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Back to his roots

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Sir Terry Farrell: Designs for Life At the Hatton Gallery, University of Newcastle, until 9 November

This is a large and revealing exhibition.

Arranged in four galleries, each related to a theme, it presents a personal retrospective on the life and changing design philosophy of Sir Terry Farrell.

In the first gallery, the largest of the spaces is a collection of architectural models and maquettes, arranged almost as a collage of city fragments. They are so compacted into the space that the routes between the models have the character of city streets, and the milling areas by the doors are like urban squares. There is a deliberate play of scale, vista and movement, even skyline.

The models span 40 years of architectural output, from Farrell's Archigram-inspired Climatron student project in Blackpool to his recent headquarters building for Orange in Paddington. This gallery is a personal record of changing architectural ambition acted out in perspex, card and wood. It reveals a healthy pluralism, a willingness to shape fashion and to be influenced by it. The models also display the testing of possibilities and refining of solutions. In that sense, the city of models is also a city in flux.

The second gallery is devoted mainly to drawings. Many are freehand sketches of existing architectural subjects, others are fragments in the exploration of a design, others are finished drawings of familiar projects. Farrell is the type of architect who uses the line to show edges, filling in the spaces later with shadow and texture. In this, his drawings show a remarkable affinity to those of his former partner Nicholas Grimshaw, and to Norman Foster. In contrast to the drawings of Zaha Hadid or Will Alsop, the line is everything.

The third gallery is devoted to Newcastle:

schemes for the remodelling of the university campus, unrealised proposals for Lindisfarne Priory, etc. There are projects from Farrell's days as a student at Newcastle University, and sketches from his schooldays. One feels that Tyneside, with its grit, romance and energy, left a legacy which this exhibition quietly acknowledges.

The fourth gallery is equally revealing. It is Farrell's own selection of paintings from the university's art collection. Here he acknowledges a few key influences - the spatial ambiguity of the reliefs of Victor Pasmore, Richard Hamilton, Ian Hamilton Finlay, and Maurice McPartian, who taught art to Farrell at St Cuthbert's Grammar School. Each selected painting is accompanied by pithy comments.

Taking the exhibition as a whole, three undercurrents are revealed. The first is the importance of 'place' rather than 'space' in the creative psyche of Farrell. This is the exhibition of a placemaker whose landmarks owe a deep debt to location and regional geography.

Farrell's approach to urban design is the opposite to that of the more fashionable European rationalists - he seeks linkage, connection, drama and complexity. He has little truck with mindless aggregation of repeating elements or for architecture which is evolved entirely from the inside out. Place, not placelessness, is the aim, and though Farrell's leaps leave some behind, he is aware of the architect's responsibility to the big picture.

The exhibition also reveals the kind of formal elasticity which engaged James Stirling in his later years. One can detect influences from Pop Art in the projects of the 1970s, and more recently from Brit Art.

The transient and permanent are fused in some recent projects, such as The Deep in Hull. Here is an architect who continues to explore the relationship between art and architecture.

However, the exhibition reveals the tension inherent in the demand by clients for safe corporate architecture and Farrell's innate search for the picturesque and the monumental. Picturesque in the sense that Robert Adam used the term - the push, pull and movement of architectural forces.

Finally, this personal exhibition is Farrell's coming home. He is putting back into the city of his birth and education what he himself has learnt. There is the sharing of a life, from the tentative drawings of an 11year-old, to the recent, international output of one of the country's most complex and interesting designers.

Brian Edwards is a professor at Edinburgh College of Art

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