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Architecture prize has a touch of green to it

Inga Saffron, Inquirer Architecture Critic

Updated: Thursday, March 29, 2007, 2:37 AM

Richard Rogers, 73, made a name for himself by designing buildings inside out, such as the Pompidou in Paris.

In a sign that environmental sustainability is more than a passing architectural fad, the Pritzker Prize jury yesterday announced that it will give this year's award to Richard Rogers, who has challenged the profession to help combat the world's ecological problems.

Rogers, 73, is widely admired for turning architecture inside out with buildings such as the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and Lloyds of London, both of which proudly wear their major pipe systems on their exteriors. But in recent years, the British designer has also become a vocal crusader against sprawl and the wanton consumption of carbon fuels.

In a lecture he delivered earlier this month in Philadelphia to a convention of university architecture professors, Rogers argued that the fate of cities and the fate of the planet are inextricably linked. One of the most effective things architects can do to stem climate change, he argued, is to design friendly, sociable buildings that make cities more livable places.

To the surprise of some in the audience who know Rogers from his challenging, cerebral designs, he insisted that the quality of public spaces - streets, sidewalks and parks - should be valued as highly as the aesthetics of individual buildings. In a sense, he was criticizing the current vogue for trophy architecture produced by a tiny corps of international celebrity architects - a group to which he also belongs.

Rogers is hardly alone in advocating sustainable design. His former partner, Norman Foster, who won a Pritzker in 1999, has created green skyscrapers around the world. But Rogers argues that it's not enough to create individual buildings that are gentle on the environment. Green buildings must be incorporated into a larger environmental agenda that includes transit, affordable housing, and higher-density neighborhoods.

Rogers' interest in environmental issues dates at least to the the early 1970s, when he was designing the Pompidou with Renzo Piano. By putting the building's infrastructure on the outside, he reasoned it would be less wasteful to retrofit the technology.

Rogers advanced his thinking in 1986, when he prepared a London master plan intended to strengthen the city's position as a major business and residential center. In 1995, he published Cities for a Small Planet, a book that talks about the role of amenities and public spaces in making cities desirable. As a special adviser to London's mayor, he was one of the advocates of the city's congestion tax, which has been used to fund transit improvements.

"We know and admire Richard's buildings, but few know about his role in promoting cities," said Judith Bing, the Drexel University architecture professor who brought him to Philadelphia to give the keynote address to the Association of Collegiate Architecture Schools.

Rogers is the fourth British architect in 31 years to be named a Pritzker winner, an indication of the vibrancy of the profession in the United Kingdom. In addition to Foster, who was a classmate at Yale's architecture school, his professor, James Stirling, and Iraqi-born Zaha Hadid were also winners.

Rogers, who was born in Italy, almost didn't study architecture. Because he suffered from dyslexia, his family pushed him to study dentistry. But during a student trip to Italy, he discovered the architecture of a cousin, Ernesto Rogers, and decided to pursue design.

Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.

Inga Saffron, Inquirer Architecture Critic

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