Q&A: Richard Rogers on Winning the Pritzker Prize

Richard Rogers, 73, who just won this year's prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, first seized the international spotlight in 1971 when he and Renzo Piano beat out 680 entries with their outrageous design for the Pompidou Center in Paris. Their brash building—its brightly colored tubes, ducts and pipes exposed on the outside—landed in an old neighborhood like an alien spacecraft. Not long after, he began his own practice in London, where he once again rocked the old guard with his gleaming stainless steel Lloyd's of London slapped down among the dowdy office buildings of the city's financial district. Though he now carries a British title—Lord Rogers of Riverside—he's actually Italian by birth (his great-grandfather Rogers was an English dentist who settled in Venice); his family moved to England on the eve of World War II. Not that it matters—Rogers's outlook is clearly global. In honoring him, the Pritzker jury cited his consistent pursuit of "the highest goals of architecture" and his "unique interpretation of the Modern Movement's fascination with the building as machine." He spoke from his home in London with NEWSWEEK's Cathleen McGuigan. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Looking back on your career, you began with a bang with the Pompidou Center . Now, everyone seems to make a building with a bang. How have your own ideas about architecture evolved?
Richard Rogers:
I started with designing my parents' house 40 years ago and, as you say, did the Pompidou Center with Renzo Piano. And just a year ago, we opened what is the biggest building we've done so far, the Barajas Airport for Madrid. So I'm having a good run.

People know your name, and know the Pompidou Center. But you have only one small built project in the United States, near Princeton, N.J. You've spent a big part of your career devoted to master planning, thinking about cities and working with the City of London. That's an unusual trajectory for a "star" architect.
I always say, I love cities. I am an urban person, I very much believe in city-states. I was born in Florence, a city-state if we look back 500 years. But I do think cities have a very important role in our society, and I have done a lot of work on the regeneration of cities. When this government came into power, the deputy prime minister asked me to chair a group called the Urban Task Force, to examine the state of our cities. We came up with about 105 recommendations, and they are very much part of the policy now of how we develop compact, live-work, well-designed, environmentally-conscious cities with good public transport. I've been trying to make that link between the quality of architecture and the quality of public space and the vitality of cities—and the quality of life of people.

I'm now the chief adviser on architecture and urbanism to the mayor of London—and the first thing he asked me, in 2001, was to try and develop some of those policies. I'm talking about what is called the urban renaissance—and I've been working with a team at city hall—I spend every Wednesday there, developing this policy. So the first thing is to make cities more people friendly—and to rebalance the relationship between cars and people and give the priority to people. That means public transport.

London will have grown by one and a half million people between 1990 and 2020 and all that new development will be on brownfield—what you might call derelict land. Therefore, there will be no expansion of London, no out of town shopping centers, no sprawl. It's based on the belief in compact cities that I developed in a series of lectures that became a book, "Cities for a Small Planet." So that's one of the things we've done.

Another is that cars are charged congestion charges when they come to the center of London. It has lowered the amount of transport in central London by about 20 percent, the air is cleaner, and the money's put into buses. And then again, every private developer that builds residential property has to also build about 40 percent affordable housing with that residential—so you get a poor and rich mix, rather than poor ghettos and rich ghettos.

You were way ahead of most of your architectural peers in your concern with sustainability, which is now the big buzzword.
Yes, I remember first reading a Club of Rome report, which must have been in the '60s, about the problems of using oil and so on. Now, they got many of their calculations wrong in those times, but the principles were right. Since then, we've been interested, but only in the last decade or two have we realized there's a tipping point. And of course Al Gore has made that very clear to a large population, including here in Europe, with his film. All my point is, if we want mankind to continue—mankind rather than the earth because that will probably continue—then we really have to start to looking at how we can make this globe sustainable.

As far as buildings are concerned, we've built the new Parliament in Wales, which uses under 50 percent the amount of energy you'd expect, and we've built a number of court buildings, in Bordeaux and elsewhere, and really lowered the amount of energy used, so we're mediating the climate with the building.

Now, you do have a number of projects in the works in the United States. One is Tower 3 at the World Trade Center site . With so much controversy over the site, and so many delays, what you think is the likelihood your skyscraper will be built?
Well, I'm optimistic. Everybody else has already done such massive battling, we've been able to gain a toehold, if not more. Again, I think our building, and Norman Foster's and Fumihiko Maki's buildings—we're all sort of linked in terms of the site and also working with the same client—will be built. I would be surprised if they're not. But then I always say, until it's built, you're never sure.

But the exciting part here is there's a very interesting public domain—the square, the reflecting pools, the whole question of memory, the memorial gardens. There's also quite a large amount of retail space, of public space, a large subway station, five stories of cafes, retail and restaurants. So it's not just a large office building—those other things help draw people to the city.

In addition to some other American projects, you're in a competition for Transbay in San Francisco .
I've been involved for about five years in that area—it is a somewhat depressed area—and I think it has tremendous potential, to get a wonderful station, a transport interchange, and an office building.

Many years ago, when you were studying at Yale University, you were mad for Frank Lloyd Wright. But what other architect—or building—from a distant era inspires you?
Well, I suppose, looking at other eras, I 'm inspired by Brunelleschi [15th-century architect of the Duomo, the great cathedral in Florence]. I come from Florence, and he comes from Florence, and he was a great engineer and architect and—what I'm not—a sculptor. And I think he changed not only how we look at art and architecture but how we live in cities.

You mean the way the Duomo creates a place in the city?
Yes, exactly, and it is beautifully proportioned, and the materials. The big thing in engineering terms is this amazing dome he did that expressed the structure in a way I'm interested in. Many of the principles we look at, as a team—and our practice is very much about team work—is lightness, the look of light and expressing the way a structure is put up, so you can read it—many of those principles you can see in Renaissance architecture.

You are the only modern architect I can think of whose work always brings to mind color. You like color.
Yes.

What color shirt are you wearing right now?
[Laughs.] Right now I'm wearing a brilliant green shirt.

See!
Right.

I wonder if your love of color and use of color comes from being Italian?
Possibly. My mother loved color. My mother used to embarrass me when I was a schoolboy wearing bright colors, I remember.

And now you embarrass your children?
[Laughs.] And grandchildren.

One more question: your wife, Ruth Rogers, and her partner Rose Gray have London's great Italian restaurant, the River Café, right next to your office on the Thames. And their cookbooks are big in America. But I have to ask you—do you ever get sick of all that fabulous Italian food and just want a nice steak and kidney pie?
We have great steaks—but I must say for the best steaks, you have to go to New York or Chicago. And I eat Japanese food—we do go outside sometime. But I am fortunate that I have most of my lunches whenever I'm at my office—which is part of the canteen, shall we say—at the River Cafe, as I did today.

What did you have?
Well, my main course was rabbit and beans and I started with goat cheese and favola beans—green beans, which are the first of the season, wonderful! [Laughs.]

And a nice wine.
A lovely wine, a nice chianti.

Favola beans and a nice chianti.
[Laughs.]

Q&A: Richard Rogers on Winning the Pritzker Prize | Culture