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A mensch of an architect, full of whimsy, genius and morality

Richard Rogers, the English architect who died on Dec. 18 at age 88, proved that it can take a Jewish village to achieve architectural greatness. Cocreator of such popular buildings as the Pompidou Center in Paris, Rogers was born in prewar Florence.

He was influenced by his father’s Italian Jewish family, especially a cousin, the architect Ernesto Nathan Rogers. A modernist, cousin Ernesto cofounded the architectural partnership Studio BBPR in Milan with, among others, Gianluigi Banfi, an anti-Nazi resistance combatant who would be murdered in Mauthausen concentration camp. In postwar Italy, BBPR designed an homage to the victims of Nazi concentration camps for Milan’s Monumental Cemetery.

Yet despite this tragic context, cousin Ernesto retained an innate fondness for levity. In 1938, when Mussolini’s antisemitic racial laws were passed, he began writing a series of fanciful missives to himself, later collected and entitled “Letters From Ernesto to Ernesto and Vice-versa”

Richard Rogers himself was known for his whimsy, and one reviewer of his 2017 memoir suggested that his irony and lack of self-seriousness were “evidently well-rooted in the tradition of Jewish witz.” The German word for joke was used by Freud in his “Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious” (Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewußten).

Ever psychologically complex, Rogers studied at Yale with Paul Rudolph, noted for his so-called “architecture of cruelty,” Rogers but found more affinities with another instructor, the Estonian Jewish architect Louis Kahn (born Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky).

A strongly humanist spirit, Kahn inspired Rogers to fulfill an innate preference for teamwork over solitary inspiration. Among Rogers’ close early collaborators were David Marks, whose father, a UK journalist, had fought in Israel’s War of Independence, and Marco Goldschmied, cofounder and former managing director of Richard Rogers Partnership.

These collaborators were essential for a number of reasons. Rogers’ autobiography explains that he was severely dyslexic and untalented as a draftsman, so others took on artistic and writing chores while he conceptualized imaginatively.

His associates clearly felt free to offer feedback, as Goldschmied did five years ago, a dozen years after resigning as the Rogers office managing director. In January 2016, Goldschmied addressed an open letter to protest the firing of some veteran mid-ranking employees, which appeared to be contrary to the “founding spirit and ethos of the practice as a socially aware, humane and collaborative group which put a shared quality of life as high on the agenda as the quality of the architecture.”

Indeed, the Rogers firm was the first in England whose bylaws stated that company directors would never earn over six times the salary of junior architects, and part of annual profits would go to charities chosen by all employees.

How could this onetime sense of social justice permit a “cowardly pre-Christmas culling by email of several senior staff over 50 (but excluding Directors of course),” Goldschmied asked, wondering if it “somehow also reflected a fundamental change in ethos in the practice.”

In a personal aside to Rogers, Goldschmied added that he suspected his former colleague was unaware of these goings-on, since Rogers’ “steadfast championing of the less fortunate and the oppressed has endured the test of time and is undimmed in the half century we have known each other, but I appreciate you may no longer have the appetite to fight for it in a practice now run by those to whom we gifted the reins free of charge.”

A terse reply from the firm stated that the firings were “part of a considered strategy to secure the practice’s future growth through the promotion of new talent.”

To be sure, sometimes Rogers’ projects could seem antithetical to his stated goals. He was criticized for designing super-luxury housing with a lack of public access for those less fortunate. Yet in 2014, his firm also created prefab one-bedroom dwellings that cost considerably less than traditional constructions to house homeless people temporarily lodged at YMCAs.

Wherever possible, he cossetted clients. Designing a home for his parents in Wimbledon in the 1960s, he included prewar furniture designed by Ernesto Nathan Rogers, as if restoring to his family part of what had been lost in exile. In no less nurturing fashion, in 2005, Richard Rogers designed a terminal for the Madrid-Barajas Airport with soothingly undulating shapes, comforting departing and arriving voyagers.

With a similar awareness of the trauma of displacement, in 2015 he wrote an appeal in The Guardian urging readers to donate to the Doctors of the World organization to assist displaced persons: “Having escaped from fascist Italy with my parents in 1939, I am particularly proud of our work with refugees – though the journey was much easier for us than for the thousands who cross Europe today.”

About treatment of emigrants, Rogers noted: “One way or another, it is what our generation will be remembered for.” This sense of compassion and awareness of historical context extended to an impassioned interest in social housing.

Gifted with an ability to see two sides to every question, his views were nuanced, rejecting generalities. So, speaking to The Observer in February 2006 about the importance of family in his life, he mentioned about his American wife Ruth, born in Upstate New York: “Ruthie is very similar to me in [being close to family] and she is Jewish. There is a Jewish tradition of family, too, but then not all Italian or Jewish families are close.”

In June of the same year, he reflected to an [architectural periodical:] “I think this family bonding is pretty Italian. But my wife Ruthie, being more from the Jewish side, says it’s also Jewish. And it also comes from people who move from another country, because they need to keep in touch with their compatriots.”

Whatever the potential ambiguities of motivation, Rogers was surely connected to Yiddishkeit, and tolerated no ambiguities about the subject. In 2007, a scandal erupted when after being hired to renovate New York’s Javits Center, Rogers lent his London office to a meeting of an architects’ group who discussed the possibility of boycotting architects and construction firms involved in building West Bank settlements in Israel.

Among the American Jewish politicians vehemently insisting that Rogers be removed from the Javits project were State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Representative Anthony Weiner, who would both face professional problems, albeit for different reasons.

Guided by the power broker Howard Rubenstein, Rogers explained to interviewers that his wife and grandparents were Jewish, he had designed buildings for Israel, and he was adamantly opposed to boycotting the Jewish state.

Still, a scornful letter writer to The Jerusalem Post suggested that Rogers had merely regretted the potential loss of professional income: “By tomorrow, Rogers will be ready to make Aliyah and join Likud.”

The English Jewish columnist Dominic Lawson no less condescendingly opined that Rogers’ “political principles have never been deeply thought out; he is one of those awfully nice people who want to be liked by everyone, and will do anything to be thought well of.”

Such viewpoints overlook the enduring influence of Jewish social, moral and familial ethics reflected in Rogers’ architecture at its best.

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