Read Jonathan Glancey’s 1983 Architectural Review article on Terry Farrell’s TV-am building in Camden, London
Is it considered judgement, a collective fit of pique or just plain jealousy that has prompted so much adverse criticism among architects and critics of Terry Farrell’s TV-am building? The premature appraisals printed so far in the popular and professional press have for the most part been dismissive of Farrell’s eclectic and likeable talent. But then it is easy to look only at the superficial dressing of this colourful high temple of Post-Modernism. So many sunrise motifs, so much Memphis-inspired furniture, those punning glass-fibre eggcups peppering the saw-toothed parapets with a gentle humour, the stagestruck aura of the building both inside and out.
Undoubtedly TV-am is a theatrical building and doubtless for many British architects Farrell’s taste and judgement might be questionable. But his peers ought at least to know before embarking on any worthwhile criticism of TV-am that the building is a surprisingly low-cost (£40 per sq ft) conversion of an Art-Deco garage into fully equipped, well-planned, practical TV studios and offices. And make no mistake, TV-am is a thoroughly professional job, not just a gimcrack piece of cardboard clip-on-pediment Post Modernism. What makes it seem amateur in some eyes is the exuberant and whimsical nature of the building and in particular its ‘lavish’ (the word Fleet Street has chosen from its catechism of cliché to describe the interior) reception atrium. What they are railing against is the sheer pleasure that has gone into this building - the architects have quite clearly enjoyed themselves and that, in an increasingly conservative and humourless Third-World England is a sin against the religious strictures of architectural purism whose high priests have denied joyous building, for the most part, since 1945. And despite its ritzy Deco glamour which conjures up an image of the architect as lounge lizard, Farrell’s role in this project has been anything but decadent.
Since TV-am has been on site the architects have literally rolled up their sleeves and got stuck into the rough-and-tumble of the building process. The first floor of Farrell’s studio became a workshop where various details, such as the wooden capitals adorning the atrium columns, were made, if not perhaps crafted. Craft is not a word we can properly associate with a stage set of a building that has completed so rapidly. For example there is something a little rough-and-ready about the colourful furniture strewn around the reception atrium, in the joinery of the Japanese Temple (hospitality suite) and in the panelling of the boardroom. But then one would expect to find this artfully deceptive stage set quality of build in many eighteenth-century houses, in contemporary restaurants and clubs. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with it, only that like any stage set it cannot last as long as the real McCoy. (Cynics will argue that nor will breakfast television, which does seem to be making exceptionally heavy weather of wooing the radio-attuned English and is suffering management teething problems.) But Terry Farrell would make no claim to having built for great posterity. Rather he has provided a functioning tv centre at very low cost which manages to be fun to use and to look at and which has considerably extended the vocabulary and polished the diction of the language of Post Modernism.
But can Farrell escape the accusation levelled against TV-am that it is not quite proper architecture? Judging by English precedents alone, it could be set alongside examples of eighteenth century ‘Gothick’, Regency ‘Egyptian’, ‘Hindoo’, ‘Chinese’, 1920s Deco cinemas and factories. All these styles have been ridiculed by stiff-collared contemporary critics only to be revalued at a later date. All share (despite the American antecedents of English arterial road Deco) very English qualities: wit, style, originality, humanity, and gently self-mocking, tongue-in-cheek humour. Puritans and purists are always in the majority in England but somehow only the most Calvinistic among architects and critics would suggest demolishing Nash’s Carlton House Terrace (as many were prepared to do in the 1920s), Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, or Wallis Gilbert’s Hoover factory (although the Firestone factory, sibling of the Hoover building, so aptly suggestive of movement and speed, was destroyed only recently to make way for proper architecture-a smooth-skinned reflective steel-and-glass box signifying nothing). And Farrell’s TV-am building is more relevant to its client than any of these faceless new boxes. It is also designed and built in an appropriate style.
England, with more than three million unemployed and a monetarist government in control has, in a fit of collective guilt, pushed herself into an economic backwater, suffering from a national financial headache. The last time the English economy was in such a plight (from the Wall Street Crash to the outbreak of the Second World War), style made a bold social play. This was the heyday of Art-Deco, Noel Coward plays, streamlining and high speed trains, cocktails, Hollywood movies, a taste for the exotic and the last and most humane flowering of her burdensome Empire. What is different today? On a superficial level Noel Coward is in vogue as are cocktail bars, extravagant nightclubs, DJs, bow ties, high speed trains, lush £50,000 Lagondas, whilst the Falklands episode has been widely interpreted as a re-awakening of the imperial spirit. And Terry Farrell has moved to Art- (or Depression-) Deco. What is different today is the depth of our insecurity. Art-Deco, Hollywood and all that jazz might have been a reaction to the Depression but the style that emerged was original. Today’s revivals are depressingly nostalgic. What the ’30s and ’80s do have in common is the recognition that in times of economic hardship people will play hard to keep harsh reality at bay.
