Lord Richard Rogers
Even at 78 years old, legendary British modernist architect Lord Richard Rogers isn't about to slow down — not until he's designed more of Hong Kong.
There’s little dispute that Lord Richard Rogers is one of Britain’s greatest modern architects. Gems like the Pompidou Centre – the ever-controversial exo-skeletal cultural hub in the heart of Paris – the equally divisive ‘inside-out’ skyscraper of the future, London’s Lloyd’s Building, and the fluid, bamboo-filled beauty of Madrid’s Barajas Airport all attest to his status, as do honours such as the glittering 2007 Pritzker Prize. But, even at his age, with an array of glittering accolades and iconic architectural diamonds to his name, Rogers shows no sign of letting up. It’s just not in his blood. “I’d like to think I’ll be learning a new language or something when I die,” the peer tells Time Out, a philosophy he very much brings to his architecture.
In what many would consider the twilight of his career, he is still ticking off a raft of firsts in his architectural life, going arguably more global than ever before. His firm, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (renamed from The Richard Rogers Partnership in 2007 to avoid ‘the situation where the name of the practice is someone who died 100 years ago’, he’s said), is undertaking Sydney’s contentious Barangaroo project, increasing its presence in Asia and the architectural hotbed that is mainland China, and also overseeing the first Rogers’ touch to the Hong Kong urban landscape with the 22-tower luxury development in Ma On Shan, ‘Double Cove’.
As an exhibition covering the 35 years of his firm comes to Hong Kong this fortnight, the architect talks to Time Out about his passion to keep creating, Mainland China’s rampant expansion and the fact our city deserves a world class waterfront.
Congratulations on the Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners: From the House to the City exhibition coming to Asia. How was it possible to cull down more than four decades of work to pull together this collection? And how did Hong Kong make it on to the roster of exhibition sites?
The exhibition continues a concept we set in place back when we designed the Pompidou Centre: ‘a place for all people, all ages, all creeds’. This is supposed to be a place for fun and learning, a place for people to interact. You can see in the show that this idea reoccurs in many of our projects. Barajas Airport, for example, is very much about enjoying yourself, the spirit of travel, the spirit of culture, the spirit of everything else. Hong Kong was an obvious stop for the tour. We are doing a lot of work in China at the moment and Hong Kong is one of the most important cities in Asia.
Part of your exhibition seeks to teach people about the relationship between buildings and public space. What specific connection do you want people to make?
Every individual should have the right to well-designed public space. This should be part of a charter of human rights. Everybody should be able to sit on their own doorstep or on a bench close to their home, and they should be able to see a tree from their window. Everyone should be able to find a public square a few minutes from their front door and be able to reach a park easily.
Business is certainly expanding rapidly for you in Asia. Your company has recently opened a branch in Shanghai. Can you tell us about your current projects which are underway in mainland China?
One of the big projects we’re working on in mainland China is the Changfeng development. Set in a lush parkland in Shanghai, this residential development connects the living spaces to the surrounding park landscape. The eight towers are staggered to allow for uninterrupted views across the site and a series of walkways and outdoor plazas are created in the spaces, allowing people to easily walk and meet around the development without the need to drive.
What is your honest opinion on the rampant urban development in mainland China these past 15 years? Do you find some of the architecture short-sighted and short-minded or do you find it experimental and diverse?
Development in China is expanding at a much faster rate than Europe has ever experienced. With such rapid progression there are great opportunities but we must be careful that we build cities that serve the people. We have a responsibility to build environments which improve lives as well as serve commerce – and are environmentally sustainable.
You will be undertaking a major luxury residential eco-development, provisionally titled ‘Double Cove’, in Hong Kong. Can you share some of the details with our readers?
Yes, that’s right. This masterplan puts people before cars to create a new sustainable community within a spectacular site where 22 towers are surrounded by the lush New Territories landscape. Within the towers are luxury apartments, a kindergarten, a clubhouse and retail facilities located within a green park. Each luxury apartment has incredible large bay windows and balconies for residents to enjoy the breathtaking panoramic views out to Starfish Bay and Tolo Harbour, and southwest to the extensive woodland. Unlike the usual apartment designs in Hong Kong, which elevate pedestrian routes on to raised walkways leaving the street level empty, the RSHP design places buildings firmly in the surrounding landscape and in new green public spaces.
Many people would like to see a major ‘Rogers structure’ in Hong Kong. Other than the residential development, will this happen?
We would love to work on other projects in Hong Kong. It’s a matter of finding the right site, the right client and the right project that works for us. We’re always looking for further opportunities in this part of the world.
How are your feng shui skills? Is it relevant and would it ever affect your style at all?
You’ve been known to literally turn your building elements inside out in the past…
In all our work we make sure that we meet the design requirements of our client. For many of the projects in Taiwan, feng shui has been an important consideration and we’ve worked closely with our clients to ensure these conditions are taken into account. A lot of feng shui is about common sense in design and so there are many parallels with our work by coincidence.
The Sydney Barangaroo project has received remarkable amounts of harsh criticism. How is it shaping up? And how are you responding to those critics?
