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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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism