Celebrating a life in architecture: Richard Rogers retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts

To coincide with architect Richard Rogers’s 80th birthday, the Royal Academy of Arts in London is currently displaying a retrospective of his life and career. Entitled ‘Richard Rogers RA: Inside and Out’, the exhibition (on until 13 October 2013) was curated by Jeremy Melvin with the intention to illustrate the ideas and ethical principles that have guided the life and work of Lord Rogers of Riverside for over half a century. To achieve this, the exhibition resorts not only to drawings, models and films of Rogers’s buildings but also to personal memorabilia, letters, influential books and policy documents that provide a glimpse of the social, political and cultural influences that have shaped the career of the internationally renowned architect.

Using a display format conceived by Richard Rogers’s son Ab Rogers, the exhibition takes over four rooms of the Royal Academy’s Burlington Gardens building: on arrival, guests enter a bright pink room that introduces Rogers’s ethos before heading upstairs to two rooms divided into seven broad themes (‘A Place for All People’, ‘A Sense of Time and Place’, ‘Democratising the Brief’, ‘Do More with Less’, ‘Transparency, Movement and Colour’, ‘Adaptability and Change’ and ‘The Language of Construction’). Like large cabinets of curiosities, these two rooms feature a myriad of objects that played crucial roles throughout the life of the architect with a long shelf offering a sense of continuity, perhaps suggestive of a personal time line. In contrast, a last room of generous dimensions displays a small selection of Rogers’s urban projects in Paris, Shanghai and London, and allows visitors a space to sit, drink a coffee and browse books.

A number of high-profile projects that incorporate Rogers’s architectural principles are showcased throughout the exhibition, namely Paris’s Centre Pompidou (designed with Renzo Piano and still considered one of the most radical modern buildings since its opening in 1977), the headquarters of Lloyd’s of London (1978-86), the Bordeaux Law Courts (1992-98), Madrid’s Barajas Airport Terminal 4 (1997-2005), the National Assembly for Wales in Cardiff (1998-2005) and the Leadenhall Building (under construction in the City of London and scheduled to open in 2014). Through these projects Rogers established an esteemed reputation for himself and for his practice, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, while advocating the benefits that architecture, innovative design, urban regeneration and effective planning of public space can have for society.

Despite the ambitious intentions underpinning the exhibition, and the numerous notebooks with thoughts on society and design, visitors will undeniably leave feeling that there is much more to Richard Rogers’s life and career that should have been displayed and explained. The curatorial focus on the social agenda is certainly of relevance but more information on Rogers, the man, would allow for a better understanding of the life and career of one of the most influential architects in history. In addition, there is little doubt that this is an exhibition that deserved to be displayed in the main galleries of the Royal Academy (and not in the overheated rooms in Burlington Gardens) to allow for more drawings and models of each building to be scrutinised and understood by visitors.

As an exhibition, ‘Richard Rogers RA: Inside and Out’ represents an admirable effort to bring together objects that influenced and represent the man from a few chosen angles. However, this metonymic process would have been more effective if there was further information about Rogers’s personal life and detailed examples of his work. Ultimately, this is a timely celebration of a wondrous life in architecture; whether it reveals Richard Rogers ‘inside out’ is a more debatable point.