Building such a large piece of one city is always going to be controversial. I am no stranger to controversy – I’ve been dealing with it since Pompidou, Lloyd’s and many other buildings. We have recently received planning permission for all three towers in Barangaroo and groundwork has already started. I’m really looking forward to seeing the park and the pedestrian streets take shape, as well as the blocks themselves. This new addition to Sydney will create a much-needed link from the Central Business District to the waterfront. Our masterplan stipulates that 50 percent of the contaminated wasteland is turned into a headland park. That really shows what good planning can achieve.
You beat out Lord Norman Foster (your former classmate and partner) for Barangaroo. Is there a healthy, competitive rivalry between you both?
Norman and I started our careers out as collaborators. Since then, we have both gone on to great success and I think of us as contemporaries rather than rivals.
Speaking of Foster, both he and prominent architect Thomas Heatherwick have made great strides here in Hong Kong. What do you think of their contributions to our city?
The fact that Thomas and Norman are working in Hong Kong is a tremendously positive thing. It is important to bring quality and diversity to a city and I think British designers and architects can do this. In some cases, it raises the architectural benchmark and that can’t be a bad thing.
If you could pick one location in Hong Kong to create something, where would it be?
We would love the opportunity to design a building along the harbourfront – ideally a public building. I have always believed that rivers and harbours provide excellent locations in cities for people to meet and interact. This would be a fantastic opportunity for the office. We would love to create a vibrant, mixed-use space along the water’s edge.
The West Kowloon project has been plagued with controversy since its inception. What do you think of the overall vision?
The vision of bringing together all those cultural elements in one place is brilliant. This can only improve people’s way of life. It will make Hong Kong even more of a fantastic city. The project needs to be managed very carefully as the proposal is so complex.
Many Hongkongers have deep-seated fears that tycoon developers will move in on WKCD once the museums and art galleries go up. You’ve had plenty of experience working with governments and corporations. Are we right to be worried?
I believe that governments and cities have the potential to make great things happen. It’s important that the right people talk to one another and that the ultimate goal of all plans are aimed at improving the lives of the public. I am a great believer in the power of the city-state and that well-appointed mayors can make a real difference. I have had the pleasure of working with the mayors of some great cities around the world, such as London and Barcelona, where amazing things have happened. I also believe that the public should have a say because their engagement with such a project is vital.
You have many airport projects under your belt, most notably with Madrid Barajas and London Heathrow. Hong Kong will be getting a new terminal and there’s great anxiety over it. What advice do you have?
It is very important to harness the power of natural light. Enormous windows which show people where they’re heading and acoustics which dampen the sound of thousands of travellers and workers can contribute to a nicer flying experience. At Barajas, we designed a generous space with plenty of natural light to reveal all the different zones of the building and to ensure travellers were aware of what time of day it was. This helps fliers landing in a different time zone to reorient their body-clocks. The use of colour is a simple-yet-effective way to help people move around and it enhances the experience of what could otherwise be a miserable journey.
The Millennium Dome, originally deemed a colossal failure for the Blair government, now seems to have people singing a different tune. What are your thoughts on this? Was it a case of overreaching national expectations?
I have always believed that our work on the Millennium Dome was a tremendous success. We delivered a structure that fulfilled its brief on time and on budget. The space covered by the ‘tent’ created by the Dome meant there was more square footage provided for less money than the average supermarket. This space has now been successfully utilised as a concert venue of global fame, as well as hosting film festivals, tennis tournaments and anything else you can think of. I am very happy to see that the projects we create can be adapted and used for new purposes in the future. We try to design everything with this kind of flexibility for the future in mind.
Your building designs tend to have strong political implications. What is your message or, perhaps, your manifesto?
Over the years, the practice has developed a core set of principles: public realm, legibility, flexibility, sustainability, teamwork, and city and context. Essentially, these principles are embodied in all our work and lead to an architecture that acts in a very similar way as a language, with its own words and grammar. We create spaces that operate within the context of the urban environment and provide joy, excitement and free-flowing movement through and around the work. The implication, I suppose, is that the experience of the user must come first. To achieve this we employ a ‘think tank’ philosophy at every level within the practice to enable staff to collaborate and contribute their individual expertise. Weekly meetings – open to all – provide a vital forum for the discussion of current competitions and ongoing projects, as well as a platform for creativity and new solutions appropriate to each design. This democratic approach to the work of the practice is embodied in a constitution that consciously brings a social dimension to our work and takes the form of, among other initiatives, a staff profit-sharing scheme and significant contributions to charity, with staff members nominating the charities of their choice.
You’re always travelling, always on the move. Where do you consider home to be?
I will always be Italian. I was born there and was raised Italian by my parents. However, I am also a Londoner. I have lived in this city almost all my life. It has grown and evolved as I have grown and evolved. We have influenced one another. I am a great believer in cities and the city-state. London is a global city and that really is a good thing. A city should be a melting pot for cultures, ideas and business.
Finally, how many more years can we hope for your creations? Is ‘retirement’ a dirty word for you?
In 2007 we changed the name of the practice to reflect the growing contribution of my two younger partners, Graham Stirk and Ivan Harbour. This provides the practice with a legacy so that it can move forward in the future. I am, however, very much enjoying myself so why would I retire? I’d like to think I’ll be learning a new language or something when I die. We will continue to design buildings using the ethos that has taken us decades to build up. I hope you will see many more creations in the future – both in Hong Kong and around the world.