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Eastern promise

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review: Ten Years, Ten Cities: The Work of Terry Farrell & Partners 1991-2001 Laurence King, 2002. 320pp. £60

It is the dream of any designer: a book written by the practice itself, almost too heavy to lift, illustrated by 1,000 drawings and photographs, chronicling 10 years of international success.

At the end of the 1980s, Terry Farrell & Partners found itself expanding in only 12 months from 15 staff to the more than 100 needed to tackle three major London projects. Equally suddenly, the domestic market collapsed. This book tells the story of how the practice, which before 1991 had never built outside London, rediscovered itself by winning a string of large commissions, many in the Far East. The London architect became an international one.

Sir Terry Farrell's passion (shared by his design partners Aidan Potter and Doug Streeter) has always been for building in the context of a city. The places of the title, though, are not all cities as we know them.

Pearl Delta Supercity, for example, is 'an urban civilisation without parallel on earth', incorporating Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shenzen and Zhuhai in 'a giant landscape of car-based planning, commercial and residential complexes and shopping malls'.

In some of its projects, such as Kowloon Ventilation Building and Peak Tower, both in Hong Kong, the practice has further developed the monumentalism that it displayed in London in the previous decade, and which had its jokey beginnings in the giant egg-cups of TVam. Farrell seems proud to have found inspiration in 'the global branded corporate community' (for its Pearl Island masterplan) and 'a particularly Chinese brand of corporate gigantism' (for its Guangzhou Daily News headquarters).

As ever, urban design is a matter not only of tuning in to the physical context but also of talking to the client, learning about the other people with a stake in the place, and understanding what is financially and politically feasible. Most of the stories of how conflicts were resolved in the successful projects, or how they may have doomed the unrealised ones, remain untold. This is Farrell's own story, and the practice is not in the business of upsetting people.

One can only guess at the politics behind the process of selecting a design for a National Opera House for Beijing. It was a project 'equivalent to having London's National Theatre, Royal Festival Hall and Covent Garden Opera House planned as one complex and situated beside Parliament Square' (Tiananmen Square, in this case).

Farrell's design, seeking to knit the complex into the traditional fabric of the city, ended up competing head-to-head with Paul Andreu's 'object buildings within a prairie of open space' (in the words of Farrell).

Eventually, the Chinese government decided that Farrell's democratic approach was not its style, and gave Andreu the job.

The account of this episode is one of the few in the book that conveys the painful frustration of a big commission slipping away.

Finding a context to work with can be just as difficult closer to home. Farrell was commissioned to design The Deep, a £40 million 'world ocean discovery centre', on a barren site where the River Hull meets the Humber estuary (AJ 11.4.02). Sir Terry's aim was 'to win popular support for the project by bridging the gap between elite and populist causes'.

The result is a striking building intended to conjure up associations with a cracking glacier or a frozen wave, appropriate to both its geographical setting and its function.

A more familiar type of contextual design is represented by Farrell's UK masterplans, with the Marsham Street site, Paddington Basin, Swiss Cottage and the Edinburgh financial district among the many well-illustrated examples. Little is said about the frustrations of trying to making the designer's fee budget accommodate the extensive analysis on which such masterplanning depends.

For Terry Farrell & Partners, this book will serve as the most impressive practice brochure ever, though its weight may lead to excess baggage charges eating into the company's profits. The rest of us can value it as a superbly presented summary of the state of the art.

Robert Cowan is director of the Urban Design Group and a consultant

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