Love me do

Terry Farrell has designed some of our most startling buildings - so why is he vilified? He talks to Jonathan Glancey
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The Independent Culture
Terry Farrell is one of Britain's most successful architects. One reputed reward is a salary of pounds 320,000 - reported by Building Design magazine but strenuously denied by Farrell, who says that this year he has not taken a penny from his company, Terry Farrell & Partners.

More definite rewards are an OBE, a seat on the English Heritage commission, a reputation as one of Britain's most thoughtful town planners and the satisfaction of being much in demand, having designed some of the most striking Post-Modern buildings of the Eighties and working on major buildings outside London and in Hong Kong today.

His most recent commission, to find (and most probably design) a new home for the English National Opera, is a coup when major cultural commissions have been going, one after the other, to severe young Moderns for whom there is no colour but white and for whom all angles are right.

Many people will know the monuments of Farrell's London: the great arched riverfront of Embankment Place, the office building straddling Charing Cross station; the MI6 Building at Vauxhall; TV-am's headquarters at Camden Lock (better known as "Eggcup House"); and Alban Gate, the towering marble- clad office block that dominates London Wall. Outside London, his conference centre in Edinburgh has opened to general acclaim, while smaller works such as the regatta boathouse at Henley-on-Thames continue to delight.

And now he has a beautifully designed and organised retrospective exhibition celebrating 30 years as an architect in the Jazz Moderne halls of the Royal Institute of British Architects, a building designed by Grey Wornum 60 years ago in a spirit and style close to Farrell's own.

You would have thought that everything in Farrell's world is hunky-dory and that the 57-year-old architect is riding the crest of a professional wave. Odd as it seems, this is not the case. He may be successful, yet he has proved unhappily thin-skinned when under attack by critics for whom everything he builds is not just bad, but anathema - seen through their eyes as overscaled, brash, too colourful and altogether too transatlantic in form and spirit.

Some of the criticism has been unkind, dogmatic and delivered well below the cornice. To say that critics either like his work or hate it is to put the case mildly. There are those who take against a Farrell building before they have seen it. No wonder he feels isolated and under siege.

There are many architects responsible for banal, fee-raking buildings that escape all forms of censure. Farrell is a distinguished architect and a knowledgeable and cultured man. Why is he so often vilified? The answer is that many critics feel that a man who started his career as a card-carrying Modernist has betrayed his profession by designing in a flamboyant and altogether too jokey, American-inspired style.

For 15 years Farrell worked in partnership with Nicholas Grimshaw, the cool Modernist who has achieved critical fame with the design of the Waterloo International rail terminal. Where Grimshaw's career has followed a logical and progressive track, Farrell has chosen to break away from reductionist certainties and experiment with a bold, boisterous and sometimes showy architecture. This means that his critical successes are memorable and rather delightful (TV-am, the Thames Water building near Reading, the Clifton Nurseries building in Covent Garden), while his more outlandish buildings (MI6, Alban Gate) are as inescapable as they are flawed. Farrell is not afraid to paint on a very big canvas. His mistakes are writ large.

He occupies a lonely territory between smoothly operating Modernists effortlessly ascending the hi-tech escalator of success and those wide- boy architects who churn out cheesy Po-Mo office blocks and crass "vernacular" housing without displaying a smidgen of guilt.

Certainly Farrell's architecture is distinctive. His signature is written across the cityscapes of Edinburgh, London and Hong Kong. But is it, as Farrell seems to worry, the signature of an outsider, or the sign of an architect who has found his niche and one who, while clearly in demand by governments, cities and corporations, is out of tune with the narrowly focused likes of most critics and his own peer group?

One way of coming to terms with Farrell's decorative and bravura designs is to consider them as the equivalent of the architecture of the Counter- Reformation. In 16th-century Europe, the Catholic church and its architects conspired to develop an architecture to floor the puritanical aesthetic strictures of Protestant, and in particular Calvinist, reform.

The Whore of Rome wiggled out on to piazza and street in extravagant and gorgeously coloured Baroque garb. Her couturiers (or architects) indulged in every fanciful confection and visual conceit. This was the way to woo the crowds and show that Rome had all the best tricks. The Counter-Reformation produced a colourful architecture aimed at seducing the crowd and as a rebuke to hurl at the walls of chaste Protestant chapels - rather like Farrell's Post-Modernism.

Terry Farrell was born into a working-class Irish Catholic family in Manchester. His father was a messenger for the GPO. The family moved to Newcastle, where the church and its rituals dominated the life of Farrell and his three brothers.

"My parents wanted me to join the Civil Service," says Farrell. "I wanted to be an artist but that was something they couldn't understand. They wanted us to have the financial security and prospects denied them. But I kept drawing and finally they came to terms with the idea of my being an architect, which sounded respectable to them and artistic to me. I think they thought artists were somehow immoral. Certainly the priests who dominated my youth were keen to denounce every possible human pleasure.

"I didn't shine at school, was hopelessly bad at maths and physics, and lacked confidence. When I went to university I felt out of my depth socially and, as a working-class Catholic, very much an outsider. I still feel a bit like that. It took me years to gain confidence. From 18 to 28 I was plagued with eczema. I was very fearful of failure.

"I teamed up successfully for many years with Nick Grimshaw, who comes from a polar opposite background to my own - affluent and staunchly Protestant. I admired Nick's confidence and certainty. He was able to divide good from bad, right from wrong with an absoluteness that still shows in his architecture.

"We did have a great time together, but we were pulling in different directions - Catholic and Protestant, if you like. Even when we married, our spouses could hardly have been more different. Nick married into the Russell family [as in Bertrand Russell], while Sue is a bricklayer's daughter."

The split was acrimonious. Today the two barely speak, and although Farrell finds Grimshaw's buildings a little on the "tight" side, in private he commends his former partner generously.

"Once I set up on my own, my own style began to develop strongly. I suppose everything I had suppressed professionally and emotionally tended to burst out in my buildings.

"It is a simple job to read architects' personalities in the form and organisation of their buildings, and mine are probably all too easy to read. You couldn't find a more extreme example than in the difference between the work of Norman Foster and Richard Rogers. Where Norman's work is tight, contained and intense, Richard's is open, `let it all hang out' stuff. They were partners too, in the Sixties."

Farrell feels that critics reveal their prejudices when describing, discussing and evaluating buildings. Those who are hardest on him, he says, are thin-lipped, stand-offish types who adopt a superior pose knowing that they are part of a clubby establishment. They are unlikely to be roly-poly, hail-fellow-well-met, lend-you-my-last-shilling, working- class Catholics.

Farrell's belief that "a building should have a personality" has led him to design highly expressive projects that are clearly not quite right to those brought up to seek discretion in all things. He would say they have a problem: they say he has a problem.

Whatever anyone thinks, Farrell is a successful and popular architect. Most of his critics would sell their mothers (who, of course, always commission their darling boys' first building) to win a tiny part of his portfolio of new work at home and abroad.

It is time, and Farrell knows it, to stop worrying. He knows, without anyone having to spell it out, that somewhere in the late Eighties he lost his way by not being fully in control of major projects (artistically that is; professionally, Farrell is a seasoned trooper). What he needs to do now is to concentrate his energies and bring his professionalism in tune with his warm personality, to design buildings that are at once rich and well-tamed.

`The Work of Terry Farrell', until 2 December, RIBA Architecture Centre, 66 Portland Place, London W1, tel 0171-580 5533.

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