Richard Rogers was hugely influential as an urbanist as well an architect, writes David Rudlin

David Rudlin_index

Some time in the early 2000s a colleague in the office answered the phone. “It’s Richard Rogers,” they said. “The Richard Rogers.” He was calling out of the blue from a pool in Tuscany and when I got to the phone he apologised for being a bit deaf because he had water in his ear. Richard wanted to check out something he had heard about the urban regeneration company (URC) in East Manchester and I was the person he knew in Manchester who he felt could tell him what was going on.

Much will be written about Richard’s architectural legacy but, to us urbanists, he was a crucial figure in what became known as the urban renaissance in the UK. This was the change in attitudes and government policy at the turn of the millennium that saw a move away from suburban sprawl and towards promotion of compact, mixed-use, walkable cities. It seems obvious now, but it really wasn’t in the 1990s.

Richard was chair of the Urban Task Force formed in 1998 and as a Labour peer he worked with both John Prescott and Ken Livingstone, convincing the Labour government and the GLA of the importance of urbanism. I remember on one occasion he asked me to play the role of John Prescott, who was known to have a short attention span, when he was rehearsing a presentation on the task force’s findings.

The message got through because the report was hugely influential, leading to an urban white paper, changes in planning policy, the creation of Cabe and the URCs (which is why he was so interested in East Manchester). Cabe may have gone but the urban renaissance has become government orthodoxy.

I first met Richard in the 1990s. He came to Manchester to speak at an urban villages conference. I wasn’t there, but later that day a friend rang to tell me that Richard had held up a copy of a report that I had written for Friends of the Earth and, mispronouncing my name, told the audience that they had to read it.

A few weeks later I was invited/summoned to meet him at his offices in Hammersmith and in the years that followed he was incredibly generous with his time and supportive of my work and writing. He wrote endorsements for both my books and even met with one of our clients who was having doubts about a masterplan we were working on in London.

On one occasion he asked me to play the role of John Prescott, who was known to have a short attention span, when he was rehearsing a presentation

Richard’s early masterplans, such as the 1986 plan for London and the subsequent masterplan for Coin Street, were more mega structures than fine-grained urbanism. However in the 1990s, working with Mike Davies (who famously always dressed in red), he developed a number of influential masterplans expressing his belief in compact, mixed-use walkable places at a time when the idea was just starting to gain traction.

Much of the focus at the time was on the rather twee approach of the Urban Villages Group supported by Prince Charles. Richard provided an important counterpoint, both as a contemporary architect and a city-based urbanist.

He put forward his vision for cities through the BBC Reith Lectures in 1995 which were published as a book, Cities for a Small Planet, making the link between compact cities and sustainability. His second book, Cities for a Small Country, written with Anne Power was published in 2000 and was perhaps the Urban Taskforce report that he would have written had it not been for the constraints of working with government.

He was less keen on my Wolfson garden city essay and he and I had a public spat in the pages of the Guardian where he called it a “ridiculous idea” and that he was “saddened” that I was promoting building on green fields. However we kept in touch and I last saw him a few years ago at an event on the terrace of the House of Commons where he was starting to look frail but was as charming as ever, gently ribbing me for selling out to the garden city lobby.

I was always slightly star-struck by Richard, who was a great urbanist. Unlike the recent discussions on “beauty” he was able to wrest urbanism from the grasp of the traditionalists and make it mainstream both in terms of attitudes and government policy. In doing so he changed our cities for the better and forever.