For an exhibition organized by London’s Royal Academy in 1986, architect Richard Rogers produced a new vision of the city dubbed London As It Could Be. The project gave Rogers an opportunity to imagine a near-complete transformation of central London. In an accompanying text, he wrote that the purpose of a city is "for the meeting of friends and strangers in civilized public spaces surrounded by beautiful architecture," and his installation of plans and models was a wonderful visualization of that statement. Think of it as sci-fi humanism: remaking the city to frame what humans should really be.
London As It Could Be presented visitors with enormous structural masts anchored on the banks of the Thames, from which future offices and living spaces could be hung. A pedestrian superbridge would span the river, with new walking routes opened up between Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square. This would create a city built to serve not the spatial needs of the automobile industry but the cultural needs of its living residents.
Lord Richard Rogers, born in 1933 in Florence, Italy, a 1962 graduate of the Yale School of Architecture, and recipient of the 2007 Pritzker Prize, is most often associated with a generation of British architects, including Norman Foster, Nicholas Grimshaw, and James Stirling, known for their structurally bold and technologically expressive work. <i>London As It Could Be</i> showed off the most socially beneficial impulses behind this high-tech design strategy, revealing Rogers’s ability—often more sharply honed than in the work of his peers—to explore a different kind of sustainability, one intimately connected to the experiential fabric of the city.
Of course, some critics would have us believe that Rogers’s buildings, whether the now-canonical Lloyd’s of London headquarters or the Centre Pompidou in Paris designed with Renzo Piano, bring a bleak modernist chill to the streetscape. But if only one lesson is to be learned from these buildings, it is that a work of architecture can anticipate and even catalyze a different kind of streetlife, one motivated by curiosity and a desire to linger. My own experience of this effect comes through the Channel 4 building in the London borough of Westminster, designed by Rogers in the early 1990s to house the once cutting-edge television studio. That building, with its glass walls, external elevators, and color-coded maintenance infrastructure, backs directly onto the apartment complex in which my in-laws live. Over the course of nearly a decade, I have walked past and into the mechanics of that space far too many times to count—and there is always someone outside, gazing up at the building, as if to deduce how its maze of parts really works. I realized one day that this was a kind of futurist baroque—where, instead of carved ornament and stone statuary, we see glass and steel details almost constantly on the move. The building’s near-infinite points on which a pedestrian can focus provide a moment of intense visual interest in the otherwise undifferentiated mass of the modern, car-oriented city.
Witness the crowds gathered in front of the Centre Pompidou at almost all hours of the day, for instance, and you’ll see proof that a new style of building can catalyze a radically different kind of engagement with urban space: a more communal approach to other residents of the city. Indeed, as Rogers has been saying all along through lectures, books, and newspaper articles, the structure of the city itself must be reimagined, building by building and street by street, to help make way for a new type of urban civilization—one that is not only healthier, but also culturally and environmentally sustainable.
When I meet with Rogers at his riverside office in Hammersmith, I enter the renovated brick building through a lobby of glass cases in which the firm’s most recent models are on display. Rogers, who partnered in the 1990s with senior director Graham Stirk and director Ivan Harbour to form Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP), is quick to smile, often flashing a puzzled grin as if to suggest there’s something more to say—but he’ll refrain, politely, for now.
With a light rain falling into the Thames outside, Rogers begins by enthusiastically reiterating the task of rethinking the very texture of the modern metropolis and the urgent need to build "compact, polycentric cities" united by public transportation. I ask him and Harbour about their recent work, including the houses at Oxley Woods. Oxley Woods is a development designed by RSHP for a site outside Milton Keynes, England, in response to a 2005 competition called Design for Manufacture. The houses are unusual in appearance—seeming at first far too geometric and boldly colored ever to feel quite like home. But it’s what’s under the hood, so to speak, that deserves further discussion. Harbour and Rogers each point out that the houses were built on "an inherited site," as Rogers terms it; the architects would have designed the street grid differently if they had had the chance to do so. Harbour adds that the houses took shape through "clever ways of using wood," including prefabricated panels made from sustainably harvested European softwoods and a paper-based internal insulation. The components were delivered flat-pack, greatly reducing construction waste, with the added benefit that each home’s "external envelope" was ready in a mere two days.
But there is more to sustainability than the use of clever materials, Harbour says: "It’s important to ask with all of these projects ‘Why would someone live here?’ You can’t just build something and expect people to want to live there—or expect it to be sustainable. But you can deliver a reason to live there through design. The design itself can be something that will give people a shared point of reference, creating a community of people with similar goals, like waste reduction or energy efficiency. Living somewhere becomes pursuing something together." Rogers agrees: "Design is not an added expense; it is an added value. Design often makes the difference between a place that simply exists, hoping to attract new residents and workers, and a place that can thrive for many years to come—which is the most sustainable result of all."
This idea of bringing people together through the shared value of a sustainable lifestyle leads me to ask Rogers about his Living Over The Shop (LOTS) program, which, before it lost government funding, sought to bring people back into the urban core by changing tax codes. Rogers seems to brighten at the question: "Yes. Changing tax codes is not architectural, but it can have very clear urban effects. If you change taxes, transport options, and street design all to encourage—even necessitate—a different way of living in the city, a different type of city in which people can live, then you’ve succeeded in moving closer to a city that will really work."
How might this be reflected in something like London’s plans for the 2012 Olympics? I suggest that the Olympics inspired a brief moment in the history of the city when everyone, from architects to shopkeepers and housewives, was given implicit permission to redream London and assess anew what the city might yet become. Rogers seems hesitant to ally himself with the Olympics; one senses that things are simply too far along and too plagued by administrative missteps, even three years ahead of time, to offer much room for inspiration. But "Barcelona," he says, and the grin comes back, "Barcelona nailed it in 1992. They used the Olympics as an opportunity to improve the city, to do things they would not have been able to do at any other time. They attracted new residents, rewarded current ones, and set into place long-term projects of strong urban thinking."
It’s clear, in other words, that transforming the everyday urban world is possible. Making our own cities green—let alone more exciting for both residents and visitors alike—is something we could, in fact, do. The key, Rogers might say, is knowing when to act, and taking every opportunity as it comes.