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Breaking the mould

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review - Place: A Story of Modelmaking, Menageries and Paper Rounds By Terry Farrell. Laurence King, 2004. 288pp. £29.95

Terry Farrell is the perennial outsider of British architecture. A media figure with a rare ability to communicate with the public, at the helm of a practice that has built worldwide, and one of the small band of British architects with a knighthood, Farrell seems, for all that, resolutely out of step with the inner presidium of British architecture.

During the 1980s Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Michael Hopkins and Nicholas Grimshaw (Farrell's former partner), promoters of what used to be called High-Tech, moved effortlessly into the seats of power vacated by the old-Modern generation of Leslie Martin, Philip Powell and Denys Lasdun. All are now RAs, three have the Gold Medal, two are peers. Practices such as that of John McAslan, Wilkinson Eyre and Future Systems are in the line of descent from Foster and Rogers. The dynasty retains its hold.

There is no school of Farrell (though a surprising number of well-known names have passed through his office over the years) and you sense that he has never sought to create one. As the critic Kester Rattenbury argues, he is 'something of a chameleon', hard to pin down and harder to copy - someone who 'didn't play by team rules'. For his detractors, he is permanently marked by his association with Post-Modernism and its alleged preoccupation with style over content.

To cap it all, he is a relentlessly 'commercial' architect (as if Lloyd's of London and Swiss Re were charitable foundations);

a latter-day Seifert perhaps. The sometime hero of the conservationists and community activists, he put his stamp on London with Alban Gate, Embankment Place and the MI6 headquarters. What drives this 'chameleon'?

Place, says Farrell, is neither a monograph, aimed primarily at other architects (though it contains a full record of his work up to 1981), nor an autobiography. Few architects of recent vintage, however, have produced such a candid - and, indeed, vivid - account of their personal and professional history and influences. Farrell was born in outer Manchester in 1938. His background was working class ('I didn't have a bed of my own until I was 14') and Roman Catholic, with strong Irish roots, though his father later became a civil servant.

In 1946 the Farrells moved to Newcastle, where young Terry stayed on to study architecture at the university. His first serious encounter with Modern architecture occurred on a visit to the Festival of Britain.

An outstanding student at Newcastle, he found a post with the London County Council in 1961 but subsequently won a Harkness Fellowship to study in the US in 1962-64.

Louis Kahn, Robert Venturi and Denise ScottBrown were among his teachers at Penn.

America was a revelation to Farrell, though his reading of the country was rather different to that of Foster and Rogers. The eclecticism of Wright, 'a kind of artistic nomad', inspired him. American cities, with their strong tradition of self-determination, led the way in the field of conservation and urban regeneration. In contrast, Le Corbusier's Chandigarh, which Farrell visited on a subsequent study tour to Japan, Hong Kong and India, seemed 'a place full of alien objects dropped from an artist's drawing board on to a struggling, poverty-stricken people'.

The 'overwhelming ugliness' of it stuck in his memory. He was no fan of Le Corbusier or of functionalism - 'a pseudo-scientific approach that denies the difference between architecture and the design of a product or a functional machine'.

Farrell's partnership with Nicholas Grimshaw (ex-AA and 'officer class') lasted for 15 years (1965-80). It was rooted in close personal friendship (which later evaporated) and a shared interest in experiment and innovation, and was for a time the star-turn on the British scene.

Farrell/Grimshaw's best-known building, the Park Road apartment block, was very much a joint project, we learn, though the cladding and other detailed elements were Grimshaw's responsibility. Farrell's tastes were, however, changing. Grimshaw moved out of the office: 'he changed his address, but kept his style; I kept the address but over the next few years evolved and changed the style and character of my architecture'.

Not that Farrell abandoned the quest for innovation: his Clifton Nurseries in Bayswater pioneered the use of double-skin polycarbonate sheeting as a cladding material, while the shop designed for the same client in Covent Garden (with Britain's first Teflon-coated glass-fibre roof) was dubbed by Martin Pawley 'the Barcelona Pavilion of Post-Modernism'. The transformation of Farrell/Grimshaw's former office into a Deco Classical fantasy exemplified Farrell's urge to break the mould: 'architecture begins where engineering ends, ' he insisted, quoting Lutyens. That credo has informed his work over the last 20 years.

This is a fascinating and revealing book, beautifully produced and a real contribution to architectural history. For all Farrell's eclecticism, and what are sometimes seen as lapses into excess and even vulgarity, there is a continuum to his work over 40 years that can be summed up in the title of this book.

Farrell is, above all, a place-maker whose resolute individualism has done much to create the free-thinking ethos of British architecture in the 21st century.

Kenneth Powell is an architectural journalist

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