Richard Rogers delivers second annual Harvard Center for Green Buildings and Cities Lecture

The concept of sustainability evokes a range of considerations for designers, suggesting a question of which of these considerations might be the most foundational. Materials? Energy? Technology? Technique?

“Sustainability is about enjoyment,” said Richard Rogers during the second annual Harvard Center for Green Buildings and Cities (CGBC) Lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design on October 18. Addressing an overflow crowd, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect focused his talk on approaching sustainability through the relationships and interactions between buildings and inhabitants.

“I’m talking less about the technology of sustainability, but rather the philosophy of sustainability,” Rogers said. “The humanist element of sustainability.”

In his introduction, Ali Malkawi, professor of architectural technology and founding director of the Harvard CGBC, described Rogers as “devoted to green buildings, green cities, and sustainability long before it was fashionable.”

In many of the signature projects Rogers presented during his lecture, titled “Open City, Open Architecture: The Democratisation of Architecture,” the architect noted the deliberate incorporation of designated public space into the design process as one means to interweave values of community within architecture. Rogers recalled the competition brief for the Centre Pompidou as seeking “a place for all people, all ages, all creeds, the rich and the poor.”

Yet ultimately, of the 700 entries submitted in the Centre Pompidou competition, Rogers and Piano’s was the only to include a major public space, Rogers recalled—a public piazza surrounded by restaurants and stores, creating “a hive of cultural activity,” he described it.

Pompidou’s inside-out design brought the building’s service elements—escalators, electrical equipment, heating units—to its façade. Collectively, they adorn the structure unapologetically, each highlighted by a different bright color. “It’s about the joy of technology,” Rogers said of his designs. “Celebrating movement has always been a part of our excitement.” Simply traveling through or around a building, Rogers said, should be a “joyful experience.”

The dynamism evoked by Pompidou’s façade also contributes to the building’s sustainability. By moving the service elements to the exterior of the building, the interior layout was left largely open, Rogers noted, as he showed a cross section. “The idea was flexibility, the possibility of change,” he said.

“Fifty percent of all the buildings in the city of London have been radically changed or demolished,” he later continued. “That is because they cannot adapt to the present. That’s not sustainable. Not sustainable in energy terms, nor really sustainable in cultural terms.”

In designing a new headquarters for Lloyd’s of London, Rogers inverted the traditional office layout, again moving the service spaces to the exterior so that the interior floor plan was open. This allowed the company to configure and reconfigure the layout as needed.

“It is very much about change, because no one ever knows how many desks they want in insurance, how many people will actually be on the insurance floor and how many will be in offices,” Rogers explained.

Another element that Rogers inimitably uses to connect his buildings to their users: color. When no one could decide on a color for a series of internal columns in a terminal Rogers designed for Madrid’s Barajas Airport, they decided to use all the colors of the rainbow. “There is a relationship between buildings and people, and you should enjoy yourself,” he said. Whether it is a large pink oven in the center of his wife Ruth Rogers’s River Café in London or the color-coded service elements adorning the Centre Pompidou’s façade, Rogers’s designs celebrate architecture and life.

“I always say to people there are more colors than black,” Rogers remarked to a round of laughter, his point accentuated by his bright pink shirt and purple suspenders. It was one of many moments of levity that Rogers offered. In recalling initial criticism of Pompidou, he noted a particular moment, days after the building opened, in which he told a visitor that he had designed it; she replied, Rogers said, by hitting him with an umbrella.

Rogers also discussed Wimbledon House, the London home he designed for his parents in the 1960s that will house the GSD’s recently launched Richard Rogers Fellowship. The pre-fabricated single-story dwelling features a bright yellow painted steel frame, glazed façade, and moveable partitions that allow the easy reconfiguration of the interior space. Considered one of the most important modern houses in the United Kingdom, it was granted a UK Grade II Heritage listing in 2013.

During his lecture, Rogers described the house as “immensely important” to the development of his style: “You can see pieces of my parents’ house, if you like, the transparency, the simple structure, and so on in Pompidou.”

Ultimately, Rogers urged the audience to consider the impact architecture has on the public.

“Whatever you do, there are always two clients,” noted Rogers, “the user but also the passers-by.”

View Richard Rogers’s complete October 18 lecture here, via the GSD’s YouTube channel.