"It's about the nook"

At home with the modern Goths: Richard Rogers, Graham Stirk and Ivan Harbour.

I once worked with the late Martin Pawley, a frequently perverse, never less than entertaining critic. One afternoon he returned from a visit to the Richard Rogers studio. How was it, I inquired? “Oh, you know,” he said with an expansive gesture. “Troubadours strumming guitars in the corridors…”

A fanciful picture, but I knew what he meant. Somehow, despite their impeccable modernist credentials, early devotion to high-tech componentry, obsessive attention to detail and impressive work rate, the people Richard Rogers gathered around him were always that bit more laid back than your typical architect. They were cavaliers, not puritans. They never wore suits and ties, excepting the all-red get-ups of one of the longest-serving directors, Mike Davies. They never abandoned colour in their buildings (though Lloyds of London inclined more to the monochrome than most). They had interesting haircuts and occasionally outrageous shoes. And of course, they had what nobody else did – Ruthie Rogers and her special staff lunch menu at the River Cafe. Meetings could be eat-ins. Firm was family. Above all, they had what you just can’t buy – lashings of charm. A few took violently against this, but most succumbed gratefully. After all, architecture’s a tough old business. Why shouldn’t you enjoy yourself along the way?

So here I am, decades and countless meetings later, and here are Rogers, Stirk and Harbour – the founder and his two much younger chief co-directors – round a table in a glass-walled meeting room. Rangy Ivan Harbour’s hair, and body movements, are as uncontrolled as ever, his clothes best described as tramp-chic. In contrast, Graham Stirk is small and dapper. His hair still inclines to a punkish Echo-and-the-Bunnymen mop, but he is actually wearing a neat chalk-stripe suit – though it is a special Stirkish suit, with no lapels and high Chinese collar. And when, eventually, Richard Rogers shambles in to join us, he is wearing one of his extensive wardrobe of big comfy lime-green sweaters. I feel at home immediately.

Not that Rogers is too keen on the word “cosy”, mind – the theme of this issue of the RIBA Journal. It’s a term he utters with slight distaste. “I think you can make a perfectly good argument that some places shouldn’t be cosy at all,” he muses, and comes up with railway stations as an example. Which starts a never-resolved discussion about the intimacy or otherwise of the high Victorian St. Pancras trainshed or New York’s Grand Central, both of which work on both macro and micro scales. Rogers is neutral on the term “convivial modern” which I put to him as an alternative, but perfectly happy to be described as a Goth – in the English Freestyle sense of the accretive, open-plan rather than symmetrically closed building. Rogers is a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright, whom a lot of modernists sidestep. “It’s about the nook,” he says. “Take the Prairie houses – the big outlook, but there’s always that amazing hearth, the fireplace, inside.”

Stirk and Harbour, meanwhile, are perfectly happy to roll the c-word around. “I think Madrid Barajas airport is quite a cosy place, even though it’s massive,” says Harbour. “There was a deliberate decision there to go for warmth and texture – to do what airports don’t do. We asked – what don’t we like about airports? It was things like those greying carpet and ceiling tiles, finishes that made you feel uncomfortable. At Barajas the roof swoops down quite low, you almost feel you can touch it.” The Stirling Prize-winning terminal, then, was a conscious attempt to reclaim the people-processing building for the people. Besides, as Stirk points out, in big enclosed spaces people – particularly retailers – tend to erect boxes and kiosks, making their own refuges. Costa Coffee, Krispy Kreme. “The grand gesture versus the comfy enclave”, as he puts it. The architect’s job is a balancing act.

Stirk recalls that one of the things that drew him to the Rogers practice in the first place (around the time of the National Gallery extension competition in the early 1980s) was the way its projects tried to create people-friendly spaces. “The technology is there for a human purpose. If it’s convivial, that’s because its convivial nature is related to humanism. The architectural language is all about legibility – giving scale to increasingly large-scale buildings. The scale issue is quite primary here, particularly if you’re talking about cosiness. We try to balance flexibility with more customised, intimate spaces.” Harbour chips in with the comment that the enclosed atrium gardens at the foot of the practice’s Leadenhall Tower (just opposite Lloyds), its above-ground construction frustratingly delayed due to recession fears, are driven by an idea of “intimate public space”.

I should explain why I’m here this time. Recently I’ve seen three RSH projects that suggest an interesting evolutionary strand of the practice’s work. These are buildings which are perhaps more intimate, more concerned with refuge and materiality, than one might expect from the previous output of the firm. Namely the Protos winery near Valladolid in Spain with its laminated timber parabolic arches, its terracotta and stone – showing the influence, I think, of Rogers’ great friend and former partner Renzo Piano, in whose studio Stirk has also spent some time. Then there is the London Maggie’s Centre next to the Charing Cross Hospital in Fulham, which with its oversailing roof and temple-like plan has more than a touch of Frank Lloyd Wright about it. It contains the sequence of communal and private spaces in a broadly domestic environment which has become the hallmark of the Maggies ideology. Private nooks are important. And then there is the Oxley Woods housing for Wimpey in Milton Keynes.

This last is very different from the hand-crafted nature of the first two. Oxley Woods is an exercise in design for mass production, 21st century prefabs, made of panellised timber products and Trespa compressed-paper resinaceous cladding panels. Rogers takes a particular interest in this Usonian project. “In the 1960s,” he says, “The idea that you could make something sophisticated out of papier maché and wood was just not there. We did high-tech zip-ups, we used aluminium truck panels. So the choice has become much broader. And the environmental responsibility has become much stronger.” Moreover, adds Harbour, the seemingly low-tech eco-friendly nature of the materials used at Oxley Wood is belied by the computerised production process: tolerances are incredibly tight, which means the Holy Grail of the Code 6 zero-carbon house is within reach. Or as he says, “All you’ll need to heat the house will be your dog.” If you venture to the Milton Keynes main expansion zone, however, where many housebuilders are at work, you will find that Oxley Wood is a strange-looking place, surrounded as it is by the orangey brick-and-tile confections of standard housing product. Oxley Wood is a greenfield housing estate of smooth, shiny surfaces arranged in various configurations from a basic two-up, two down (the original “£60,000 house” response) to larger and more complex iterations up to five bedrooms. They look a bit like full-sized working models. They seem, somehow, un-Rogers-like, probably because they are panel-based rather than framed construction, and lack the hierarchical external layers of detail that we have become used to from this stable. In other words, we’re not used to Rogers doing smooth.

Moreover, the site density is comparatively low at 50 units per hectare, the layout a bit too loose. Much of this is probably down to the fact that this is a Wimpey suburban estate, after all, and even Rogers could not change all the habits of a volume housebuilder – though Wimpey is to be congratulated on making this bold move, which has certainly paid off in house sales. “It’s still selling – it’s the only thing that’s selling in Milton Keynes,” says Harbour. Rogers goes further. “It’s had an amazingly positive response from occupiers. Unbelievable, I’ve never heard anything like it. People say, we love it, it works well, the energy system is fantastic etc. We’ve still got a little way to go, but we can do that.”

RSH did not try to change the standard spec-house layout too much – which means that inside, the houses feel a great deal more conventional than they do from the outside, right down to those little skirting-boards that all spec builders love. The point is, as Harbour points out, this is a quick-assembly system that can be arranged in all kinds of ways. It can go as high as four storeys without needing a support armature. It obviously lends itself to being made into taller, denser modern housing terraces – an outcome Harbour and Stirk are hoping to be able to achieve elsewhere. “Something that’s more about streets than stand-alone houses,” as Stirk puts it. Internal walls are non-structural, so they could be sold as shells for self-builders to complete as they wish. These are interesting prospects. But much has been achieved at Oxley Woods already. Very few architects of note get to build an estate of 175 low-energy mass-market houses, let alone one as original as this.

As for the Protos Winery, Stirk allows that its warm materials were connected to its Ribera del Duero context, but were practical as well – laminated timber was cheaper than steel for the structurally efficient parabolic arches, but would have been too heavy and intrusive for a flat-beam structure, he thinks. There was, he firmly asserts, absolutely no thought of wine barrels in his mind. The roof is highly visible from the castle up above, so becomes a fifth elevation. Another completed project by Harbour, the Ching Fu shipping company HQ in Taiwan, shows how a corporate office building can be humanscale, even jaunty. It’s a colourful, low-cost descendant of the Pompidou Centre, a frame structure with plug-in pods. It’s not quite huggable, but it’s cheerful and it’s clever.

So the Rogers brand of modernism has adapted to current conditions, as you would hope, in some style. And it’s Rogers who has the last word, even though he leaves before the others. It comes back to that old thing about the contrast of urban conditions. Conviviality is not everything. “Not all piazzas should be full of people,” he says. “Sometimes it’s enough to have one tree, and space. Silence, as well as noise.”

Text © Hugh Pearman. Photos courtesy of Rogers Stirk Harbour. Portrait by Dan Stevens. First published in the RIBA Journal, London, January 2009.

Links

Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners: http://www.richardrogers.co.uk
The RIBA Journal, magazine of the Royal Institute of British Architects: http://www.ribajournal.com

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