But TV-am is an appropriate building in three further ways. Firstly it is a stage set of a building for a dramatic and highly-strung business. The remarkable interior highlights this theatricality of purpose. Indeed TV-am programmes feature interviews with Farrell’s interior as backdrop and it is certainly a better one than designers can create in the small recording studios which lead off from the first floor offices. Secondly, despite its theatrical gestures, it is a building that contextualists might eventually come to appreciate. Farrell spent a great deal of time plotting the curve of the street facade, which, clad in black and grey ceramic-faced concrete blockwork, snakes round the bend in Hawley Crescent. And on the canal side Farrell has restored the delightful saw-toothed facade, painting the walls in bright fluvial colours, topping them with giant sized eggcups, providing balconies and workshops from which office workers can enjoy the gentle motions of the Regent’s Canal. Thirdly, it displays great resourcefulness in the imaginative handling of cheap materials. This is in direct contrast to the heroic period of British Brutalism, which went hand in leaden hand with a misused but booming economy and where very expensive materials were used in such a way that they appeared ugly, tawdry and nasty. Farrell’s self-conscious scavenging, designing with wit, verve and style on the cheap is very much in line with the lifestyle of a city where underpaid or unemployed youngsters and those a little older who have learned to lose their pride clothe themselves in some style, scavenging through junk-shops, jumble sales and market stalls all very noticeable in Camden Town. Although built for slick and well-heeled media star clients, a world removed across an unbridgeable abyss from the street-sharp youth of Camden Town, Farrell’s building in one sense has as much to do with the show biz credit card superficiality of the former as with the scavenging cash-on-the-nail vitality of the latter.
But the building’s real strength lies (as with Farrell’s Thames Water Authority building in Reading) in its rich interior. At a time when there is little money to spend on new building and major structural work the architect can-and needs to-put more work into the interior design of his buildings. As the stock of existing buildings continues to be bought for redevelopment so this trend towards more inspired interiors will make some headway. One can only comment rather wryly on the fact that during the ’50s and ’60s when the economy was growing quite nicely the most hideous buildings shrouding the most banal and thoughtless interiors sprang up like a field of obscene, poisonous fungi. There was plenty of Commodity, questionable Firmness (Ronan Point, Liverpool Cathedral, New Scotland Yard, high-rise, damp sodden flats … ) and not a hint of Delight.
TV-am is, as Farrell presents his case, composed of three separate layers-street elevation, interior, canal side elevation-each capable of independent criticism, which is not to say that the building doesn’t hang together. It does. The street facade is designed as one enormous sunrise symbol reminding the passer-by that it is the house of breakfast television-although ironically the facade is most convincing at sunset when the recessed entrance courtyard is floodlit and the startling keystone becomes a flaming torch. This long, curved wall is remarkable for its lack of windows-the studios are directly behind the facade and what would be unsightly services, if exposed, run between it and the studios.
But the articulation of the facade (it is stepped back), the bands of colour that run its length and the exposed framework of the keystone arch combine to make a lively, if not restless, elevation to the street so the lack of glazing becomes unimportant. In a sense this elevation is an industrial play on an essentially Classical theme -corrugated metal and tiled ‘rustication’ layered between coloured metal string-courses. The elevation is meant to be read upwards from the black tiles, across surfaces and bands of ever-brightening colour to the sun-flared parapet moulding as one enormous sunrise symbol. If the passer-by fails to appreciate this gigantic and hard-played nudge in the ribs he can hardly fail to miss the giant blobby welded letters extruded from either end of the facade. Originally the letters were meant to run the length of the street elevation but this proved impracticable.
The canal side facade of painted brick, saw-toothed parapet, glass-fibre eggcups, where once there could have been pineapples (there weren’t, of course-this building was formerly a garage and not some fugitive canal side palazzo) could hardly be more different. Instead of the grim and narrow Hawley Crescent the north elevation looks directly out through extensive glazing (genus: Industrial Palladian) across Camden Lock and the Regent’s Canal. All seems suitably aquatic although perhaps a little brash with the eager application of glossy black, blue and white paintwork.
