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Terry Farrell

Urban spaceman

Sunday 1 November 2009 5:00

Sir Terry Farrell is thankful for the stop the recession has brought to the rush to develop the urban landscape. It provides time to think, he tells Jane Pikett.

The day they re-opened the famous old Hancock Museum in Newcastle, revamped and re-named the Great North Museum, thousands queued down the street to see it.

These scores of families, students, people young and old, came primarily to see not the famed collection within, but the architectural statement created by Sir Terry Farrell, architect of international repute and the name behind the breathtaking transformation - resurrection, indeed - of this historic, much-loved building. In these days of the X Factor-inspired quick-fix, it restored one’s faith in human nature to see how important this was to people. Certainly, the crowds were testament to the sense of ownership people have for the re-shaping of our urban landscape.

For Sir Terry, who was brought up in Newcastle and whose stamp is on many of the city’s landmark regeneration projects, it was a pleasure to see how well received his work was. “It was wonderful to see people respond like that. Architecture is a kind of performance, and it’s great to see people turn up. I walked down Northumberland Street, towards the Quayside, and there were crowds of people coming up with their children, on their way to the museum and buzzing about it,” he says, remembering launch day fondly.

The project was a gem, even for a grand thinker whose credits include two of the largest railway stations in the world (Beijing South and New Guangzhou, both in China) and who is now working on the tallest building ever by a British architect (100 storeys, also in China).

These big-bang, grand plans might indicate a larger-than-life character, yet Sir Terry is quietly, thoughtfully spoken and I guess his is more a contemplative soul.

No surprise then, that he would relish the myriad layers - architectural and historical - he must have discovered when he began work to reinvigorate the Hancock.

“Oh yes, I so enjoyed it,” he says of the project. “It’s a wonderful place; like a time piece, someone’s old dusty store.

Rather, one imagines, like Tutankhamun’s cave.” The collection - archaeology, natural history, geology and Egyptology – has changed little over the generations, yet the arena in which it is now displayed has changed almost beyond recognition, bringing this superb collection - which was starting to look as tired as its old surroundings - bang into the 21st Century.

Now, the stuffed birds and animals, fossils, ancient Egyptian relics and findings from Hadrian’s Wall, now joined by works from The Hatton Gallery, are displayed in massive, warehouse-like spaces that are every bit as dramatic as the grand vision of the Victorians who created the collections in the first place.

And big-picture thinking – grand visions, if you like – define the work of Sir Terry and the practice he founded in 1965 aged 26. At Farrells, with offices in London, Edinburgh and Hong Kong, it appears that no project is too big, none too complex.

One might assume a huge practice, but the team numbers just 120, in contrast to, for instance, [Norman] Foster + Partners, which boasts a team nearing 1,000. Sir Terry likes his practice the way it is, and while it may be small in number, stellar-scale, multi-million pound projects are its stock in trade.

“Of course, you don’t start out with huge projects, but they come gradually over the years,” says Sir Terry, claiming no grand plan when he founded the business in partnership with Nick Grimshaw, who went his own way in 1980 and is now Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, President of the Royal Academy.

The firm’s links with the Far East are strong, and began in the 60s when Sir Terry befriended a Chinese fellow student on his architecture degree course at Newcastle University, where he later taught.

As mentioned, Farrells was responsible for the massive Beijing South Railway Station and New Guangzhou Station, the largest new station in Asia. Sir Terry is now working on a 100-storey tower, also in China.

“I’ve just come back from Hong Kong and China, and I love the travel my work brings,” he says.

“I don’t suppose I had a grand plan when I started out, but I did admire the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, and I thought it would be wonderful to be like him, though I don’t really know where that confidence came from.” Born in Manchester to Irish Catholic parents, the young Terence moved to Newcastle aged eight, when the family relocated for his father’s clerical job at the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance.

The second of four brothers, he grew up on a council estate called Grange Park north of Gosforth in Newcastle - moving into the first street there and watching as an estate of 2,000 homes gradually covered the fields that had at first surrounded the family home.

“I grew up on the very edge of urbanity with fields and streams, and Hazlerigg Colliery nearby. I remember the little colliery train rumbling past on the line at the bottom of our garden,” he says of his happy childhood years.

“As the estate grew, the fields disappeared and I found myself in suburbia. It was wonderful to be on the edge of the city. I used to cycle to Blyth to fish and camp out at Seaton Burn.” His ambition for architecture originated with an arts master at St Cuthbert’s Grammar School named Maurice McPartlan.

“I was no great performer at school apart from in art, but he picked me out at 11 and said I would do great things. He was the one who suggested architecture to me. “My parents were not keen for me to go to university - I was the first of the family to go - but he backed me all the way. I have always remembered him.” Indeed, Sir Terry later founded a prize at St Cuthbert’s, and he invited Mr McPartlan’s family (he had 10 children) to the opening of an exhibition of his own work at the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle.

His parents, who tried to persuade their second son to follow his father into the civil service, must have been happy with the way things turned out for him in the end? “My father died many years ago, but my mother only died 10 or 12 years ago, and I honestly think what I do, the scale of it, terrified her.

