The day had finally arrived. I was on my way to London to meet someone quite extraordinary, a person whose work I had studied during my time as a student at Hull School of Architecture and continued to admire throughout my career.
Within the field of architecture and urban design, Richard Rogers is regarded amongst the foremost architects and visionaries of our time. Winner of numerous accolades such as the RIBA Gold Medal, Pritzker Architecture Prize and Sterling Prize, his iconic works include Lloyds Bank, The Millennium Dome, Madrid Barajas Airport, The Pompidou Centre, and most recently with Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners, Three World Trade Center in Manhattan.
I arrived at 122 Leadenhall or The Cheesegrater as its affectionately known, designed by RSH+P themselves and whose gently angled main elevation towering 50 storeys, to me at least, gives homage to Rogers' iconic Lloyds Bank Building next door.
And just down the street stands another urban icon, Sir Norman Foster’s magnificent Gherkin building. As young architects, Rogers and Foster studied together at Yale before setting up in practice for a period together. How incredible, I thought, that these structures stand so proudly side by side, a true testimony to the enormous contribution of two giants of their vocations.
An external elevator sheltered beneath an immense seven-storey covered open civic gallery, with trees and public seating, transports you to the foyer far above. There, I was warmly greeted by his life long PA, Jo Murtagh, originally from Co. Mayo. Jo escorted me to the 14th floor and into the stunning new and typically colourful offices of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. Physical model making has always been an intrinsic part of Richard Roger’s thought process and so it was little wonder that you are first greeted by a clear view into the model shop and an array of stunning models on display of works both past and present. (Just then, I got a flashback to 5 years previous when I managed to arrange meetings with both RSH+P and Foster and Partners to see what they thought of my Arckit prototype idea. I recall being particularly amazed by an enormous Lego model of the Pompidou Centre in the RSH+P reception).
The layout is open, warm and inviting. Jo walked me around the glassy perimeter pointing out a number of London landmarks on show through the uninterrupted view of the city.
“Oh! I didn’t think you had arrived yet Richard” Jo said. He was sitting quietly at one of the open plan desks before getting up to greet me.
“Lovely to meet you, I’ve been expecting you”. I was immediately struck if not start struck by his warm welcome, his smiling eyes and his wonderfully colourful attire. No wonder he was voted amongst GQ's 50 Best Dressed Men, not bad for someone 85 years young.
He brought me over to meet his talented Modelshop Manager, Kelly Darlington and we sat down. "Tell me about yourself”, he said. In that instant I could appreciated even more, the particular socialiable skill he was renowned for, of bringing different minds together to share ideas that would ultimately lead to new forms of ground-breaking buildings being born.
I was aware of his Italian heritage and told him that I once lived in Veneto and worked under Architetto Toni Follina in Treviso. He fondly recalled crossing Ponte Delle Università in Treviso, a timber bridge that Follina designed. When I mentioned the late Peter Rice, the renowned Irish engineer from Dundalk who worked with Rogers on many of his major projects, he became pensive for an moment. “Peter was a tremendous character and a great friend of mine. He was the greatest engineer I have ever known and worked with.” The proud Irishman welled up inside me on hearing this. I am not sure Ireland is fully aware of the extraordinary contribution that Peter Rice made to the advancement of engineering on the world.
Richard Rogers early works laid the foundations for all of what was to follow. The Rogers House in Wimbledon, originally designed for his parents in the 60’s, embodies the essence of his architectural style by way of its openness, fluidity, flexibility, modularity and dynamism. In anticipation of my meeting, I made an Arckit model representation of this house to present to him as a gift. As I was beginning to unwrap it before him, he said “ I think I recognise this building”. I was delighted and somewhat relived. Jo reminded me earlier that he was already familiar with Arckit which I was astounded by and quietly over joyed if I'm honest.
Kelly could see Arckit as an invaluable tool within education which Richard agreed with. She said that she only wished that Arckit was around when she herself was a student. I brought up our aspiration to open Arckit's own bespoke 3D printed component library (Arckit Infiniti 3D) in the near future. I gave an example of the possibility of being able to create a unique series of RSH+P 3D printable components that could integrate into the Arckit system. This really excited Kelly as she could immediately see how such an idea would elevate Arckit to a whole new level in terms of capability and Richard likewise understood how this could bring much greater detail to our system.
Lord Rogers is someone who passionately believes in equality for all people, all ages, all creeds, rich or poor. And as architects he says that we have a duty to positively contribute to society. He quotes the Greek Ephebic Oath, ‘I shall leave this city not less but more beautiful than I found it’. He most certainly has enhanced multiple cities around the world with many iconic structures and places.
I personally have admired greatly his contribution to advancing social and affordable housing and how today RSH+P continue to develop economical and innovative housing solution for the young and less well off. Examples of these are Y:Cube, single occupancy housing, Ladywell stackable housing for homeless families, Homeshell, a demountable housing system and the Tree House project which provides low-cost highly insulated factory assembled homes.
I see a direct connection with Arckit and their solutions as it too was inspired by a real ‘flat-pack’ modular building system that I had been developing at the time of Arckit's conception. Who knows, perhaps we might see an Arckit scale 1:1 sometime in the future?
And so it was time to go. I thanked Richard and Kelly for being extremely generous with their time and presented them with an Arckit 360 and a Cityscape+ kit. I took a few moments to absorb this ‘once in a lifetime’ moment, and to get a sense of what it must be like to work in a truly creative environment and global architectural practice.
And then I saw Richard back at his desk next to Jo. A photo opportunity had eluded me up until now and I thought to myself, if I don't try, it certainly won’t happen. So I walked quietly over and politely asked Jo if she thought that he would mind if I had a photo with him. She said "of course he wouldn’t mind at all”. He just finished up on a call, all in fluent Italian I might add (he is Italian after all) and Jo said “Damien would love a photo with you Richard”. He said "of course, I’d be delighted to” with a smile and that was that.
A day I’ll always cherish.