Design South East’s newest trustee, Ben Rogers, Director of the Centre for London, in conversation with our Communications Lead, Claire Quinn.
Ben is an urbanist, researcher, writer and speaker, with a particular interest in urban life, citizenship, public service reform and the built environment. He is the author of several acclaimed books on philosophy, history and democracy, and an experienced journalist and broadcaster. He has been a Contributing Editor to Prospect Magazine and a visiting fellow at the Royal Society of Arts. I visited Ben at the Centre for London offices in Hatton Garden and he began by talking about his passion for urbanism and the route his career has taken. “I am really interested in the design and planning of cities, I care about design and planning everywhere but I am most interested in cities.”
Have you always worked in the field of urbanism and design? “No, I have a doctorate in intellectual history, 17C British and French social thought, I wrote a couple of books on philosophy and history. This is quite a way from what I do now. But I’m quite an ideas person and I bring that to everything I do. It’s only now, later in life, that I have decided I am first and foremost an urbanist. Which is funny, because my father, the architect Richard Rogers, is an urbanist and my mother and stepfather were also architects. I grew up around people talking about these things and it is true that they travel in families.”
But, how did this lead to a career in urbanism, I asked? “I made my way towards cities gradually, I went from being a writer to getting a job at the think tank, IPPR. There I looked after a partnership we had with Camden and with the Design Council, both of which involved a focus on planning and civic engagement. Then in 2008, I went to work for the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, in the Cabinet Office. I led a cross-government review of planning, design and quality of place. This was championed from the Prime Minister’s Office by a head of policy who was interested in the area and I enjoyed it. It was fascinating being at the Centre for the Whitehall machine and seeing how things opened up when you have a powerful backer in No 10. But it was also frustrating because this was during the financial crisis and in the run up to the 2010 general election, and it was quite difficult to get any purchase on government. The report was no sooner published than forgotten.
We talked about growing up in London and how this influenced his career and what drew Ben to the role of Design South East trustee. “I grew up in London and I have always lived in cities. As a trustee for Design South East, I primarily bring a really good knowledge of London, its issues and strengths. I think growing up in a big city like London makes you keenly aware of place, spatial layout and the importance of intelligent design. I am maddened by bad design when I see it and I get very cross about the way we treat our city, the way we sometimes fail to manage and design it well. If there are ways I can help to raise the standards of development then I’m happy to participate, that’s essentially what attracted me to this role with Design South East. I always liked CABE as an organisation and Design South East was one of the first building centres in the country, it was certainly the first time I had heard of an organisation that did this type of work.”