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APlace for All People takes its title from a competition pitch devised by a young British architectural team in 1971 for a new cultural centre in Paris. It was a long shot, which very nearly misfired. Submitted late, after the drawings had to be hastily cut to size on a filthy post-office floor with blunt scissors and the date stamp forged by hand, their entry got lost in the post. After turning up behind a door in the British Embassy, it faced a formidable field of 680 international competitors. Even the astonishing news that they had won was tempered for Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano by the realisation that “we had no idea what we were taking on”.
Controversial from the outset, Rogers and Piano’s Pompidou Centre became a bruising test of creative nerve. During the six years between competition and completion, the architects were booed at public meetings and almost universally vilified by the press for “desecrating” Paris with a building that, to many people,
resembled an oil refinery more than a museum. Like it or loathe it, however, you have to admit that few modern buildings compare to the Pompidou Centre for sheer boldness of conception. Forty years after it opened, as you approach its multi-coloured, pipe-clad flank through the stuccoed streets of old Paris, it still feels as if it were dreamt up yesterday.
Whether you personally find this an exciting, idealistic dream or a dystopian nightmare will determine your feelings about Rogers’s achievements, both as architect and as thinker about the modern city, which are succinctly documented and beautifully illustrated in A Place for All People. Anyone who visited Inside Out, his career-survey exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2013, will find much the same ground covered here. If, however, you’re more familiar with Rogers’s buildings than with the rationale behind them, it will add depth to the urban landscapes on which he has made his mark over the past half-century.
The Millennium Dome, Lloyd’s Building and Heathrow Terminal 5 in London, the Bordeaux Law
Courts and Madrid-Barajas Airport – there’s a good chance that buildings that started life in Rogers’s head have featured in your daily skyline or holiday snaps. On a more intimate scale, projects such as the River Café (run by his second wife, Ruth) and Maggie’s Centre for cancer care bear out his conviction that “good architecture civilises and
humanises”, Even the staunchest traditionalist should find that the ethical principles underpinning Rogers’s vision of “compact sustainable cities” (subject of his 1995 Reith Lectures) strike a sympathetic chord.
These principles are rooted in the “progressive postwar consensus” of Rogers’s youth, when Attlee’s Labour government
Richard Rogers, right, with Renzo Piano, centre, at the Pompidou Centre, 1974