Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 30 Aug 2017

Architecture: A Modern View by Richard Rogers

Although the quality of our built environment has such a significant impact on our mental and physical health and well-being, it’s astonishing how little time we spend thinking about how are buildings get designed, commissioned and built and whether those who are responsible for the look and feel of our living spaces are doing a good job or not. Most of us have an opinion about the usefulness or aesthetic qualities of a building once they are erected but it’s usually more an emotional response than a considered one. That, at least, is true for me – I have never really felt myself either informed enough or significant enough to influence the construction of the landscape I live in.

Over the past twelve months or so I have become increasingly interested in architecture as an art-form and as a social statement, especially in urban environments where I personally feel most at home. I can appreciate the beauty of a rural landscape but I can get really excited about big towns and cities – essentially I have a soul made of brick and neon. I felt this very strongly on my recent trip to the city of Chicago where architecture dominates everyone’s daily lives. This is a city that really lives with its buildings – past and present – and where identity is wrapped up inextricably with stories about the built environment. Decisions about what buildings go where and what they look like are part and parcel of the cities discourse and historically it has been a place that wants to build big, wants the best architects to do that building and then wants to celebrate what they have achieved.

My visit there confirmed my growing feeling that successful cities can only be built if they reflect or extend the people they are built for. As soon as the people who have to live and work in the buildings that architects design become divorced from the process of creating those buildings a sort of urban alienation becomes inevitable. In the past I have been employed as a community development worker in a range of what were euphemistically known as ‘regeneration projects’ and the single unifying factor in all those undertakings was the sense of alienation felt by local residents. Many of them were fiercely loyal and committed to their ‘areas’ – they had a strong sense of belonging to a location and community – but the houses and flats they were being asked to live in were truly terrible, soul-destroying boxes which had been given little thought beyond how cheaply they could be constructed.

When I came across Richard Rogers’ 1990 Walter Neurath Memorial Lecture entitled Architecture; A Modern View I was delight to find that here was a renowned modern architect who seemed to entirely understand these issues:

Architects cannot work in a vacuum; unlike other artists they are totally dependent on a site, a brief and finance. Good architecture, in this age as in any other, is born of an enlightened client, generous financing and a public-minded brief. It is the absence of precisely this sense of public pride and patronage rather than the alleged inhumanity of Modernism that has been the pernicious factor at work in British architecture.

Rogers goes on to describe what architecture has become in the age of Thatcherism – divorced from people, lacking a vision of its role and completely in thrall to ‘the bottom line’:

I wish to stress that maximum profit, as shown by the bottom line of a balance sheet, presented annually to shareholders, where buildings are written off over ten years, has little to do with the creation of a quality orientated society.

He goes on to say that:

Post-Modernism, obsessed with money and fashion, has not produced rigorous design or a better environment….

How true this is. The cavalier commissioning of buildings to fill the public spaces, incorporating places that once belong to everyone into a private portfolio of ownership and then using those buildings to reap income and profit has led to a situation where the public square, a common sense of marketplace, has become virtually unviable for anyone other than big corporations.

Rogers believes that it doesn’t have to be that way. Architecture doesn’t have to become hopelessly nostalgic for an imagined past nor does it have to erase humanity from its plan – there is another way. Advances in technology can facilitate a different way forward:

Buildings, the city and its citizens will be one inseparable organism sheltered by a perfectly fitting, ever-changing framework….Man, shelter, food, work and leisure will be connected and mutually dependent so that an ecological symbiosis will be achieved.

By the time I’d finished reading Rogers’ short but impassioned lecture I was reminded of the pioneering work of Jane Jacobs and her vision of urban renewal in the seminal ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ in which, back in the 1950s, she was essentially making the same plea for human-centred buildings and architecture for communities and not instead of them.

Stimulating stuff. Richard Rogers is speaking at this year’s Cheltenham Festival and I’m keen to get a ticket to see where his thinking has gone in the couple of decades since this lecture was first published. I’ll be reporting back……….


Terry Potter

August 2017