When I was young, she tried to persuade me that painting and architecture were hobbies I could indulge in the evenings and at weekends, while I should have a ‘proper’ job in the civil service during the day.” Fortunately, he stuck to making his ‘hobby’ his career - a career marked by multi-million pound landmark projects all over the world.

He is architect first, businessman second, he says. His talent in business, he says, lies in being a highly enthusiastic and effective organiser.

“To be in architecture, particularly in large projects, you have to have the ability to marshal people, materials, contractors and so on.

Of course, I know what is happening on the financial side of the business, but I have partners who look after that day to day.” His name is attached to some of the world’s outstanding projects, and more that have never - frustratingly - come to fruition through economic factors; the bane of every architect’s life, no matter how great their reputation.

He can’t name favourite projects, but he does indicate career milestones such as the master plan which laid the foundations for the regeneration of Newcastle Quayside, and Embankment Place, Charing Cross, the first big landmark to have his name attached.

The building - housing, offices and shops - is built over the station platforms and looks a bit like a massive train shed. Someone wrote that it looked a bit like a jukebox, and its massive arches do have something of a classic 1950s Rock-Ola about them.

Sir Terry adds that the building was “particularly nerve-wracking” because of its scale and its landmark location, right opposite the Festival Hall.

He is also particularly proud that in a survey of the people of Beijing, his railway station was voted the most popular building with a staggering near 3.5m votes, knocking the Olympic Bird’s Nest Stadium into second place.

“I know I talk about my buildings like they are my children, and I can’t compare one against another,” he laughs. “I simply love the fact that they are used and that people appreciate them. I’m just delighted I’m working as hard as I am.

Architecture is very satisfying.” Aged 71, he works seven days a week and would, he says, like to work eight.

He actually lives above the shop, in a dramatic loft apartment with views over London above the company offices, which are housed in an old factory building near Marylebone Station.

That’s not to say he is a workaholic (he does have an apartment in a Sir Edwin Lutyens designed building close to the Kent coast, where he escapes at weekends) - just that he relishes all that he does. “But I pace myself,” he says.

“I graze on it. I used to run with Gosforth Harriers - marathons and half marathons - and for that, you have to pace things, and that’s how I work.

I make time to go swimming and see the children and I travel to wonderful places with work, and take time to visit museums and galleries, which is also work of course, because architecture is everywhere.” It is, of course, frustrating to work, sometimes for years, on projects that don’t get built in the end, generally because of economic pressures.

“I’ve been working on the proposed new aquarium at London Zoo on and off now since 1996, and have just learned that it won’t be done,” he says.

“All that work now abandoned. It is frustrating, but it is in the nature of what we do.” Of course, in the last few years, there have been many thousands of abandoned building projects nationwide, and I assume it must have been a grim time for Farrells, as it has been generally in the profession.

On the contrary, he says, he believes recession is actually good for architecture because it makes everyone take stock and actually think about what they’re doing, rather than racing to put up things that should never, in reality, be built.

Recession, he says, can lead to better design, better planning. “I find it very stimulating when things slow down. It gives people time to think. It’s a time for innovation and creativity.

When everyone is racing to do things and the banks are throwing money at people, there is no time to think and people do things they shouldn’t.” A passionate advocate of sustainability and conservation since he started out in the 60s - long before it was fashionable to care about such things - Sir Terry says his continuing ambition is to conserve and reuse.

“We are committed to a sustainable agenda, to conservation, to re-using buildings and landscapes - building with what is there already. Too much stuff built in the last 10-15 years has been just baubles - it doesn’t change anything, it doesn’t take anything forward.

“It’s a good thing now that people are having to stop and take stock. I’ve been preaching sustainability for 40 years and now, across the world, people are at last beginning to plan, to look at the whole picture - the way things connect.

“The way we plan everything - water and waste and landscape - is a major issue. We have been planning problems for the future, but at last people are talking about it now, but whether things will happen before we reach a period of crisis, I don’t know.” At least he has the reputation to influence these matters, and to make his own mark on the world and his home city, where his master plans for the cultural quarter surrounding Newcastle University and the Quayside will be linked by a proposed promenade, creating a cohesive landscape.

Everything with the Farrell name on it is designed according to its context and place. Hence, there is no company house style. Take the International Centre for Life in Newcastle. It was designed to respond to place and context, while introducing its own identity.

In the same way, when Sir Terry is working on the fusion of old and new, as in the contemporary extension at the Hancock, an appreciation of context - setting, location, sense of place - is absolutely key.

So, he not only added a spectacular contemporary extension to the Victorian ashlar-walled, John Dobson-inspired building, but he opened up the site so it better connects physically with the surrounding area, resulting in the old museum being welcomed back into the city, allowing it to make the magnificent physical statement its old and new parts fully deserve.

“Nothing is independent - it must all be in context,” he says.

“Working on the Hancock was an opportunity. It gives the classical architecture a new lease of life. It’s about adding extra interest to the story of the building. It’s about layering. I love that – we are just adding more layers.”