A Prize for Mr. Rogers

Why was the architect’s Pritzker so long in coming?

Richard Rogers has been awarded the 2007 Pritzker Prize. It’s about time. The British architect has been a leader in the profession since 1971, when he and Renzo Piano—both still in their 30s—won an international competition to design what would become the Pompidou Center in Paris. This building, with its structure, pipes, ducts, elevators, and escalators exposed on the exterior rather than hidden—as is usually the practice—was the first major public building in the so-called high-tech style. The Pompidou, which some compared to a chemical plant, was the most-talked-about building of the decade, and the most popular tourist destination in Paris.

Inspired by the aesthetics of engineering structures such as oil-rig platforms and the launch pads of Cape Kennedy (as it was named then), high tech was the wave of the future, supplanting Postmodernism, which was already showing signs of fatigue. Norman Foster, who had been Rogers’ classmate at Yale and later became his partner (1963-67), conceived the headquarters of the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank as a banker’s gray-pinstripe version of the Pompidou. Other British architects such as Nicholas Grimshaw and Michael Hopkins were likewise inspired by Rogers’ example.

In time, both Foster and Piano abandoned the exuberant let-it-all-hang-out structural and mechanical gymnastics of high tech for a more conventional—and, it must be said, more practical—approach that dealt with technology in a less aggressive manner. Rogers, however, soldiered on. In a series of buildings such as Lloyds of London (1984), the law courts in Bordeaux (1998), and the National Assembly for Wales (2006), he has continued to dramatize the structural and mechanical systems of buildings. One of his largest commissions was the Millennium Dome in London, a feat of engineering that never quite got the plaudits it deserved, partly because of its lackluster contents and partly because it was upstaged by the spectacular London Eye. Rogers’ latest buildings are Madrid’s Barajas International Airport (2005) and Terminal 5 at Heathrow (to be completed in 2008). His firm, always active in Europe, is currently at work on several projects in the United States: an office building in Washington,  a makeover of the Javits Convention Center in New York, and an office tower at the World Trade Center site.

Rogers, 73, was born in Florence—he is related to the Italian Modernist, Ernesto Rogers—and is arguably the most charismatic and glamorous architect of his generation. (He was knighted in 1981.) So, why was the Pritzker so long in coming? It may be because Rogers, unlike many of his high-profile colleagues, has generally avoided playing the star. The Richard Rogers Partnership, soon to be renamed Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners, limits the income of its directors to no more than six times the salary of the lowest-paid architect and donates much of its profits to charity. The work is theatrical, sometimes almost operatic, and characterized by structural legerdemain, exaggerated lightness, and bright colors; but it is also flexible, adapted to function, and energy-conscious. While his colleagues Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid have attempted to build what are, in effect, works of art, Rogers has been content to practice the art of building. Not at all the same thing, and a curiously traditional attitude for such a resolute iconoclast.