Richard Rogers and Le Corbusier: In praise of the chaotic, human city

Rogers is one of the best-known architects in an age of big-brand designers, but the Royal Academy's “Inside Out” looks at his more powerful legacy as an urban philosopher, while a MoMA retrospective presents the French-Swiss designer Le Corbusier as a ge

Richard Rogers RA: Inside Out; 
Le Corbusier: an Atlas of Modern 
Landscapes
Royal Academy of Arts, London W1
MoMA, New York
 
“I shall leave my city no less but rather more beautiful than I found it.” This was a vow that every young Athenian was asked to make as he came of age in the republic. A vibrant exhibition of the life and ideas of Richard Rogers suggests his desire to explore this vow, not just as an architect but as a citizen.
 
Rogers is one of the best-known architects in an age of big-brand designers, but “Inside Out” looks at his more powerful legacy as an urban philosopher. Though it gives a lightly edited overview of his completed buildings, the show illuminates the how and why of being an architect as much as the what. A quote on the wall of the opening room – “What I stand for is more important than what I have achieved” – suggests the well-lived life is as important as the work.
 
Being a significant architect and an incisive thinker about cities are not necessarily the same thing. In a major retrospective at MoMA in New York this summer, the French-Swiss designer Le Corbusier is presented as a genius of abstraction. He clung on to his notions of what man was and what was needed, reducing the human formula to an algebra that could be transported anywhere in the world, the International Style.
 
Le Corbusier’s plans for new cities were designed regardless of the streets: he famously said, “The design of cities was too important to be left to the citizens.” The city is made out of the plan, and the plan – modern, international, true to its materials – would set people free. MoMA’s exhibition (runs until 23 September) explores his sensitivity to landscape through a series of drawings and paintings, illustrating his fascination with seeing a place as a “view from an aeroplane”. Though persuasive, it remains a rather academic exercise.
 
“Inside Out”, curated by the Rogers family, feels more like a celebration. It develops a biographical narrative, taking space to discuss particular projects, among them the first commissions for the Team 4 practice (formed by four graduates just out of Yale: Rogers, Su Brumwell, Norman Foster and Wendy Cheesman) and the Pompidou Centre in Paris, which Rogers designed with the Italian Renzo Piano. There’s also the Lloyds building in the City of London, completed in 1986, and the “Cheesegrater”, now going up in the City, as well as detailed looks at the Welsh National Assembly, Madrid-Barajas’s Terminal 4 and Bordeaux Law Courts.
 
It’s the Pompidou that best sums up his architectural philosophy. Initially Rogers refused to enter the competition for its design, proposed by a vainglorious French prime minister who had suppressed the May 1968 protests, but the results were spectacular. The Pompidou celebrates its own technical ingenuity, promising a malleable future of infinite possibilities. In its most strikingly innovative gesture, the design covered just half the potential space, leaving a vast public piazza in front of the centre that makes the whole design as much a “place” as a building.
 
The idea of the piazza appears to be Rogers’s most persistent preoccupation. He understands that cities are made out of people, not buildings, and that the life between buildings is what matters. “Cities are a stage where people perform and buildings are the sets that frame the performance,” he says. A public space must be democratic, “a place for all” – and one of this exhibition’s main rooms is designed as an open forum, with tiered seats prepared for a series of discussions and a coffee bike selling espresso.
 
It’s in London that we have seen the greatest impact of his ideas: revival by focusing on the “inner city”, promoting creative areas for museums and café culture, pedestrianisation, and developing brownfield sites rather than continuing to expand outwards. From 2000 to 2008 Rogers chaired the Greater London Authority’s panel for architecture and urbanism and was Ken Livingstone’s chief adviser. As a figure who prides himself on his political principles, he has undoubtedly made the British city more beautiful; however, the urban renaissance of the New Labour era brought its own problems, such as the gentrification of inner-city neighbourhoods, the initial failure of the Millennium Dome and the replacement of high-rise blocks with lifeless housing developments.
 
Tellingly, some projects are downplayed in “Inside Out”: the horrid, untimely opulence of Neo Bankside and One Hyde Park, designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, or the unbuilt 2006 designs for the Javits Convention Centre in New York. These are evidence that an architect must sometimes put work ahead of principles. Yet Rogers’s belief in the benefits of the city and the value of civic life are more persuasive, and for this he will be remembered as a passionate advocate of the chaotic, human city.
 
“Inside Out” is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London W1, until 13 October

 

Rogers's spectrum of coloured structural "trees", Terminal 4, Madrid-Barajas Airport. Image courtesy of Aena and Manuel Renau

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump