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Tribute to Lord Rogers by Baroness Whitaker

4 min read

A visionary who believed architecture was political, Lord Rogers transformed our country and brought his views on democracy and openness to his work in Parliament.

We first met Richard and Ruthie Rogers, then living a few streets away, before his career brought him into advising national and local governments, when his and Renzo Piano’s wonderful Pompidou Art Centre building in Paris, with its revolutionary outside escalator and brightly coloured piping system, caught public and architectural attention.  That was already a clear statement that the workings of a building need not be hidden, and that the inside space should be for people visiting – all carried out with stunningly radical technical innovations and immediate visual attractiveness. Those ideas informed his vision for the rest of his career.

So it was no surprise that following the success of, among many others, his Lloyds building, built on similar lines, and the youngest structure to receive Grade 1 listing, and his work on systems for sustainable and engaging cities set out in his Reith Lectures of 1995, ‘Cities for a Small Planet,’ he was invited by the Labour government to chair a new Urban Task Force.  

Its recommendation for the use of brownfield land, rather than using up precious green space, was enormously influential: five years later 70 per cent of development was on brownfield sites. In 2000, the new Greater London Authority made him head of their Architecture and Urbanism Unit, which fostered social cohesion through good design in the public realm, including, among other transformative recommendations pedestrianising Trafalgar Square. The exhibition mounted by the Royal Academy to celebrate his eightieth birthday illustrated his vision in the practice he co-founded, where no-one was paid more than ten times the salary of the lowest paid.

But I think his support for that same vision in Parliament, after becoming a Labour peer, may be less well known. In the midst of an engrossing and highly productive international career, he still found time to accept our invitation to become President of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Design and Innovation and to be active in our work in trying to get the importance of good design for everyone better understood and implemented by policy-makers.

His office would regularly contact me to ask what he could do to support our research and reports, and, of course, his guidance was invaluable, as was his presence as a crowd-puller at our events. He startled one of our audiences by declaring at the outset of his speech that “architecture is political” – all part of his intention to ensure that the quality of architecture and design was firmly lodged, like other necessities of the good life, on the political agenda. 

He startled one of our audiences by declaring at the outset of his speech that ‘architecture is political’

I well remember his enthusiastic support when he and I launched a report by the APPG’s research arm, the Design Commission, ‘People and Places’ on the influence of the built environment on behaviour.

His legacy will endure, not only through the many famous buildings, too numerous to enumerate, like Terminal 5 at Heathrow, the Channel 4 building in Victoria, or the Maggie Centre at Charing Cross hospital, or because of his many awards, like the Pritzker Medal, the Stirling Prize (twice), the RIBA gold medal, or the Legion d’Honneur, but also through that vision. Whenever I visit Cardiff and look at his Senedd, so transparent, open and democratic, or his elegant and colourful factory in Battersea on a lockdown walk, I am reminded of the values of democracy and inclusiveness that he instilled in our approach to architecture.

One of his often quoted precepts was the oath sworn by the citizens of Athens – that they would leave the city greater and more beautiful than they found it. That is also his legacy.

Baroness Whitaker is a Labour peer and Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

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