Strolling through the entrance court yard designed so that cars can deliver their passengers and turn round (which would be difficult otherwise in the busy and narrow street)-the visitor should be taking off his top hat, mussing up his white tie, brushing down his tails - in past the Memphis-inspired reception desk and out into the full-blown Hollywood razzamatazz of the central, double-height atrium. Like it or not this is one of the most obviously spectacular architect-designed interiors completed in recent years and one of the high points of Post-Modernism. The axis from the entrance takes the visitor along a direct path to the rounded plinth of the grand ‘Mesopotamian’ stair, pivot of the interior. Four palm trees-one at each corner-guard the approaches to the stair, rising up to the aluminium ‘Magna-Grid’ ceiling (which one normally associates with High-Tech design-but then Farrell has been there before). Standing on the bridge of the stair one looks east across a sea of colourful, Milanese-inspired reception seating to the highly stylised and brightly painted roofs, pediments and facade of the Japanese tea house or temple hospitality suite. Inside, the centre of religious focus is a large television set. To the west one looks across a bridge and through a pedimented Roman gateway to an ‘Italian’ garden and beyond to a narrow desert gulch which ends in a mirror-glass wall-this is Farrell’s jokey evocation of an American desert city (Las Vegas?), West in counterpoint to the East evoked by the Japanese temple. TV-am staff working on the first floor look down into this colourful and globally adventurous space.
For those concerned that Farrell has wasted expensive space it might be necessary to point out that the atrium is as found in the existing building and that the Italian garden and Western desert gulch represent very few square feet of floor area. Reception and meeting spaces are also an essential part of the social function of a TV station. In any event the sloping retaining walls (angled back as far as local building regulations will permit-a steeper angle and the planning authorities would label the walls sloping floors) conceal parked cars, the bonnets and bumpers of which nose secretly into this atrium space.
From the atrium one is led off at ground-floor level to the purposeful and clean-cut studios at the south-east corner, to the sales, marketing and press offices, opening onto the canal, beyond the ‘pivoting stone door’ -that’s what it looks like: of course given cost it neither pivots nor is it made of stone. To the north-west there is access to a breezy canal side restaurant, all done up in heady contemporary Italian colours but with a settling seltzer of English pragmatism and to the extensive car park (breakfast television staff arrive by car or taxi before tubes and buses have left their depots). The first floor is a bright if choppy sea of Olivetti desks, angled lamps, strewn with newspapers, magazines, cuttings, reports … the glazed offices of the disposable executives give directly off this spinning hub of activity.
The TV-am building abounds in inventive details and it would be pointless cataloguing these here -they can be seen in the accompanying illustrations - and it is largely in this attention to detail that the enthusiasm of the design team shows through. A cheap building need not be a dull building, and standing the purist’s maxim on its head penny coloured can be a lot more enjoyable than tuppence plain (British architecture of the ’50s and ’60s). An economic depression might seem an odd time to start a breakfast television channel but theoretically, although this will be of no use to potential advertisers (whose support has to be won to keep TV-am afloat by the Regent’s Canal), three million unemployed people should have plenty of time on their hands to watch telly. That TV-am is not getting the audience ratings it needs to continue is irrelevant to the form and content of Farrell’s design which is a most appropriate scalliwag and scavenger. Fleet Street (which would be only too delighted should breakfast television fail to take off-it could damage newspaper sales) is wrong to mislead its readership into believing that Terry Farrell’s ‘lavish’ building is partly responsible for the company’s financial plight. The building is inexpensive and serviceable - and despite its superficial lavishness its cheap and cheerful nature could hardly go unnoticed except by those with their eyes closed.
Post-Modernism should be a popular style of architecture. But much that has been built so far has been crass, crude and crammed with oh-so-clever ironies and architectural witticisms that nearly always fall flat. What the language of Post-Modernism has needed is refinement, a pruning away of the excess, a polishing of phrase and diction-Terry Farrell is doing just this and though TV-am is not architecture to last a thousand years it captures appropriately the paradoxically ebullient spirit of depressed times.
Terry Farrell Partnership
Neil Bennett, John Chatwin, Craig Downie, Terry Farrell, Joe Foges, Michael Glass, Peter Jenkins, John Letherland, Caroline Lwin, Alan Morris, Satish Patel, Doug Smith, Simon Sturgis, Clive Wilkinson
Sandy Brown Associates
Peter Brett Associates
Mechanical and electrical consultants
Sandy Brown Associates MSU
TV-am’s cost consultant and representative
Wiltshier (Management) Ltd
Wiltshier (London) Ltd