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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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