t year the Pritzker Prize, the closest thing architecture has to an Oscar, went to the architectural equivalent of an indie star: Paul Mendes da Rochas, a Brazilian architect who was greatly gifted but not exactly a household name. This year it goes to the architectural equivalent of Paul Newman. At the age of 73, Richard Rogers is so well known, with so many major projects under his belt, that a lot of people will be surprised to hear he didn’t have the bronze medallion already. But if it’s hard not to think of him as a safe choice it’s also strange to think of him that way. Because when he arrived on the scene three decades ago, Rogers represented everything that was the opposite of safe. He was 44 a relative youth in the architectural field when he became abruptly famous for co-designing, with Renzo Piano, one of the most uproarious and fiercely original buildings in history, the Pompidou Center in Paris.
The Pompidou turned the world upside down by turning it inside out. What would ordinarily have been the inner workings of the museum escalators, ventilation ducts, even its steel structural framework were put on the outside, making it easier to produce large, uninterrupted gallery spaces within. Rogers took the Modernist rule that a building should clearly express its structure and extended it into realms where Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier never ventured.
From that point forward, architecture in which the elements of a building are disassembled and exuberantly recombined was a Rogers trademark. In that, he was an original, but also a great synthesizer. He drew inspiration from the engineering-as-architecture of London’s 19th-century Crystal Palace, a place as stripped down and functional as a suspension bridge, but also from the Expressionism of Erich Mendelsohn, the German architect who brought a sensual component to Modernism. What Rogers arrived at was a way to make high tech not just lucid but surprising. Modernism expelled applied ornament. But by making an explosive aesthetic use of the raw, unadorned elements of a building, Rogers showed that, all by itself, the elemental could be ornamental.
And also, sometimes, uncanny. So much has been made about the rational character of the Pompidou that it’s easy to overlook its enduring strangeness, the climate of uneasy feeling it creates as a building disemboweled, with its intestines and even its skeleton on display. Sitting on the broad, cobblestoned plaza in front of it, it’s not hard to imagine that the underground workings of the city itself have erupted upward. The Pompidou may be high tech, its exoskeleton may be a rationalist’s grid, but it strikes a note of ferocious dislocations and forbidden disclosures that the Surrealists would have understood.
Rogers’next major project was the Lloyd’s of London headquarters in London, completed in 1986, a building that was almost as much of a shock to that city as the Pompidou had been for Paris. It extended the Pompidou’s externalization-idea skyward. It also worked ambitious variations on an idea developed by the great American architect Louis Kahn, who proposed that a building could be conceived as a system of “served” and “servant” spaces. Servant spaces, the ones set aside for elevators. stairways, pipes, wiring and ventilation, could be housed apart from the served spaces, the offices, factory floors, auditoriums or galleries, in separately articulated volumes. By that means you could divide a single building into an ensemble of varying forms. So Kahn put slender brick stairway towers up the sides of his 1961 Richards Medical Research Building in Philadelphia, where from some angles they give the illusion of free-standing sentinels beside the glass-and-brick towers that hold the laboratories. At Rogers’Lloyd headquarters those externalized stairways reappear, this time wrapped in coiling steel. In later Rogers buildings they appear again, and to finer effect, enclosed all in glass.
Rogers’ large London-based firm, Richard Rogers Partnership, has continued to make buildings, like the Bordeaux Law Courts, that are imaginative without being willfully eccentric. Notwithstanding that he’s Lord Rogers the life peerage came in 1996 Rogers is also a confirmed political progressive. At his firm the directors make no more than six times the lowest-paid architects. Like Norman Foster, whom he’s often paired with as a pioneer of Brit high tech, he’s committed to environmentally sustainable design. And during the Tony Blair years in the U.K., he’s made himself into an architectural and city planning power at home, pushing for real architecture over kitsch revivalism and for high-density city living over suburban sprawl. I’m sorry he got involved with the World Trade Center site in Manhattan, where he, Foster and Fumihiko Maki are each designing office towers that will form an ill-conceived and oversized wall of skyscrapers along one edge of the 9/11 memorial. But if there has to be another overly large building down there, I guess I’m glad it’s by him.