November 1, 2009
The Way Forward
Buffeted by criticism from Prince Charles, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners forges ahead with new ideas for old problems.
Richard Rogers is surely the most misunderstood architect in Britain. Since his “people’s palace,” the Centre Pompidou (designed with Renzo Piano), opened in 1977 in Paris, Rogers has shown a commitment to improving the public realm matched by few architects working at his level of international acclaim. To advance his ideas about city planning, he became that rarest of species, the architect as politician, winning influence among those with the power to make things happen. He has made no secret of the passionate left-wing convictions that underpin his ideas about the social responsibility of architecture. His enemies in Britain’s right-wing press ignore the sensible, life-affirming proposals in his books, Cities for a Small Planet and Cities for a Small Country, and paint him as an egotist—“Lord Trendy Billionaire Rogers,” the columnist A. N. Wilson gibed—who wants to impose his misguided, Modernist, glass-and-steel vision on a public that supposedly detests everything about it.
I was warned when I met Rogers in early June that only one subject was off-limits. At the time, Rogers’s multi-billion-dollar mixed-use project for Qatari Diar, the development arm of the Qatari government, on the site of the former Chelsea Barracks, in London, was under fire from Prince Charles, who has infuriated British architects by using his position to speak out against modern architecture. In 1984 the prince criticized a proposed extension to the National Gallery (not by Rogers) as a “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved friend.” That verbal demolition caused lasting offense. More recently, the monarch-in-waiting wrote to the Qatari royal family, urging them to drop Rogers’s design and instead use a classical one by Quinlan Terry. At the client’s request, the Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP) Web site contained no reference to design details of the Chelsea Barracks project, and Rogers had been asked not to talk about it. I suggested to him that Britain still has a conservative, traditional wing in architecture. “Lately, it’s come out rather strongly,” he said drily, looking relaxed in one of his trademark collarless lime-green shirts.
Ten days later, Qatari Diar withdrew its planning application. Two and a half years’ work developing the project had come to nothing, and Rogers was incensed. This was at least the third time that Prince Charles had intervened to block one of his firm’s projects. In 1987 he attacked Rogers’s proposals for Paternoster Square, next to St. Paul’s Cathedral, in a public speech, and the plans were scrapped. A scheme to rebuild the Royal Opera House also fell apart after the prince let the royal displeasure be known. “I was basically told: ‘the prince does not like you,’” Rogers complained in the Guardian, demanding an inquiry into this new meddling. “The prince does not debate and in a democracy that is unacceptable and in fact is non-constitutional.” This drew a malicious attack from the Daily Mail: “Next month, [Rogers] will be 76. But instead of being mellowed by age, his contempt for those who disagree with him seems to have intensified an arrogance that is his defining characteristic.”
It is hard to square this arrogant, overbearing, Howard Roarkian caricature with the man I met at RSHP’s headquarters in Hammersmith, London, next to the River Thames. Before Rogers arrived, Ivan Harbour and Graham Stirk—senior directors at the firm—enthused about the practice’s atelier work style and “big family” atmosphere. Every Monday, Rogers holds an informal design forum that is open to everyone. The staff discusses the latest competitions and projects already under way; the aim is to encourage fresh perspectives and new ideas. “What’s fascinating about Richard is that the organization he has set up allows contribution,” Harbour says.
We talked in a meeting room barely big enough for a table—the usual accoutrements of power seemed to count for little. This is a practice that puts the architect’s social responsibility at the heart of the firm and at every level of the organization. RSHP is owned by a charitable trust, and Rogers is far from being a billionaire; his share in the company is worth one pound. The directors’ salaries are fixed at no more than six times the net income of RSHP’s lowest paid architect (who has been registered and on staff for at least two years), and Rogers’s is nine times this amount. RSHP shares profits, after reserves and taxes, with all staff members and donates a percentage to charities. Staff benefits are generous. After a year’s service, for instance, the firm pays women on maternity leave their full salary for up to a year. (The British legal requirement is six weeks at 90 percent of earnings, followed by 33 weeks at about $200 a week.)
Stirk and Harbour get equal billing with Rogers in the new company name. Rogers hopes there will be continuity after he’s gone. “The idea is that the knowledge we’ve built up and stored over this vast length of time continues and is of ‘benefit’—inverted commas—to society,” he says.
If this sounds surprisingly self-deprecating, Rogers cuts an affable, laid-back figure. He smiles constantly, laughs easily, talks in a fast and not always audible slur, and looks like a man full of zest for the best things life has to offer. The canteen next to our meeting room is the firm’s social hub, and Rogers’s wife, Ruth, co-owns the renowned River Café next door to the RSHP building. Born in Florence, Rogers takes August off, in the Italian fashion, and once a year the whole office goes away on a trip. In 2008 it was to the Protos winery near Valladolid, Spain, a project that won a European Award from the Royal Institute of British Architects and was designed by RSHP. “We all learned lots about wine,” he chuckles.
The “arrogance” that infuriates Rogers’s detractors is really the conviction that architects have an informed basis for their views. “People working in offices have a much greater consciousness of how their high-quality, standardized office should be organized,” Rogers says. “But immediately [when] they go out of their office, they have absolutely no understanding.” Crucial decisions about the built environment are often made by people unaware of what constitutes progressive practice.
RSHP is celebrated for its innovative office buildings. One of the latest is 300 New Jersey Avenue, in Washington, D.C., for the JBG Companies. But the project that grabbed my attention is in a much humbler category of building, one that leading international architects tend to ignore. Oxley Woods, in Milton Keynes, for the developer George Wimpey, is RSHP’s first venture into mass-market housing. “There’s been more interest in this project than in any other project the office has ever done,” says Harbour, who was the lead architect. “Everywhere from Russia, Saudi Arabia, America—you name it.”
The challenge set in 2005 by the British government’s Design for Manufacture competition was to design high-quality, affordable homes that could be built for a construction cost of just £60,000 (now around $95,000). “When our bid got selected,” Harbour says, “I remember saying, ‘I know that this doesn’t seem great, but this is actually one of the most important projects in the office.’ Simply because, if we can make just the smallest change in the thinking about mass-market housing, that’s going to have a huge influence. We’re at the crux of whether we can make that change. Certainly, the housing associations have shown a lot of interest.”
Milton Keynes is 51 miles northwest of London, and Oxley Woods is located about two miles from the new town’s center. My first view of the estate, which will eventually consist of 145 two- and three-story houses, was as extraordinary as the photographs led me to expect. The houses look like nothing else in the U.K. They’re boxlike, angular, and smooth-sided: sleek, habitable machines with inverted red caps bolted to their roofs. (These “EcoHats” contain a low-voltage fan for circulating air.) The external walls are covered with 70 percent softwood panels, from renewable forests, in a range of colors: white, silver and anthracite gray, and mahogany red.
The first homes were ready in 2007, but some of the houses on the seven-acre-plus site are still under construction. I watched groups of workers hoist into place prefabricated timber wall sections, while others used cherry pickers to position the panels on the frames. It’s the same quick-assembly model used in precision-cut flat-pack furniture. No scaffolding is needed. It takes just two days to put up a waterproof shell, then a few weeks for the trades to do their finishing, one task at a time, to avoid the damage that can occur when carpenters, plumbers, and electricians work on a house simultaneously.
It was baking hot, and I wandered along the access roads, dazzled by the light bouncing off the houses. On a drab day these reflective surfaces—you can wipe them clean—would brighten the street. There is a traditional housing estate a few hundred yards away with cottagelike brick houses, tiled roofs, and small windows. The interiors probably require a lot of lighting. Oxley Woods houses have large windows and corner windows that increase security by allowing occupants to see visitors at their front doors and keep an eye on the neighborhood. (I felt like an interloper myself.) There are no attics under the angled roofs, and the top-floor rooms benefit from the entire volume, though some buyers have raised storage as an issue. Other than that, feedback from buyers, who range from first-time homeowners to retired physicians, has been positive. Carbon emissions are generally lower than those of a conventional house of the same size. The homes display the way they are built rather than trying to conceal it, and Harbour says that many buyers chose them because they like the design.
