“Did you really just tell Richard Rogers to buy you a pint of Guinness? Do you even know who you’re talking to?” my partner Alex said down the phone.
It was 2001, and I was following Richard into the Marquess of Granby, round the corner from the Mayor of London’s temporary offices in Marsham Street. I had just started working with Richard and knew he was an eminent architect, but don’t think I got quite how important he was to a whole generation of architects and designers (of whom Alex is one).
That’s probably a good indication of why I’m not the right person to write an appreciation of his buildings, even though I had rushed to see Centre Pompidou in Paris on a teen holiday with two schoolfriends, a sole moment of cultural enrichment in a week that passed in a haze of gauloises and gut-rot red. His best buildings are effervescent with ideas, imagination and delight, engaged in playful if sometimes spikey dialogue with their surroundings, and opening their arms wide to users and passers-by. I find them entrancing to this day.
But I’m not going to write about them here. I want to write instead about working with and becoming friends with a truly incredible man.
Nicky Gavron, London Assembly member and tireless advocate for better urban planning, had brought Richard into see the newly-elected Ken Livingstone. Ken waved a copy of Richard’s Urban Task Force report, which had been published the previous year, saying “I want you to do this in London.” I had been working in the Mayor’s Office, and Ken asked me to work with his new Chief Advisor on Architecture and Urbanism (“Big Richard and Little Richard!” he grinned) to make that happen.
Together with Ricky Burdett, Director of LSE Cities, and Gale Valentine, we set up shop as the Architecture + Urbanism Unit (A+UU), recruiting Mark Brearley, John Fannon, Emily Greeves, Jamie Dean, Tobi Goevert and Eleanor Fawcett. Richard had been an advisor to the Mayor of Barcelona, whose City Architect was a powerful figure overseeing large departments, and saw this as his model. We didn’t have the battalions for that, so had to persuade him to adopt a more subtle approach. We tried to intervene selectively in projects being promoted by the boroughs, Transport for London and the London Development Agency to push them to a better place, “catch and steer” in Mark’s phrase.
Faced with the trundling beasts of public sector procurement, Richard often became frustrated (“Where are my million trees? Where are our 100 Public Spaces?”), exploding that he was wasting his time, or more amiably deciding he had had enough, and we all needed to go out for lunch or to the pub. He took no salary, but came in two days a week, chasing progress but also deploying all his skill and persistence at meetings with the Mayor and other bigwigs – to do deals on how architects would be selected and briefed, on what role design would play in the planning process, on how east London could fulfil its promise.
He stuck with it too, continuing to harry projects long after the rest of us had sounded the retreat, and showing patience and persistence with a bureaucracy that could be unfathomable even to insiders, where other architects would have packed up and retreated to the studio. Quite often, he would ask me to draft him a ‘tough’ (favourite term) note to the Mayor, demanding a project be stopped or an official sacked. As is the way of bureaucracies, these notes would then find their way back down to me from the Mayor’s Office, with a request for me to draft a response for the Mayor to sign off. I could keep these correspondence volleys going for weeks.
From 2004, I became increasingly involved in the London 2012 project, so saw less of Richard for a few years. A characteristic encounter was at the Venice Architecture Biennale, where he was awarded a Golden Lion in 2006. We greeted him in the street, and were scooped up and led to a lunch in a wood-panelled restaurant, down a side street I have never found since.
Flying back that evening, we were on the same plane as Richard and Ruthie, though they were in Business Class. I said hello as we got on, and expected they’d be long gone by the time we got out – that’s why you pay for Business Class after all. Instead, I found them waiting as we came through baggage reclaim, to see if we needed a lift anywhere. When we got into the Addison Lee, Richard told the driver “Chelsea, via Brixton.” The driver muttered that Brixton wasn’t really on the way to Chelsea. “It is now,” replied Richard with a familiar mix of charm and steel which precluded much argument.
Richard continued to advise Ken, and then Boris Johnson for a couple of years, though took less of an active role as the A+UU morphed into the larger Design for London, headed by Peter Bishop. I think Richard saw his time at the GLA as something of a missed opportunity. We did not build his 100 public spaces or plant his million trees, and City East did not transform Docklands.
This is all true. But, as I said to him, those concepts had a long afterlife, and the cultural changes in how design and planning are done in London government were subtle but profound. The legacy of A+UU is still there in the current Mayor’s Good Growth by Design programme, in his panel of ‘Design Advocates’, in boroughs’ design review panels, in the Public Practice scheme that places newly qualified architects in public sector jobs, and in the inspiration he gave to a generation of planners.
After Richard left the GLA, I started working with him again, intermittently helping him to write articles or letters to the papers protesting against suburban sprawl, against toy town designs, and against the impact of austerity on the public realm – the ‘Continuity Urban Task Force’ as I used to call it. And it was very hard to pay for a meal at the River Café if he spotted us eating there. Richard enjoyed the good life – the River Café, the holidays in Mexico and Italy, opera and art – but he sought to share it as widely as possible, and was genuinely upset and angry when people were denied access to decent housing, food and healthcare.
In 2013, the Royal Academy hosted Richard Rogers: Inside Out, an exhibition that was as much about Richard’s political and civic beliefs as it was about his buildings. This caught the interest of Katy Follain, an editor at Canongate, and she asked Richard to write a book with the same blend of the personal, professional and political. I was trying to find something new to do after ten years on the Olympic treadmill, so was flattered when Richard and Ruthie asked me to help (especially given Canongate’s offer of some real writers).
The experience was hard going to begin with, when some early draft chapters came back covered in red scrawl. Richard’s dyslexia may have meant that he struggled to write long-form prose, but he knew what he wanted and knew what was good. We played around with structure, between timelines and topics, and ended up with a book that started narrow – focusing on a boy’s birth in Florence and his arrival in cold grey England in the 1930s – then widened its scope, using projects as jumping off points for discussions of urban development, public space, politics, inequality.
At first, Richard was reticent about the autobiographical elements; he wanted to look forward not back. But over time, he relaxed into the process, with long interviews where he reflected on his life, influences and ideas, recorded in his house in Chelsea, in his Hammersmith offices, on the terrace of the Tuscan farmhouse he and Ruthie rented every summer. The conversations were inspiring, a comfort to me as my own parents slid into ill-health, and often great fun. One taped interview, on the train back from Manchester after a party conference, starts structured and gradually dissolves into giggles as the free Virgin Rail Rosé takes effect.
As the chapters of A Place for All People were edited and finalised, Richard turned his attention to the design. I think Canongate were used to authors who would turn over a manuscript, fret a bit about the cover photo, then shut up until the proofs arrived. Richard had other ideas. He called up Andy Stevens, the graphic designer who had worked with him and his son Ab on the Inside Out exhibition design, and negotiations with Canongate began (Tracing paper? No. Different coloured papers for different sections? No. Spiral binding? No.) Once a format was agreed, pages would be laid out and reviewed again and again, by Richard, Ruthie and Ab, until Richard was happy with the flow and interplay of the textual and photographic narratives.
And this, I think, was at the heart of Richard’s genius. He was notoriously bad at drawing and struggled with writing, but he had brilliant ideas, acute judgement, and – an overused word but right in his case – a vision for what places and societies could be. He searched out the right partners and collaborators, and used all his powers of charm, persuasion, encouragement and menace to bring out the best in them and make the results of their work together as good as it could be.
Richard was so full of life, so endlessly curious, so excited about the possibility of a better world, and so tireless in trying to bring it about, that the world seems to have lost a little of its colour with his death. I’ll miss him enormously.