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

GERRY BRAKUS
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“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution