Perspective sits down with one of the world's most celebrated architects, Sir Terry Farrell, to talk about his views on Hong Kong's accidental planning, his relationship with Nicholas Grimshaw – and his role in helping spies come in from the cold
For someone in Hong Kong to celebrate his mastery of urbanism, Sir Terry Farrell chooses to stay amid surprisingly bucolic surroundings when he's here – at Parkview. The legendary British architect and town planner, in Hong Kong in last autumn to give a lecture at the Asia Society, says he likes the walks around Tai Tam Reservoir and Parkview's collection of art: several Salvador Dalís, for example, sit unregarded around the lobby and coffee shop where we meet, itself a riot of postmodern discordance that pleasingly resembles something Farrell himself might have come up with some 30 years ago.
His Asia Society speech marked his receipt of the Royal Town Planning Institute's Gold Medal, a very big deal in urban planning: he is only the 15th recipient since the first one was handed out 64 years ago. "As a boy, my fantasy was to win gold in the Olympic marathon," he says. "This, I felt, was at least the equivalent. It's many marathons – 52 years of marathons."
But then 79-year-old Sir Terry Farrell, CBE, RIBA, FRSA, FCSD, MRTPI, to give him his full alphabet soup of memberships, is quite used to accolades. He came to prominence in the 1980s with landmark buildings in his native United Kingdom in a bold, adaptable, populist, often postmodern style of architecture: the headquarters of now-defunct media company TV-am, a sort of dayglow Peter Blake composition sprung to life; the boisterous future-deco of the MI6 Building; and the sci-fi neoclassicism of the Charing Cross Station; as well as other important regenerations including Paddington Basin and Earls Court. He was also responsible for several of Hong Kong's '90s landmarks, including the Peak Tower, the British Consulate-General and Kowloon Station, while his firm also took care of Kennedy Town Station and is involved with M+. In recent years, he has undertaken several monumental projects in mainland China, including the KK100 skyscraper in Shenzhen, the tallest building by a British architect; and Guangzhou South and Beijing South railway stations.
The pivotal moment in his career, though, came right back when he and fellow architectural giant Nicholas Grimshaw set up their own practice in 1965; at that point he was in his mid-20s and had spent a grand total of six months in the profession. "I remember my first meeting with a contractor. He said, 'Who's this Grimshaw, then? Is he older than you?' I said: 'No, he's a year younger.' He said: 'So is this your father's firm? And have you talked to the district surveyor?' I said: 'What's a district surveyor?' In the first two years, I learned everything on that job."
By 1980 Farrell decided to go it alone, escaping the strenuous modernism of his association with Grimshaw. "He and I agreed to go our different ways," he says. "It was a time when I was experimenting with postmodernism. I'd become disillusioned with high-tech architecture; it had become the establishment. I started off doing small projects like TV-am. We went from 50 to 150 people in a year, and survived. By the end of the '80s we were doing big buildings." Perhaps the most instantly recognisable of those, known to anyone who's watched a recent James Bond film, is London's MI6 Building. Farrell designed it, though, without even knowing it was intended for the UK's secret intelligence service. "Officially they did not exist as an organisation. We thought it was for the Department of the Environment. I was in Tokyo watching TV and up came a picture of our building: 'This has just been announced as the new MI6 headquarters'."
This is an excerpt from “Postmodern Reflections", an article from the January/February issue of Perspective magazine.
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