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Farrell, the architect who took High-Tech out to play

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Clare Melhuish reviews. . .

For those who think of Terry Farrell as the quintessential Post-Modernist, despite his apparent defection to a more streamlined kind of modernist expressionism in the 1990s, it might be surprising to know that he was, in his own words, the first student in Britain to do projects based on High-Tech and the ideas of Buckminster Fuller.

In his recent AA lecture, he showed his student project for a Climatron holiday pod at Blackpool, involving a High-Tech capsule that could be lowered from the top of a tower into the sea. He also showed his Blackwall Tunnel tower, a project recently lauded by Martin Pawley for its then innovative construction technique of sprayed concrete on a metal mesh shell.

Farrell maintains that he is still interested in construction technology, but 'not as a language for architecture'. At the time of his split from Nicholas Grimshaw, he reinvented himself, in Deyan Sudjic's words, as 'the man who took High-Tech out to play'.

It was at that point that his concerns began to reformulate themselves around the question of the city, in tune with a general shift in planning and architectural thought away from the principle of the New Towns and towards a concept of 'urban design' that prefigured today's preoccupation with Urban Renaissance. Farrell is frank about his enjoyment of 'urban narrative', or 'the storytelling of a building' - indeed he even suggests it may have genetic origins in his Irish ancestry.

Charing Cross Station was the first substantial manifestation of this development in his work: a brash, bold chunk of Post-Modern imagery on the river's edge but also, less obviously, a project that involved the successful redesign of the whole surrounding area and which won a major structural steelwork award. It was closely followed by MI6.

It seems strange that an architect responsible for such large projects could have 'run out of work' in this country at the end of the 1980s, but Farrell says he was forced to look overseas for new projects, primarily in the Far East. Today he is responsible for a series of enormous building and infrastructure commissions around the globe, including Seoul airport, a heritage centre in Seattle, a ferry terminal in Lisbon and a pair of Millennium projects back in Britain, in Hull and Newcastle.

He is also, finally, building in London again, with the new Orange building at Paddington Basin. The global scope of such a practice almost defies comprehension, but Farrell suggests there is a fundamental sameness to cities and urban systems that underlies the 'extraordinary differences' in people and cultures and, coupled with his conviction that 'building is always place-making', evidently makes it possible in some form or another.

This lecture, however, spread itself too thin to approach any level of serious cultural exegesis, or indeed an illuminating insight into the logistics of architecture as big business.

Terry Farrell's talk, 'Ten Cities', was hosted by the AA

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