- Article by David Neustein
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‘We like to be in the sun, sit on the doorstep, and meet people. This is what cities are about.’ Born in Italy, Britain’s second most famous architect¹ clearly dislikes sitting in the shade. His skin is a deep terracotta, evidence of a summer spent beneath a Tuscan sun. Or perhaps that tan comes from an internal glow: the charismatic Lord Richard Rogers lights up a Sydney lecture theatre, with a little help from his garish orange shirt.
An audience has gathered to hear Rogers talk about his contribution to Barangaroo, the planned development of Sydney CBD’s western harbour edge. Rogers, however, knows how to work a crowd: he won’t be discussing his controversial Barangaroo hotel design until the very end of the talk. Accordingly, the first half of the presentation is fairly dull. ‘Cities are the only sustainable form of inhabitation,’ he preaches, supported by a predictable set of images and statistics. When he confesses that he ‘got this image from young girls,’ I rouse slightly, before realising that I have misheard Rogers’ posh elocution: ‘young girls’ was actually a reference to Danish urbanist, ‘Jan Gehl’.
My boredom lifts as Rogers moves on to discuss his architectural practice. Having partnered separately with luminaries Lord Norman Foster and Renzo Piano, Rogers is today co-director of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP), a large office with a progressive business model. Owned entirely by charities, RSHP strives for ‘teamwork, equity and social responsibility,’ with its directors’ wages capped at a multiple of the lowest-paid employee’s salary.
In the past decade, the practice has completed some memorable projects. The National Assembly of Wales – an iconic shell containing a sunken parliamentary chamber – is a representative RSHP project, integrating tactile materials and a highly engineered structure. And while Rogers has primarily been an edifier for governments and institutions, he is equally effective at the other end of the social spectrum. His Maggie’s Centre in London, a cancer care centre, won the 2009 Stirling Prize. The Oxley Woods housing development, near Milton Keynes in England, was constructed from prefabricated timber panels. Designed as low-cost housing, the homes can be erected in less than 24 hours.
While the subject of the talk is cities and society, the subtext is technology. In the Sixties and Seventies, Rogers was instrumental in taking British High Tech to the summit of world architecture. Created in collaboration with Piano and engineer Peter Rice, the Pompidou Centre in Paris captured the energy of Cedric Price’s un-built Fun Palace, with a masterful cage of expressed steel. Going it alone, Rogers followed up on the Pompidou’s promise with Lloyd’s of London. An aggressively modern tower, its services remorselessly exposed, Lloyd’s revolutionised the London skyline. Rogers’ unsentimental aesthetic has softened over the years (the stylised air vents at his Barajas airport terminal in Madrid are more Jetson than Alien), but he is still bursting with enthusiasm for technology. ‘A contemporary building is more like a robot than a Greek temple,’ he says. The comparison of extremes is revealing.
A lengthy reflection on the Pompidou is perhaps the high point of Rogers’ talk. He both demystifies and mythologises his most famous project. I had been taught that it was Rogers and Piano who had the chutzpah to propose demolishing Les Halles to create the Pompidou’s forecourt. Instead, Rogers reveals that the demolition occurred before the design competition took place, in an effort to displace the area’s prostitutes. On the other hand, I had not realised that the architects’ brilliant competition drawings daringly contained a strident anti-Vietnam mural. In any event, the experience of the Pompidou has defined Rogers’ career. In the spirit of High Tech, it identified him as genius and pragmatist in one. But while he dwells on the Pompidou, he avoids any mention of his ill-fated Millennium Dome.
The long-awaited discourse on Barangaroo begins with earnest praise. He tells us: ‘Sydney is arguably the most beautiful city in the world, the way the sea comes right up to the buildings,’ before quickly adding, ‘you don’t appreciate what an amazing city it is!’ In one cunning stroke, Rogers has managed to both flatter and chastise us. What is implied is that he, the prodigal architect, will be the one to help us finally appreciate our own city. We are shown a series of sketches of Barangaroo (in the napkin style beloved of famous architects) with his hotel outlined in totemic red. And having been told that the key aspirations for city development are ‘intensification of the city,’ and ‘building on derelict land,’ here we see Rogers’ ideals in action.
Of course, to perceive this vision, a little squinting is necessary. Rogers describes the ground floor podium, where Barangaroo’s towers touch down, as ‘all public space’. But it is not public space at all. It is a large shopping mall. This is all well and good, unless you happen to fall into the unfortunate proportion of the public that has no cash to spend. Surely Rogers can understand, having earlier professed to not yet owning his own jet? Equally unconvincing is the notion that jutting a flash hotel into Sydney’s greatest truly public space, its harbour, is a gesture that equates to ‘a city for all creeds and classes, rich and poor’.
I am looking at an image depicting a series of canals, which bisect the Barangaroo site, when it all becomes clear. These canals have nothing to do with Sydney, its harbour or its public. They have been copied and pasted from London’s Canary Wharf development. Previously home to England’s largest concentration of council housing, Canary Wharf today boasts one of the highest earning constituencies in Britain. In his designs for the Pompidou, Millennium Dome, and other projects in Berlin and Shanghai, Rogers has envisioned the large-scale erasure and reconstruction of urban areas. He champions the masterstroke – a decisive move that promises to instantaneously solve the problems of the city. This approach delights developers, such as Barangaroo’s Lend Lease, because staged construction costs far more than building the whole lot overnight. But there is no place in this strategy for the slow and gradual growth of grass-roots, authentic local culture. It seems Barangaroo is destined to be another Docklands.
Rogers ends his talk by proposing that universities combine planning, architecture and landscape architecture in a single degree. But the audience has just seen the pitfalls of this kind of sweeping approach to design. We need more specificity, less generalisation, more conservation of industrial fabric and fewer canals. From sunny beginnings, Rogers concludes on a cloudy note. ‘We as a profession are our own worst enemy,’ he says. This has certainly been the case with Barangaroo. Our architectural community continues to suppress criticism of the development, fearful of upsetting those in power. Rogers’ last slide is therefore a fitting one: an image of an illegal climber, dressed as clown, hanging off a Pompidou truss. ‘Who here will challenge me?’ Rogers seems to ask.
1 Lord Norman Foster remains number one at the time of writing.