With Quinlan Terry appointed to the government’s housing design panel, and his office’s proposal for Hyde Park barracks raising the hackles of Modernists, the Neoclassicist father-and-son practice is very much in the spotlight. The Terrys’ granddaughter/niece Flora Neville meets them in their studio
Morally, I don’t have a problem with a modern kitchen,’ says Francis Terry, perched on a stool in Quinlan & Francis Terry’s rural office in Dedham near Colchester. ‘Ditto bathrooms,’ says Quinlan. It’s a scruffy room we’re in, warm from an electric fire that’s placed next to a table-size Corinthian capital. Hard hats balance on rolls of paper, and there is no computer in sight.
Quinlan Terry, alternately described as ‘obsessive traditionalist’, ‘God’s architect’, ‘ultimate rebel’, and ‘radical Classicist’, has just been awarded the first CBE for services to Classical architecture, as well as being named as a member of the government’s housing design panel. You might imagine him as a child, pulling on a tweed suit and rambling around a Georgian pile with a well-thumbed copy of Ruskin, but this ‘radical Classicist’ had a radically Modernist upbringing.
His parents were Communist sympathisers and his mother was an artist in the thick of the Hampstead set. He grew up surrounded by names such as Barbara Hepworth, Stanley Spencer, Fredrick Gibberd, and Erno Goldfinger – names ‘I now seem to forget’, he says, as he peers out of a sash window. When the war started, the Terrys and the Goldfingers moved in to a house on the grounds of Whipsnade Zoo, designed by Berthold Lubetkin. ‘Ve are snowed up at Vipsnade,’ Quinlan recalls Goldfinger announcing in his Hungarian accent.
Without hesitation, Quinlan denies that he was in any way ever impressed by the architecture and artwork of his mother’s friends. His interest in Classicism ‘was hard for them to take’, he says, though the true embarrassment was his conversion to Christianity, which was ‘unfathomable’. His faith and architectural style hatched from the same egg. Both he attributes to a reaction against post-war emptiness that he saw in his parents’ mindset. The perennial murmurings of an apocalypse bred fear and hopelessness.
‘When I was 18, we all thought in two years’ time we were going to be blown sky-high,’ he recalls. It made no sense, therefore, to think about sustainability, permanence or longevity; it was all about social experimentation, novelty and progress. It was therefore sacrilegious, he says, to conserve what is, and recycle what was, which is now a hot topic on the housing design panel.
Restless and dissatisfied with this mindset, Quinlan struck out alone, both artistically and spiritually. It was at the Architectural Association, along with fellow scholars Andrew Anderson and Malcolm Higgs, and his now wife, Christina de Ruttie, that Quinlan found his niche. The four quickly established themselves as lone Classicists against the rest. They called themselves the Flower Pot Crew, and held weekly ‘synods’ where they would each pick an artist or architect they admired to impersonate. Quinlan frequently played William Morris, while Anderson would be Philip Webb. Of the 40 students in his year (including Richard Rogers), these four were the only ‘traditional’ architects.
Quinlan says they used to walk around the East End and see lovely squares, and traditional terraced houses – working-class homes – being pulled down. ‘When we asked why, we never got any answers,’ he says. ‘In spite of their emphasis on freedom and toleration, the tutors at the AA would not tolerate any one who questioned their agenda. Modernism was a dogma.’
Had his questions been engaged with, Quinland thinks he might not have opposed Modernism so wholeheartedly. Though it was ‘instinctively’ he says, that he favoured symmetry, proportion, and a traditional house that ‘just looks right’. It is an ideology for which he has fought ever since.
Unlike his father, Quinlan’s son and business partner Francis says he deliberately does not attach any ideology to his work, but aims to ‘just make really good buildings. What does Quinlan & Francis Terry architecture have in common with Miele washing machines? he asks by way of an analogy. ‘You don’t go to someone who sells washing machines and ask: “What is your philosophy?” You sell washing machines. We’re no different, we sell architecture.’
His analogy of cooking and architecture enlightens further. He argues that buildings should be ‘the architectural equivalent of a nice, well-seasoned risotto’. Follow a recipe, advises Francis, look for the rules, and keep the customer happy, though the odd ‘no capes’ moment – as espoused by Edna Mole in The Incredibles – is important too. Isn’t this quite a tight ideology? He concedes that I can call it what I like.
Francis started out as an artist, found it lonely, but ‘didn’t want to leave the As, and wasn’t much of an acrobat’. His architecture is noticeably more artistic than his father’s – I try to envision a washing machine he might design. While Quinlan is a Doric man, Francis favours the Corinthian capital because it is extravagant and exuberant; it says: ‘Here I am, I’m Classical, deal with it!’
Rather than bother him, he says, it makes complete sense to him to practise Classical architecture precisely because his father does. ‘If my father were Richard Rogers, I’d probably be designing Modernist buildings; if my father had been a milliner, I’d be making hats. It comes down to what you’re exposed to.’
The fight against ‘the spirit of the age’ seems to be subsiding – ‘we don’t live in such feudal days anymore,’ says Francis. Quinlan’s CBE and work on the housing panel, Francis’ schemes for Create Streets, as well as a new book on the practice out this month suggest success and momentum growing behind the Classical cause. And yet father and son seem genuinely unmoved by fame and glory; or for Quinlan, the prospect of a long-standing rebellion finally paying off. Though this squares entirely with their brand (non) philosophy, the highest praise you could lavish on them, Quinlan and Francis agree, is: ‘it looks like it has always been there, and there is no trace of the architect.’
What is an architect? I ask. ‘We’re exterior decorators, we do the wrappings of net-lettable space,’ says Francis, and adds with a twinkle: ‘Architects will hate that.’
- Flora Neville is granddaughter of Quinlan Terry and niece of Francis Terry
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