"Richard Rogers is the most politically influential architect of our times." I wrote that line last month pretty sure that I was on safe ground. The more I think about it – and sometimes you have to step back from your journalism to judge it – the more I’m convinced it's true that Lord Rogers of Riverside has unparalleled influence. It’s true because of what's happening in London at the moment, and the resulting influence that that will have on cities around the world.
At the Pritzker Prize ceremony last week (architecture’s highest international honour), the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, gave the most heartfelt speech I've heard from him in honour of Rogers, who is this year’s laureate. And well he might. Back when Livingstone was still fishing around for a policy on which to base his campaign for mayor, Rogers handed it to him on a plate. It's amazing to think that in 1999 the political consensus about London, to which Ken himself subscribed, was based on 1950s thinking: people were leaving cities and the capital had to prepare itself for a diminished population of 5 million. In his Urban Task Force report, Rogers argued the exact opposite – that cities needed to be denser and more populous, with better public transport and public spaces.
Today, some of those policies are taking effect faster than others, but as a vision not just for London but for cities worldwide, it has become the orthodoxy. Livingstone himself is unequivocal about the fact that he owes it to Rogers. "The urban task force report landed on my desk just at the time when we were starting to draw up our manifesto - and we just stole the lot," Livingstone told me last month. "Everything that’s going wrong or right with my administration in this area is down to him."
What Rogers deserves most credit for is putting urbanism and design issues on the political agenda. People might have heard of a body called Design for London, which is the new incarnation of the Architecture and Urbanism Unit that Rogers set up in 2001, but who would have guessed that the mayor now spends as much time per week with that team as he does with the senior management of either Transport for London or the Metropolitan Police?
With Rogers as his "eminence grise" and thanks in no small part to his own bullishness, Ken has become the envy of mayors around the world. Only two weeks ago, at a conference in Dubai, the Mayor of Amman was pressing me for details about how Ken has achieved what he has (by ignoring public opinion, I offered). And I haven’t even mentioned yet Rogers' influence on New Labour, for which he was architectural adviser in the years prior to Ken’s election. "Urban regeneration" has been one of the watchwords of the Blair decade, which has seen Roger’s task force report – Towards an Urban Renaissance – influence not just the capital but cities such as Manchester, which had a desolate centre when the IRA bomb struck 15 years ago and is now thriving.
Now, I understand that all of this is oversimplified, but the point I'm trying to make is that it is extremely rare for an architect to have enjoyed such a close relationship with government – and I don’t just mean municipal government, but national. How many architects get to see their personal ethos turned into policy?
Justin McGuirk's in-depth article about Richard Rogers is out now in the July issue of icon magazine.