Democratising architecture

November 5, 2019

The award-winning architect and urban planner Sir Terry Farrell grew up and studied in Newcastle. He has enjoyed a glittering 60-plus year career, gaining global recognition for his postmodern buildings, which include London’s MI6 headquarters and Charing Cross Station, China’s KK100 and Newcastle’s Great North Museum. It was recently announced that The Sir Terry Farrell Building – a centre dedicated to supporting the new generation of built environment professionals and engaging the general public in proposed changes to their city – would be created in a former department store in Newcastle’s Haymarket area. Alison Cowie visited the renowned architect at his London home last month to find out more

Sir Terry Farrell moved from Greater Manchester to Newcastle when he was eight-years-old and grew up in Grange estate – the post-Second World War council-built housing development off the Great North Road.

At 16, his parents moved to Blackpool, but Sir Terry decided to stay in Tyneside. He studied architecture at Newcastle University between 1956 and 1961, where he spent most of his time in the library. After he graduated, Sir Terry knew that if he was going to fulfil his dream of becoming an acclaimed architect, he must leave Newcastle.

“I didn’t know where I stood in the world because I didn’t have competitive comparisons [in Newcastle],” Sir Terry explains.

“I went to London because I could compare myself and compete more fully there.”

He and five friends moved to the capital after finishing university, where Sir Terry admits he found it more difficult to establish an architecture career compared to his peers – despite graduating top of the class.

He decided to study a masters in urban planning at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia before returning to London.

In 1965, he established an architecture practice with Sir Nicholas Grimshaw. Sir Terry describes the move as a “major change in fortunes” for him. “I felt independent for the first time, and I have remained independent ever since,” he adds.

Sir Terry and Sir Nicholas delivered mainly housing projects for 15 years before agreeing to separate to concentrate on their own projects.

Sir Terry established Terry Farrell & Partners (now known as Farrells) in 1980 and the practice became known for its ambitious postmodernist structures. Notable UK projects include the
MI6 headquarters at Vauxhall Cross, the TV-am headquarters in Camden Lock, Charing Cross Station and The Deep aquarium in Hull, while in Asia (Farrells opened its Hong Kong office in 1991), projects include Beijing South Railway Station, Incheon International Airport, in South Korea, and the KK100 tower in Shenzhen – the tallest building ever realised by a British architect.

Sir Terry, who moved Farrells’ headquarters into the former Palmer Aero Works on London’s Hatton Street in 1987, creating a stunning apartment for himself in the same building – managed the firm’s increasingly impressive projects while lecturing at Cambridge University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Sheffield.

He was awarded a CBE in 1996 and made a Knight Bachelor in 2001 for his contribution to architecture and urban design.

Asked which building he is most proud of, Sir Terry quips that would be like choosing between his children.

He does, however, single out the transformation of the Grade II-listed Hancock: Great North Museum – one of a number of projects Sir Terry has delivered in Newcastle.

Alongside the £26 million Great North Museum project, which reopened in 2009, Sir Terry also designed the International Centre for Life on Newcastle’s Times Square.

He was also instructed by the former Tyne & Wear Development Corporation in 1992 to develop a ten-year Newcastle Quayside Masterplan – which adds to numerous other regeneration plans Farrells has been involved in across the world.

Designing a masterplan, Sir Terry explains, is “much more fundamental than architecture,” adding, “it’s a strategic proposition that lays out the future possibilities for the land.”

The celebrated architect was also asked to develop the Newcastle University Masterplan, which sets out ‘proposals for the ongoing physical development of the university.’ In doing so, Sir Terry has been able to work with the changing identity of Newcastle city centre.

“When I studied at the university, education was a minority industry in the city. Other industries such as shipbuilding were more prevalent. Nowadays, far more of Newcastle has been given over to education, and it’s now one of its biggest industries,” the architect says.

In January 2013, Sir Terry was also asked by Ed Vaizey, the then Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, to undertake a national review of architecture and the built environment.

In doing so, Sir Terry maintained “the UK should be a showcase for what can be achieved when planners, landscapers, architects, conservationists, engineers, artists, developers and housebuilders work together.”

The Farrell Review’s recommendations included, among other things, more and earlier education about our physical environment in schools, more proactive planning, and increased civic engagement.

In 2016, Sir Terry accepted an invitation to become a visiting professor at Newcastle University and he took up the position on the same day he was honoured by Newcastle City Council with the Freedom of the City. He accepted this latter accolade alongside former long-distance runner Brendan Foster – something that provided a fond memory for the once Gosforth Harrier.

“I used to be fascinated with running and athletics and I was so pleased to meet one of my heroes that day,” Sir Terry recalls.

As a visiting professor of Newcastle University, Sir Terry can see how the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape has changed.

“The first year now has more people than there was in the whole school when I was there,” he says. “There were also no females, whereas now the school is 50 per cent female.”

On visits to the university, Sir Terry enjoys speaking to the new generation of architects.

“A lot come from overseas and so, because I’ve travelled throughout my career, I can relate work to their towns and cities,” the esteemed architect reveals.

In June this year, it was also announced that Sir Terry and Newcastle University will collaborate to create a ‘world-leading centre for people to learn about the city of Newcastle’s past and discuss its future while thinking about the future of global cities.’

The Sir Terry Farrell Building will be housed in the former Claremont Building (on the corner of Barras Bridge and Claremont Road in Newcastle) and is set to open in September 2021.

For Sir Terry – who last year donated a £1 million archive of models, drawings, papers and diaries to the university – the centre will provide an opportunity to implement some of the recommendations from The Farrell Review.

He explains that the centre will provide spaces for study and research, as well as areas for start ups – where fledgling entrepreneurs can be supported while they develop their business ideas.

“When I was at university, there was no support after you graduated,” says Sir Terry. “If I had stayed in Newcastle it would have been extremely difficult to achieve the recognition that I have.

“The centre will provide space where start-ups can learn the skills and breed confidence so that they can go the same way.”

Meanwhile, the centre will comprise event and exhibition spaces, as well as an Urban Room, which will be open to the public and display information, models and plans about proposed developments to the city.

The principal aim of the Urban Room, Sir Terry says, is to help “democratise architecture.”

He explains: “It is inspired by New London Architecture, which gives people a chance to see developments happening in the city. This space will do the same for those living in Newcastle. Too often, town planning is shrouded in mystery. People in charge don’t like to publicise developments. Here, the public will be able to see and debate what’s happening – that way, they can feel more part of their city.”

Asked if he believes architecture graduates no longer have to leave Newcastle to achieve their career aspirations, Sir Terry is sanguine.

“Right now, there’s a depression in London and advancements in the regions, which is something that’s pretty unique since I graduated from university,” he says.

“The lifestyle is very different for graduates who choose to stay in Newcastle. You don’t have to go to London and rent a tiny bedsit. You can move into a nice home in lovely areas close to the city, and the countryside can be reached so much easier, which I think is a good thing.”

Though it’s been almost 60 years since Sir Terry Farrell has been a permanent resident of Newcastle, he remains undeniably connected to the city. Not only by shaping its urban landscape with key buildings and area masterplans, but by influencing those who choose to study at the city’s School of Architecture. And now, with green light lit for The Sir Terry Farrell Building, the legacy to demystify and engage everyone in architecture and urban planning is set to expand Sir Terry’s influence in Newcastle for generations to come.


Newcastle University School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape

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