Sir Terry Farrell - Opening Up the Thames Gateway
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Sir Terry Farrell – Opening Up the Thames Gateway

05 May 2010

Damian Arnold talks to Sir Terry Farrell, the UK Government’s design champion for the Thames Gateway project.

Sir Terry Farrell has been telling anyone who will listen for years now what London’s built environment needs. His expansive visions for the capital have included a ‘national park’ for the Thames Gateway and the transformation of the Euston Road into a Parisian-style boulevard.

After years of public utterances, the 72-year-old architect seems to have supplanted Lord Rogers as the politicians’ architect of choice to set new visions for the capital.

Farrell’s ongoing narrative of architectural reinvention is most clearly found in London, and it’s hard to think of any other British architect with so many other landmark buildings dotted around the centre of the city.

“After years of public utterances, the 72-year-old architect seems to have supplanted Lord Rogers as the politicians’ architect of choice to set new visions for the capital.”

He will be particularly remembered as one of the first British architects to express the playful postmodernist style and, in doing so, added an intriguing layer to London’s architectural landscape with such offerings as the TV-am building in Camden (1982), the Embankment Place Development in Charing Cross (1990) and the MI6 headquarters in Vauxhall (1991).

As the years have gone by, politics and public affairs have become an increasing preoccupation. He is expected to join the Mayor of London’s design advisory panel from which Richard Rogers resigned in September. This follows his appointment to Boris Johnson’s Thames Gateway Steering Group to study the option of an offshore airport in the Thames Estuary.

“I have agreed to help Boris’s panel because I want to explore whether an offshore airport could be part of a multi-airport hub,” he says. “London is based on a ring of train stations joined up with the Circle Line. We could do a high-speed rail version of that to link the airports. People could transfer between airports very easily. The government needs to open up the issue.”

As the government’s design champion for Thames Gateway Parklands, Farrell recently launched a vision for a network of national parks in the gateway that he claims would increase property values in the area by £2.5bn.

“Nature is key to the Thames Gateway,” he says. “I believe it could be like the Lake District, a leisure destination for cycling and walking. Until the 1920s that’s exactly what it was when places like Erith were holiday resorts. It’s still one of the biggest breeding grounds for birds in Northern Europe. The government came up with the slogan of building more than 100,000 homes on brownfield sites. But that’s not a vision.” 

At least one tangible marker he has put down in the Thames Gateway is his newly completed office scheme on the Greenwich Peninsula: Mitre Passage. Despite the downturn, Farrell has many other projects in progress all over the capital. These include Regent’s Place office scheme on Great Portland Street for British Land, Bishopsgate Goods Yard with Hammerson and Ballymore, a residential tower in Lots Road for Hutchison Whampoa, a 250,000ft masterplan for Westminster City Council at Paddington Green and a masterplan for all the remaining land around the British Library.

History of design

Going to meet him at his office in a converted factory building near to London’s Edgware Road it is clear that he is still very much in-command of the ship. Tall and broad shouldered he is courteous but inscrutable behind Perspex-framed glasses and bushy eyebrows.

Of what there is no doubt is that he has come a long way since founding a practice with the now equally distinguished architect Sir Nick Grimshaw in 1965. For 15 years they made their way to the top of the profession by designing buildings such as the Herman Miller Factory in Bath (1976) in the ‘high-tech modernist style’ that by the 1970s had already transformed British architecture.

“The zeitgeist of the last decade has been urban regeneration in the north but it now stands on its own two feet.”

By the end of the 70s Grimshaw wanted to further refine this aesthetic while Farrell was increasingly engaged in the whimsical postmodernist style that was flourishing on the other side of the Atlantic. Realising they could no longer work together, the men set up their own practices.

The next 30 years showed Farrell’s talent for reinvention. His practice thrived in the 1980s as it established itself as a specialist in those conversions of warehouses into commercial offices that became such a symbol of the yuppie revival of Thatcher’s Britain.

The most famous example of this was the TV-am building for the ITV breakfast show, fronting onto the Grand Union Canal in Camden Town. The converted 1930s garage is playfully ornamented with egg cups. 

By the end of the 80s he was working on big government buildings such as the MI6 building and commercial schemes such as Embankment Place (1990), which, he says, is the project of which he remains the most proud.

The vast mixed-use scheme straddles Charing Cross Station, looking out over the Thames like an imperious giant spider. “It was my first major building but it was not just the building; we created a whole urban quarter.”

In the 1990s he focused on vast international transportation projects such as Incheon Airport in Seoul and the Beijing South Station, and, closer to home, cultural and urban regeneration schemes in Northern cities.

These included The Deep, a £45m aquarium in Hull that was one of the more popular millennium building projects.

As we move into another decade, he predicts the zeitgeist will move from the urban regeneration of northern cities, which characterised New Labour’s urban agenda, to the need to take London and the south east to another level with some major planning decisions.

“The zeitgeist of the last decade has been urban regeneration in the north but it now stands on its own two feet,” he says. “The big issue now is making the south east part of the global picture.”

As befits his contribution to London’s recent architectural history he has published an acclaimed book about the capital, Shaping London. The book, which is packed with fascinating historical photographs and Farrell’s own sketches, comes with a recommendation from Bill Bryson, who says on the back cover: “When it comes to London there is no one I respect more than Terry Farrell.”

The book, infused with a deep and lyrical understanding of the city’s history, strives to explain the city’s “underlying harmonies and orders so that London’s real order is served in all future plans.”

Farrell is clearly positioning himself to have a say in what those future plans might be.