: from day one, I was Richard. And when Dad qualified in Florence, in 1932, he rushed over to register in England. It meant that when the war started we could move there, so I've lived in England since I was five. But being Italian in 1939 was not a good thing to be - we were the enemy. And then my mother got tuberculosis and was sent to Switzerland and I was shipped off to boarding school, which was a disaster. She was away for a year, and for another year I wasn't allowed to see her in case I might catch it. I'm dyslexic, which was called 'stupid' in those days. I found it tough, it made me ... well, when people say something's impossible, I don't believe them. Maybe that helped.

THE DESTRUCTION OF PARIS The house in Wimbledon [London] I designed for my parents was, in a way, a prototype. There's a direct relation between that and the Pompidou Centre [in Paris] that Renzo [Piano] and I did three years later. Renzo and I had done a bit of work together but nothing got built. We'd won a Daily Mirror House of the Year competition - actually, I think we came second, not to show off - it was made of components that you could zip together, panels from a refrigeration factory, highly insulated, zero-carbon use. My parents' house was the nearest we got to doing that. For the Pompidou, we worked out several approaches. Renzo had done wonderful research into structures, I'd done wonderful research at Yale [University, in the United States] into cities and rejuvenation. The idea was that it had to be more than a building, the escalators would jump out at the people, it was in the public domain. And it was torn to pieces by the media. There was one piece - in The New York Times, it was written across my heart - that said something good. Everyone else said it was the worst building and we'd destroyed Paris. That was a tough time. We had no work for two years after Pompidou. None.

CLIENT ACCOUNTS A good client isn't someone who has experience - a good client is someone who can move you forward. The chairman of the Pompidou client body hadn't built anything, but he said, 'I was in charge of the French withdrawal from the Far East.' He'd been under attack all the time and I thought, 'That's what we need.' It was the same with designing the Lloyd's building [in London]. Before Lloyd's, I'd moved to the States looking for a teaching job and my partner was learning to be a taxi driver. We weren't much of a firm. But Lloyd's was a good client. That doesn't mean they say, 'Yes', it means they help you in areas where you get lost. 'No' is always better than saying, 'I don't know'. The architect's fear is a blank piece of paper and a weak client.

LIFE BEGINS AT 60 The thing about the Pompidou is that no one really wants a second Pompidou; and the same is true of Lloyd's. It teaches you about one-offs. Even the Millennium Dome [in London] was a lot of strife. I suppose by the time I was in my 60s, things started to get better. I'm now coming up for 80. Obviously China is the future of the world - 75 per cent of our work is in the Far East and Australia. And as someone who's passionate about cities - I chaired the [British] government's Urban Task Force and was the Mayor of London's chief adviser on architecture - Hong Kong is the urban city. I love it! I've still got plenty of enthusiasm. I bicycle to work because I don't have a car, and I go to the House of Lords by bus, it's not too far. It's interesting to talk in the Lords about planning and architecture; I have to say the present [British] government's been very good about that. But it's important to realise I'm getting older. We've changed the practice name - to Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners - and the idea is that when, one day, I start disappearing, they will take over.

SONS AND MOTHERS When the Pompidou had its 30th anniversary, it invited us to do an exhibition of our work. We decided to make it a touring exhibition - Ab Rogers, my son, designed it. In fact, he now lives in the Wimbledon house I built for my parents. I still have very strong links with Italy, all my cousins are there. When my son Roo's wedding was in Vernazza, the whole village joined in. I have, I had - no, I have five sons. We lost our son Bo in Vernazza last October, two days after a deluge went through the town. I've just been in Vernazza for the weekend, for the first time since Bo died. Ruthie [Rogers' wife and co-founder of the River Cafe in London] didn't come, it was too much. I went there to talk about restoration work. It's more to do with patching up what's there, isn't it, than building anything new ... I was with my two cousins and we had a wonderful lunch with the mayor on a trestle table set up in the piazza. Culturally, a lot of me is still Italian although I've lived in England for so long. I'm the one weak link in the family, all my sons are very good cooks. My mother always cooked, she was a real Italian mother. She was much-liked; I spoke to her every day of my life until she died.

An exhibition of Richard Rogers' work will be on show at IFC Mall, Central, from Friday until July 8.