Conceived by Rogers, designed by his son Ab and curated by the RA’s Jeremy Melvin, “Inside Out” is not a showcase of the architect’s impressive output but rather an exploration of its existence.
In the course of his fifty-year career Richard Rogers has become one of the most prominent architects working in Britain today.
Highlights includes Paris’s Centre Pompidou (1971 – 77) designed with Renzo Piano and London’s Lloyd’s Building (1986), whose industrial aesthetic and language of flexibility and transparency have become the architect’s hallmarks. These and other projects are current on view “
Richard Rogers RA: Inside Out”
at London’s Royal Academy
. Conceived by Rogers, designed by his son Ab and curated by the RA’s Jeremy Melvin, “
is not intended to be a showcase of the architect’s impressive output but rather an exploration of its existence amidst the larger social, cultural, economic, environmental and political ‘forces’ that influence, and are influenced by, his architecture.
The exhibition is spread across four rooms in Burlington Gardens, the RA’s space for contemporary art and architecture. The first is decked out in the vibrant hues that are another Rogers trait. Against bright pink walls are blue panels explaining the four cornerstones of the architect’s self-proclaimed “ethos”: fairness, politics, the city, aesthetics and collaboration. More panels describe how this is embedded in Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partner, the architect’s fifth and current studio. Established in 2007 as a charitable trust, 20% of profits go to charities of its partners and employees’ choosing, who share a further 75% of its profits. They do not design projects for the military, prisons or arms manufacturers.
Although less chromatically arresting, the rest of the exhibition is equally visually stimulating. Occupying the centre of the next two galleries are a variety of large architectural models, while around their walls a continuous shelf displays photographs, lectures and other paraphernalia documenting the activities of the architect and those that have inspired him, from Frank Lloyd Wright to Buckminster Fuller and Jean Tinguely. These are complemented by more personal exhibits – including a colouring pencil set given by Norman Foster, one of his partners in the Team 4 studio (1963 - 67) and pottery by his mother Dada Rogers. The latter speaks of Rogers’ Italian origins; although he moved to England in 1939, his socio-cultural engagement recalls Italian architects such as his cousin, and former Domus
editor, Ernesto N. Rogers.
These snapshots are organised around seven themes designed to illustrate Rogers’ ethos in architectural terms, including ‘A Sense of Time and Place’, ‘Do More with Less’ and ‘Democratising the Brief’. The first features Lloyd’s, the revolutionary office block sensitive to its surrounding medieval street plan. The second includes the unrealised Zip-Up House (1968), whose use of prefabricated and lightweight construction was informed by environmental ambitions. The last is typified by the National Assembly for Wales (1998 – 2005), whose viewing gallery exposes debating politicians to their electorate.
The exhibition’s organisation, which sees projects reappear across the different themes, doesn’t always work. It inhibits in-depth understanding both of individual projects and how these fit into an evolving practice – although it does showing how specific buildings illustrate multiple themes. There is a notable emphasis on the importance of collaboration across all of these; be it the engineer Peter Rice, who was instrumental to the Pompidou, or the drawing skills of the studio’s architects – Rogers openly admits he is no great draughtsman.
Central to the architect’s self-representation is his political engagement. Letters and publications illustrate his role as a government consultant from the late 1980s onwards. This dates back to his participation in London as It Could Be
, an exhibition held at the RA in 1986, which Rogers invited politicians to visit and contribute to the debate on the city’s future.
This urban envisioning constitutes the final room. It takes the form of a town square, complete with coffee stand, seating area and visual representations of the challenges facing a growing London and how to deal with the implications of this in a socially and sustainably responsible manner – a discussion in which the public is invited to participate.
This openness to debate contrasts with the absence of critique of the architect’s practice in the show. While Rogers’ idea of an “ethos” is commendable, it hasn’t always been matched by reality: buildings such as the Pompidou have been more costly and less flexible than wished, while exorbitantly expensive housing such as London’s One Hyde Park (2011) undermines claims to a democratic, open architecture. Nevertheless, it is encouraging that such a high profile architect has not used the exhibition format for self-aggrandisement. Instead, he has seen it as a platform to promote a message – that architecture needs to be a politically engaged and sustainably responsible profession, which recognises its agency to affect positive change on society. In the context of the multiple challenges facing architecture and the society in which it operates, it is this message that makes Inside Out
such a worthwhile visit.