Sir Terry Farrell, founder of Farrell & Partners, is one of the world’s most successful architects. He’s also the mind behind such iconic projects as the 100-storey Finance Tower in Shenzhen and the postmodern home of the British Secret Intelligence Service MI6, on the banks of the Thames.
Sir Terry, who is a disarming and softly spoken man, has been given an unenviable task: to investigate, assess and ultimately review the UK’s architecture and built environment. The Farrell Review, as it’s known, is to be published imminently and with it ideas to “positively change” the culture of urban design in the country. His recommendations will cover design quality, education, the role of the government and, perhaps most importantly, the role of the architect in society.
Architects have lost much of their influence and there are good and bad points to this. The 1950s and 1960s were a 20th-century heyday of architectural influence but also a period that darkened the name of the profession. Rodney Gordon, Owen Luder and Erno Goldfinger were held responsible for Brutalist experiments that swept away terraced houses for new compact “homes in the skies”. Poured concrete, shaped into blocks, tall and short, formed much of a new-look aesthetic woven through inner cities up and down the country. It was a top-down policy to reshape working-class living conditions though now, with housing in short supply, the middle classes are taking over the tower blocks and realising Brutalism’s “utopian” philosophy.
Much has changed since that period. Top-down architectural decisions are better scrutinised and the checks and balances of a relatively transparent urban planning process affords some degree of appeal for the public.
But while there was a time of too much influence we now decline the architect’s involvement at every turn. During an interview for the Section D show on Monocle 24, Sir Terry reminded me that an architect’s input is used in less than 30 per cent of new building designs, with public-planning departments overseeing much of the design process instead. Less than 10 per cent of British architects now do work in the public sphere.
Architects are notable by their absence in the growth of the UK’s built environment. But they are important and their involvement in local as well as broader design projects is crucial. The failure of the everyday is underlined by this lack of a design professional and until this changes the ability of the public to have a meaningful voice in the development – and, indeed, preservation – of its environs will be lost. And the role of the architect will continue to dwindle.
Good design is a matter of quality of life, after all.
Aled John is a producer for Monocle 24.