Richard Rogers – Art in the Ugly Side of Architecture

By Vat Jaiswal, February 22, 2013

Richard Rogers is an innovative British architect and urban planner practicing since late 1960′s who is best know for his bold futuristic architecture, mainly expressed by its inside out nature of structure and building services, which many have called ‘bowellism’. Where ventilation ducts, hot water pipes and electrical conduits are considered ‘ugly’ and are typically hidden behind walls and ceilings, Rogers has made an effort change how we perceive architecture by exposing them on the outside of the building. Richard gained world fame for his style by his design of Pompidou centre in Paris.

What is Bowellism?

The term is coined specifically after Richard Rogers’ philosophy of inside out architecture. This can be broken down around the ideas of 1) technology, 2) flexibility, 3) people’s place, 4) experimental architecture + innovation and most importantly 5) legible exposure of building components. Bowellism is specifically inspired by Antonio Sant’Elia’s Manifesto of Futuristic Architecture and Archigram school of thought (both wanted to break conventional architecture with high-tech, lightweight, experimental architecture).

Surprisingly, I saw all 5 elements of the philosophy in almost all of RR’s buildings. This gives the buildings a very distinct look, a very bowellist look which is only specific to RR. Although many have been inspired by bowellism (for instance IKOY architects), it is still an uncoventional way of thinking about architecture. Let’s discuss these 5 elements in some detail to see if you align with this style of architecture:

Technology both literally and architecturally

Considering inspiration from futuristic architecture, technology has been at the heart of bowellism. Rogers expressed technology both literally and architecturally. Apart from designing generally hi-tech buildings (security systems, weather monitoring systems, furnishings and fitments) he has made immense use of passive heating/cooling strategies including natural ventilation stacks, energy efficient curtain wall systems with 1 metre air space using automatic motorized roller shades, orienting building on site to best utilize sunlight, view cones etc. And the hi-tech ‘look’ of building is achieved with use of shiny aluminum panels, large movable curtain walls making use of spider clips etc. As a result, clients wanting to express futuristic look in their project would often hire RR.

Flexibility inside and outside

“Never design a finite building” says Rogers in relation to flexibility in architecture. Buildings must be designed and positioned on site for future expansion. The inside of the buildings are generally large open flexible spaces designed with movable walls since there is no interruptions from the structure and plumbing systems.

People’s place

The idea is to give space to the public and not to make use of every inch of real estate. Rogers’ buildings often have huge atriums that connect the inside to the outside. Special attention is also paid to the circulation in the building, usually located centrally in the atrium space that provides a democratic nature that serves not only the occupants but also the public. Even in residential designs, the living room is thought as a piazza where the central location facilitates socializing.

Experimental architecture + research and development

Although this is most evident in his earlier zip-up residential work and other theoretical projects, innovation has always been on RR’s mind. He was inspired by Bucky’s Dymaxion house not only in terms of innovation but also pre-fabrication. His experimental projects influenced his actual projects and got him to think of architecture as ‘assembly’ rather that ‘construction’. I specially found his “Modular high-rise – Industrialized housing system” project very interesting where he explores how a skyscraper can be built with using factory assembled apartment units. I felt so inspired by his experimental projects because they were ambitious, innovation but also practical and well thought out.

Spilling the guts out

And finally, lets talk about RR’s philosophy of placing the mechanical, electrical and structural systems on the outside of the building (bowellism). This is done beautifully by color coding all systems and making them graphically legible. It adds visual interest, clear sense of hierarchy, legibility and unique look to the buildings.

This style makes sense since it supports technology, flexibility and experimental nature of his work. But I personally think this was done at the cost of elegance and simplicity in many projects. I appreciated the design philosophy but only when used in moderation. Some projects appear way too complex and machine-like. Do the exterior trusses really save that much space? Not to mention it looks hideous in many of his projects.

A master in technological expression

Although everyone’s opinion on bowellism might differ, Rogers has shown us how beautiful architecture can be created from conventionally ugly looking things. He cannot be thought as a functionalist since he did not just expose the building components but created art with it. As he would say “architecture starts where function stops”.


If you are interested in reading about Richard Rogers, I recommend reading Richard Rogers, Architecture of the Future by Kenneth Powell. Credit for all images goes to original photographers mentioned in this book. This article is a part of my SMA project, don’t forget to check out the other architects!

Vat Jaiswal

About the author- I am currently:

1) Researching the 50 most acclaimed architects in the world.
2) Doing a Master in Architecture degree
3) Doing timelapse and hyperlapse photography in Canada
4) Practicing Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin and Korean

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