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Farrell: ‘As far as I’m concerned, it’s my review, not the government’s’

Terry Farrell has warned the government that his review into architecture may make for ‘unpleasant reading’, in an exclusive interview

What will be your key recommendations?
We have to address the everyday much better: the high streets, the outdoor spaces, mass housing and supermarkets. The world generally is struggling to maintain quality of everyday life, while the top end has accelerated away and the stardom, not only of architects but of certain projects, has accelerated beyond anything anyone had conceived as possible.

So your report addresses the everyday. What else?
We need to recognise the enormous achievement made by the design professions in Britain and particularly in London. We’ve made a huge contribution and that should be celebrated much more.

What does your review say about the education of architects?
It is the most expensive course to take and its relationship to income is the poorest equation of any profession. Something has to give. There are other paths to becoming an architect. Shorter courses, apprenticeships, sandwich courses and so on. I am going to articulate some views around that theme. My biggest worry is that, unless we do something, the profession will become increasingly elitist.

What is your relationship with the government?

The review is not just aimed at government

I am not a government adviser. I’m glad this is an independent review. I am not a party political person. It is totally different, say, to the Urban Task Force, because that was [set up] to establish policy for a government about to be elected. The review is not just aimed at government; the audience is much broader. It is about all those involved in the built environment. I want to emphasise that.

What sort of reaction to the review are you expecting from government?
I’ll give government a certain amount of time to think about it but, if they are messing around because it is election year, and are going to be cautious about what they say, I will speak out. I will publish it and get on with things, because I am much more interested in the follow-up and the long-term results than what this particular government makes of it. I will listen, obviously, to any comments they have to make; but as far as I am concerned, it is my review, not theirs.

Is there anything the government could do immediately?

It could be much more involved in proactive planning. ‘Planning’ is associated with all the mistakes we made in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. But now we have to return to planning again – not top-down state planning; it has to be bottom-up. The best planners are the cities themselves and you can see it from the ones that have done well, like Manchester and Birmingham.

Is there room for a design watchdog in your review?

There is no point in a CABE or group of review architects looking just at planning applications for new buildings. We need to look at our existing hospitals, universities, town halls and housing estates and make what there is more efficient. There is no point in designing the odd hospital to super new standards when we haven’t solved [the problems affecting] the majority of the stock.

Are we thinking about sustainability in the right way?

Answers to the sustainability issue are not hugely sexy

The problem is that the answers to the sustainability issue are not hugely sexy. They don’t have the ‘wow’ factor. They are about being concerned with stewardship of what we already we have. If you look at how few new buildings we are constructing, you are not going to make a huge difference by changing the new stock. We need a new approach to town planning and how we manage and look after our cities.

What would be your core green technologies in a new build home?

Very high levels of insulation, together with density and closeness to transport.

How will we build cities in the future?
We have to remember that 80 per cent of our buildings that are here now will be with us in 2050, so it is not about building new cities in the West, it’s about managing and stewardship of what we have got. And we don’t do a very good job of that as a profession and as an industry, because the money only comes from building new. But we have to reward better when dealing with what we have.

What do you think about the VAT issue?

VAT on adaptations of buildings but not on new is completely arse-about-face

VAT on adaptations of buildings but not on new is completely arse-about-face. It is not sustainable. Why pull perfectly good buildings down? If you’re looking at converting a building and you have to pay full VAT you tend to pull it down and build a new one. In sustainability terms that is complete madness.

Do you have an ideal density for cities?
We are in an age of city making that is totally, utterly revolutionary. Humankind has never seen the likes of it before. London was the largest city in the world in 1900. It won’t be in the top 100 by the end of the century. But I believe in urbanity very strongly. Cities are absolutely the greatest creative achievement of our species but it has got enormous challenges.

Density is not a bad thing at all. New York and Paris have twice the density of London. Density brings huge benefits. It should be used to improve the public domain; the two have to go together. Open space, the streets and the stewardship or curating of public space becomes much more important the more densely people live.

We have mismanaged high buildings for residential by putting the poorer people in them without the resources to run and manage them. It takes more money to live in a high-rise.

So what are the main challenges facing the built environment?

The first is the pace and scale of growth. We have to get it right and it has to be sustainable.

The second one is the effect of computers, IT and the new world of communications. They will transform the way we live. Hopefully, we’re going to be able to manage, cities and their stewardship and, indeed, sustainability issues in a way we have never done before: all aspects of movement and travel and all aspects of energy consumption, with clever ways of recording and measuring what energy we are using.

Does the public ‘get’ architecture?
They do, but in a completely different way to how architects get it. The biggest expenditure of their lives is on their house; when they go on holiday the majority of destinations – if not a beach – is to see architecture; tourists go and see St Paul’s or Westminster Abbey and they stand in front of Buckingham Palace; they live a life that is all about buildings. They watch a football match in a pub; movies are all about architecture. The setting, the context of life is architecture.

We need 800,000 new homes by 2021, yet the Pathfinder housing market renewal scheme wasn’t a success was it?
It was a total nonsense. It was shocking. We can double, treble the usage of our existing buildings; there is tremendous wastage. Schools could act as libraries, for instance. But, if we are building new, we must obviously be highly sustainable. But that is not the biggest issue. The biggest issue is to do with insulating what we have got and addressing whether and how we reinforce the best bits of what we have.

Footprint Live: The Green Rethink

Terry Farrell will be a keynote speaker at the AJ’s Green Rethink Conference next week (26 November) on approaches to sustainability.

With case studies, analysis and critical business insight, Footprint Live: The Green Rethink is the opportunity to get the insider information you need to skill up your business and win more work.

Book now to join the debate.

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