He’s a knight of the realm, but the ambition and controversy that have also characterised Terry Farrell look set to surface in his government-commissioned review of architecture

‘I’ve been doing a plan for London and the South East,’ says Terry Farrell. ‘How long is it since anyone did that?’ And he draws another one for me, on a notepad. It comes out as a bit like a star with rounded points. Essentially a number of finger-diagrams, joined. Farrell is talking about London’s airports and the fact that you cannot just consider them in isolation. You have to consider how each proposal – Gatwick being the one he is associated with – affects everything else. ‘I’ve got in it the Thames Gateway as parkland, not as an airport.’ He says. Cards on the table there, then. 

What might seem to be a form of megalomania in anyone else comes over, in Farrell’s soft-voiced delivery, as merely a pragmatic ­response to a situation. ‘I’ve always had this interest in providing answers if possible,’ is how he puts it. This all started when he first got into the alternative-plan business, typically backing local groups and conservationists by drawing up more considered proposals to the big-money comprehensive redevelopments then in vogue. He got chided by the RIBA for this in those more strait-laced days, he recalls, on the grounds that he was setting his schemes against those drawn up by architectural colleagues. My, how things have changed.

Sir Terry Farrell, now 75, is many things at once, and has gone through many phases. There’s the ambitious young architect, working for London County Council, who went to the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and whose photos of it appeared in the first-ever colour issue of the RIBA Journal. There’s the sometimes controversial mid-career architect, who – having taken part in the pioneering days of high-tech with former partner (and now fellow knight) Nick Grimshaw – split from him and went the postmodern route in 1980. That’s when he announced a sea-change in British architecture with big fat glass-fibre eggcups on top of his TV-AM building (a low-budget industrial conversion) in London’s Camden Town. 

However, there is also Sir Terry, masterplanner and adviser to the great and the good. So what we’re talking about today sidesteps single buildings and style, though that gets a mention (‘You could say there’s been a re-assimilation of modernism,’ he reflects at one point, ‘But style is not now so clearly fashion-based. Not so haute couture, so top-down.’) 

The discussion takes place in a typical mid-period Farrell conversion. His office and apartment are in the former Palmer aeroplane components factory in Hatton Street, Marylebone. Always one with an eye for a property deal, he paid £10 a square foot for the factory in 1985, sold off parts for development, and kept chunks for himself and his firm. We meet in the idiosyncratic setting of his famous, creatively-cluttered apartment, next door to the office. The main subject of conversation is the Farrell Review – the one instigated by architecture minister Ed Vaizey, examining the state of British architecture today and recommending a way forward. Farrell will publish his report in January. 

Farrell has had to fundraise for the review, which will give it some independence of spirit. And if the government shows signs of parking it out of sight he says he will publish it independently

Surprisingly, the government is contributing only to its printing costs. Farrell has had to fundraise for it, quite apart from supplying his own time and that of others in the practice (including his son Max) and his panel of 11 experts. This will give it some independence of spirit, he believes. And if the government shows signs of parking the Farrell Review out of sight, he says he will publish it independently. 

There will be four main parts to the Farrell Review and a coda, he reveals, each in turn comprising two parts. The first, ‘design quality’, is about widening the base, aiming for a standard of ‘good ordinary’ architecture in the likes of mass housing; and ‘stretching the top’ to apply standards from the top of the profession more widely. Farrell likens this to chef Jamie Oliver’s campaign for better school meals.

‘Economic benefits’ looks both out to the global market, and at inward investment in the UK. He points to overseas financing of high-end offices and housing here, not to mention infrastructure. How best can good architecture feed into this?

‘Heritage’, finds Farrell, is increasingly a synthesis of old and new, the ‘us and them’ battle lines of the 1970s and 80s effectively dissolved. Why is there still both English Heritage and Cabe, he wonders, sometimes taking different positions? And he will take a punt on the ‘heritage of the future’ – a materials heritage, buildings seen as a sustainable resource, not demolition fodder.

Finally comes ‘education and outreach’. The first part of this will deal with reform to the architectural education system, aiming to shorten and diversify courses to reduce the mismatch between the high cost of a long education and the generally low financial rewards of the profession; the second part will be about educating the public and other professionals.

A more general coda to the review will consider architectural policy as an almost Platonic entity. Farrell believes it shouldn’t be confined to a particular party – as New Labour’s Urban Taskforce was – but should be generally accepted by all. ‘It could be virtual,’ he suggests, meaning that the keeper of the architectural flame is not one entity, but something to which all interested parties contribute to and develop all the time. 

During the discussion Farrell throws out many other tantalising titbits. Today’s long architectural education is supposed to produce architects who can take on any task, he says – but is actually increasingly specialist, and cross-discipline. Why not have a general foundation year followed by a short specialist course, as many art schools do? This leads to a trickier subject still – protection of title. What does ‘architect’ now mean, given that since the Renaissance, architects – who once designed and supervised pretty much everything in the built environment – have shed more and more of their function to others? ‘They’ve backed themselves into a role which is a tiny part of what they once did.’ After all, says Farrell, it’s easy enough to find examples of other European countries which have shorter and more diverse courses, no legal protection of title, which still produce very fine architecture and where the profession is highly regarded.

There speaks Farrell, the architect-planner who, like certain others of his generation, can apparently tackle any project on any scale. Such people are a product of a particular postwar system of education and public patronage reflecting a society now largely vanished. It’s precisely because of this that he knows things must change. But he’s upbeat. ‘Architects can join things together,’ he explains. ‘Their ability is to connect up the parts.’

I suspect the Farrell Review will upset more than one apple cart. But can we go on as we are? Nobody in their right mind would agree to that. 

Farrell and others

The Farrell Review is not just Farrell. He heads a panel of 11 other experts on architecture and the built environment:  Peter Bishop (urban planner), Alison Brooks (architect), Alain de Botton (commissioning client), Hank Dittmar (Prince’s Foundation), Jim Eyre (architect), Thomas Heatherwick (designer), Nigel Hugill (developer), Lucy Musgrave (urban design consultant), Robert Powell (arts regeneration expert),  Sunand Prasad (architect) and Victoria Thornton (public engagement).