“The mood of the country has gone beyond enjoying a pastiche of the past,” Harbour says. “People are more sophisticated now. With globalization, they’re more aware of what’s going on around the world, and they realize that not everyone lives in this dolls’-house view of heritage England.” This sounds like a not-so-oblique reference to Prince Charles, who has built a nostalgic, neo-Georgian model village, Poundbury, which now has 1,500 residents, on his Duchy of Cornwall estate in Dorset.
Harbour’s one reservation concerns the Oxley Woods site plan, which was predetermined by English Partnerships, the U.K. government’s national development agency. “This shouldn’t be seen, certainly from our side, as something we would condone as a way of planning housing.” He thinks the public spaces could be tighter and more considered, and no doubt they could. However, the variety of types (there are ten configurations) helps to differentiate these standardized homes. A more uniform arrangement would be even more economical, but it would have less appeal to buyers. Rogers has repeatedly argued for high-density living in cities—more than 120 homes per hectare, or 2.5 acres. In Oxley Woods, the density is around 45 dwellings per hectare, which is hardly excessive. This isn’t a city, and there is plenty of space in Milton Keynes, so why shouldn’t people enjoy it?
My only criticism, now that the houses are occupied, is that their futuristic style makes conventional timber fences, gates, and garden sheds look incongruous and unsightly. (Harbour notes that even the cars parked outside seem old-fashioned.) These backyard necessities require a better integrated design language, but that is more restrictive than even the most aesthetically aware owner is likely to accept. A few residents have even put up net curtains. Ultra-modernity is a demanding visual code to live up to.
Nevertheless, Oxley Woods offers a rational, low-cost, environmentally sensitive approach to building mass-market houses that has important lessons not just for Britain but around the world. RSHP’s willingness to think so progressively makes nonsense of the reactionary criticisms Rogers has faced in recent months. Oxley Woods is driven by the same conviction that has informed his work from the start: the quality of the built environment is fundamental to realizing the goal of social inclusion. “By working closely together, we have been able to develop an approach which links construction closely to design, giving real value to the home owner,” he explained in a 2007 press release. “The scheme at Oxley Woods is highly flexible and sustainable and will, we hope, provide homes for a diverse community for many generations to come.”
Recognizing long ago that these ideals can only be realized at the city and national levels by winning over politicians, Rogers has devoted great energy to building these partnerships. “I was told by a senior civil servant, ‘If you ever want to be taken seriously in politics, you must never use the word beauty.’ Afterwards, I used it everywhere,” he laughs. “It’s a critical part of our culture.” In 1998 John Prescott, then the deputy prime minister, appointed Rogers chair of the government’s urban task force. He also enjoyed a warm relationship with Ken Livingstone, London’s controversial Labour mayor from 2000 to 2008, working for him as chief adviser on architecture and urbanism.
“Ken said, ‘You’ve done the theory. What about delivering it?’” Rogers relishes the company of politicians “who don’t quite fit into their box” and insist on doing things their own way. Despite the political shift from left to right, the eccentric new Conservative mayor, Boris Johnson, seemed to be another in the same mold. Johnson retained Rogers as a design adviser, though in a much reduced role, and appointed him to a second panel earlier this year. Rogers was too well seasoned an operator to say anything ungenerous about his new boss when we met. In September, though, Rogers announced his resignation from both panels because they didn’t give him “sufficient scope to use his expertise,” according to the mayor’s spokesman.
It was another setback in a tough year for Rogers. Like other firms, RSHP has been buffeted by the global downturn. Some projects have been canceled, while others, such as the Leadenhall building in London, are now on hold. RSHP laid off 35 employees in March, causing Rogers and his partners real pain. Shortly before cheerily whisking away to another meeting, Rogers mentioned Roosevelt’s New Deal. Obama has it right in his view: seize the moment to invest in housing, transportation, public-works programs, public spaces, and public art. “The big thing is to do the good things, because you’ve got such a mess going on,” Rogers says. “Let’s deliver the physical things and the social things. Now’s the time.”