Richard Rogers, one of the giants of 20th century architecture died late last year. His work, whether it was designing extraordinary buildings or reworking cities for the future, was deeply controversial. His best buildings, the Pompidou Centre (with Renzo Piano), Lloyd's, the Millennium Dome and Madrid’s Barajas Airport, created much debate. Talismans of high-tech architecture, Archigram made real. The Guardian’s obituary is here

This is a small but interesting side story showing how controversial those buildings were. One detractor was Stuart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, a giant of alternatives since the late 60s, who wrote a provocative book called ‘How Buildings Learn, what happens after they’re built’. I wrote admiringly of the work here: how buildings are not static, but are subject to unpredictable changes, and their need for flexibility and adaptation. 

how buildings learn

You’d think Brand would be an admirer of Roger's ideas for flexible buildings, but this was far from the case. Brand dissed architects generally, and Starchitects particularly: he took Rogers to task over the Pompidou and Lloyds, and got it dreadfully wrong. His critique concentrated firstly on the need for expensive upkeep of the external services at the Pompidou, but he missed the point. The external services are a result of the big architectural ideas, not the ideas themselves. 

His mistake, like most critics, was to take the Pompidou at face value: seeing the visuals not the spatials. Piano and Rogers made several moves in the design competition, missed by the rest of the 200+ other entrants. Their first key design idea was to use only half the site and devote the remainder to an outdoor square that has been so integral to the public success of the building. Importantly, on the sunny south side, escalators provide continuous movement, rising up the side of the building (sadly the digital screens as artworks or to advertise shows were deleted in cost cutting).

Pompidou Centre

Most schemes like the ones of Moshe Safdie, one of the greats of that era, smothered the whole site. In Safide’s case, it was a geometrically arranged building covered in greenery. The building is sprawling, but the deep plan reduces natural light. And the greenery reminds one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s dictum: “surgeons bury their mistakes; architects can only grow vines”. In that regard, it was quite prescient.

Beauborg model

Piano and Rogers’ second key design idea was to create vast open column-free floors in a regular shape, offering super flexible spaces, as required in the brief for art of the future. These huge spaces hold the entry foyer, the exhibition spaces at the heart of the scheme, a library and a cafĂ© / restaurant. 

Pompidou Centre

Pompidou Centre

Pompidou Centre

The third idea, to have the services and structures outside of the building, is clearly a consequence of the second. The structure, lifts, ducts and equipment have to be at the edges to create the wide open internal spaces. The bonus is that by leaving them raw and unenclosed, they provide a visual patina to mirror the fine grain of Paris. 

Brand missed these ideas, excoriating Rogers for maintenance costs of the external structure and services, without explaining how they provided ultimate flexibility for the spaces (and the services themselves). Later in his book, Brand turned his attention to Lloyds with similar criticism, but Rogers would have none of it.

How Building's Learn book

Rogers sued Brand for libel within the British system. Brand's response was to remove all reference to the Lloyd's building from the UK edition. The USA edition has his interpretation of the failings of Lloyd's, much the same as for the Pompidou. Whereas the English version has an altogether different, and rather trite, story on the same pages. 

UK How building's learn

It was a minor clash of two titans: an architect who challenged the static nature of buildings, and a firebrand (pun intended) urging change to make buildings more flexible. Same cause, different sides. A small check on both of their careers. 

Vale Richard Rogers.


Images, except Safdie model, by Tone Wheeler, principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected]