While most "starchitects" get rich creating eye-popping shapes that could draw crowds anywhere, Lord Richard Rogers—the guy behind the Centre Pompidou in Paris and London's Millennium Dome—enriches neglected urban streets. Now he's training his sights on three dull New York riverfronts.
A third of Rogers's work consists of city planning—helping clients like the mayor of London extend a city's vitality beyond the zones with the most office workers or the swankiest hotels. Even his single-building designs, like a Heathrow terminal or an airport in Madrid, invite walking and chatting.
On the industrial Queens waterfront, Silvercup Studios is planning an office tower and 1,000 apartments—plus retail, catering, and culture—next to its soundstage; Rogers's design promotes pedestrian life by sinking parking and truck loading underground. Across the East River, between the ersatz-historic South Street Seaport and the charmless FDR Drive, Rogers and a local firm are planting a string of gleaming boxes to offset truck noise and attract light. And on Manhattan's western shore, he's reinventing the Javits Center with an energy-efficient canopy and multicolored panels. (Rogers's involvement in the projects survived a brief political dustup after he was linked to an anti-Israel boycott.)
Rogers's places are easy for the public to explore. In-demand architects such as Santiago Calatrava emphasize nigh-impossible sculpture, cladding startling shapes in titan-ium to make them look like art. Rogers, by contrast, maximizes light with windows and guides the eye with girders and rooftops. "You look at his buildings, you see component parts and you see how the damn thing works," says Silvercup CEO Alan Suna. "It explains to laypeople how it's held up."
Not a bad metaphor for keeping cities vital in a confusing time. Robert A.M. Stern, the Yale School of Architecture dean, observes that the need for environmentally efficient materials and reconfigurable workspaces requires architects to meld their ideas with others'. Rogers's notion is that cities can combine the noblest ideas of all sorts of specialists—if they're "designed to attract people."
A version of this article appeared in the May 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.