The last modern architect

Richard Rogers's achievements as a maker of extraordinary buildings are in danger of being obscured

The bumf for the Richard Rogers exhibition at the Design Museum tells us that, during the five years of its construction, Rogers referred to his most celebrated work as Beaubourg rather than as the Pompidou Centre "because he was reluctant to see the structure associated so closely with its namesake, the right-wing politician who was seen as responsible for stamping out the insurrectionary outburst of May 1968".

Where does one start?

Namesake is not a synonym of dedicatee. The events of May 1968 were, pace the energetically mythologising industry now surrounding them, hardly insurrectionary. Georges Pompidou was a centrist. His strategy towards the brattish students was one of conciliation and appeasement; he did not stamp out their crummy posturing. He still had three years to live when, in 1971, Rogers and Renzo Piano won the competition to design what was then known as "le Centre du plateau Beaubourg". It did not officially become "le Centre national d'art et de culture Georges-Pompidou" until January 1975, nine months after the president's death - and that name took some years to seep into the vernacular.

What we have here is the Design Museum's quaintly mendacious attempt to invest this peer of the realm and panjandrum of the soft plu tocracy with a familiar gamut of revolutionary, right-on and, no doubt, anti-elitist properties. Still, this is only to be expected: the most potent weapon in the curatorial repertoire is a tongue so ambitiously taut that it can reach the jejunum. Of course, Alan Yentob, who interviews him at the museum on 25 June (£20: obviously a snip), may redress the balance of the celebratory shtick by asking rigorous questions along the lines of: "Of the many wonderful buildings you have designed, Richard, which is the most wonderfully advanced and totally misunderstood by the reactionary Establishment?" But, on the other hand, maybe he'll give Rogers an easy ride.

Philip Johnson once referred to Rogers's sometime partner Norman Foster as "the last modern architect". He was wrong. Foster has looked back. He has proved to be the first neo-modern architect, the master of retrospective synthetic-modernism, producing an oeuvre which has paid nostalgic homage to the early modern canon by ransacking it for inspirational models.

If Johnson's sobriquet is applicable to anyone, it is Rogers, who, in his work, has looked the other way - although he clings to a touchingly retardataire gamut of modernist notions: that modernism is something more than a style; that architecture is a tool of social improvement; that sustainability is more than a fashion masked as a moral imperative; that "design-led" regeneration benefits someone other than architects and builders; that British urbanism can be susceptible to prescriptions borrowed from cities which are collectively attuned to density; that the suppression of private transport can be effected in a sprawling megalopolis such as London. The sentiments are as laudable as they are conventional.

While he could more usefully have been getting his mouth wired (which would also have prevented him from mauling the language), the wretched John Prescott paid attention to Rogers and so too, later, did Ken Livingstone. It is thus ultimately due to his persuasive orthodoxies being taken up as policy that flocks of very banal architects were granted the chance to litter Britain with off-the-peg apartment blocks - soulless, repetitive, infrastructureless, "luxury" hutches, intended no doubt to represent the populist face of synthetic-modernism but turning out to be its resistible armpit. The pity of it is that Rogers the architect of genius and maker of extraordinary bespoke structures is in danger (in Britain at least) of being eclipsed by the theorist, urbanist and new Labour consigliere who shares his name and his body, but not his gifts.

Given that architects routinely claim that the creation of buildings demands spatial, three- dimensional and "vertical" faculties and that the creation of place demands the left-hemisphere abilities of linearity and sequentiality, it is odd how keen architects are to promote themselves as urbanists. It's an unnatural progression, but no more or less hubristic than actors aspiring to direct, footballers wanting to become managers: success in the one has little to do with prowess in the other. The Pompidou Centre staging of this exhibition did not carry the subtitle "From the House to the City". That was a tactful omission.

Though Rogers is never likely to become a byword for dystopianism, there is an evident congruence with the case of Le Corbusier, whose transcendent greatness is in his buildings and his plastic audacity, not in his hectoring manifestos, certainly not in his talentless acolytes' instant slums. Like Le Corbusier, Rogers has persistently reinvented his architecture: there is no such thing as a Rogers "signature" any more than there is a Corbusian one. There are, rather, styles, which are here discarded with alacrity, there developed and honed. Picasso's edict to copy anyone but yourself has been zealously observed down four and a half decades, while Eliot's often forgotten rider - "A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest" - was early on brazenly ignored: the sources of the borrowings were hardly covert.

Rogers's works of the 1960s and early 1970s afford the considerable pleasure of watching an increasingly accomplished chameleon donning and doffing guises, doing its stuff, trying on different voices: Charles and Ray Eames and Craig Elwood, Alison and Peter Smithson, Le Corbusier himself, Mies van der Rohe, Paul Rudolph in his various manners. This is not a matter of imitation but, on the contrary, of self-discovery. But even from that idiomatically protean period - before Rogers was Rogers, so to speak - there are intimations of what will become recurrent themes and consistent preoccupations: the interplay of transparency and opacity, of the hidden and the overt; a highly unorthodox, almost counter-intuitive response to sites; a tension between technological exigencies and compositional balance; a marriage of the forms and silhouettes associable with brutalism to the materials associable with engineering, aviation and the process of building. Contrary to what might be expected, this is an enduring marriage.

Renzo Piano described the Pompidou Centre as "almost a parody of technology". One might go further. It demonstrates the sculptural potential of technological components, of (what might be) found objects. It obviously owes a debt to Archigram's unbuilt projects but it also hints at what has become increasingly obvious in the City of London, Bordeaux, Antwerp, Strasbourg, Madrid and Cardiff - that Rogers is an architect of the picturesque with decidedly Gothic leanings. His structural methods are Gothic, his vertiginous spaces are Gothic, his accretive tendency is Gothic. The cowls of his Antwerp Law Courts are like penitents' hoods. The "pods" of his Bordeaux courts recall both fat, jolly monks and alembics - which at least suggest a humane sort of justice. The latter building, like Lloyd's and the Pompidou, is crammed on to the very perimeter of its site. Like a medieval cathedral, it is hugger-mugger with the city about it. But it is also a sort of defensive wall round whose end, beside the tram track, there is a delightful space of five different eras that the courts almost alchemically tie together. And unlike the giant conversation pit achieved by building the Pompidou on a north-south axis tight to rue Beau bourg, this Bordelais space is not overrun by mimes, clowns, jugglers, fire-eaters, street theatre workers and dog-on-string operatives.

An exhibition such as this is an exhibition about rather than an exhibition of, say, paintings, wigs, two-headed sheep. What it shows are analogues, fragments and representations. Which tend, of course, to be idealised: architectural photography is a form of propaganda or, at least, self-advertisement. And although maquettes are splendid objects in their own right (witness the Musée des plans-reliefs in les Invalides) they cannot begin to transport their audience, cannot replicate the delight of moving through spaces that go further beyond the functional than any in contemporary architecture. There is a lot of stuff in these buildings, a lot of incident. They are rich, energetic, restless, maximalist, sensorily affecting. A facet of Rogers's genius is that you get a lot for your money.

"Richard Rogers + Architects: From the House to the City" is at the Design Museum, London SE1, until 25 August (info: www.designmuseum.org)

Jonathan Meades's latest TV series, "Magnetic North", starts on 15 May on BBC2 (7pm)

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Secret Israel