SIR TERRY FAR­RELL

THE AR­CHI­TECT AS ARTIST

The Peak (Hong Kong) - - Front Page - STORY DO­MINIQUE AFACAN IL­LUS­TRA­TION 009

Icon might be an overused word, but Hong Kong’s in­stantly recog­nis­able Peak Tower war­rants the ti­tle, no doubt about it. Mil­lions of tourists visit it, snap panoramic pho­to­graphs from it and con­gre­gate at its base, some 396 me­tres above sea level. For 77-year-old Bri­tish ar­chi­tect Sir Terry Far­rell, cre­at­ing icons is noth­ing new – look at Lon­don’s MI6 head­quar­ters and Char­ing Cross Sta­tion or Shen­zhen’s KK100 for ev­i­dence – but the Peak Tower was one of his first. From hum­ble roots in the UK’S north­ern city of New­cas­tle, it is down to a se­ries of serendip­i­tous events that he ended up cre­at­ing land­marks in Hong Kong at all, al­though ar­chi­tec­ture was on the cards from the be­gin­ning.

“I was good at art,” he ex­plains from his Lon­don home, a ren­o­vated spit­fire fac­tory. “I drew and I also liked to or­gan­ise things. I was in­ter­ested in more than just art – I wanted to be prac­ti­cal with it too. I made my mind up age about 14 or 15 to be an ar­chi­tect. Life was sim­pler back then and there weren’t that many paths to go down.” That de­ci­sion made him the first mem­ber of his fam­ily to go into higher ed­u­ca­tion, and he did so with ap­par­ent ease, first study­ing ar­chi­tec­ture at New­cas­tle Univer­sity and then trav­el­ling to the US for a post-grad­u­ate

de­gree in town plan­ning and ar­chi­tec­ture. Next, a schol­ar­ship took him to study in Japan, after which he flew home via Hong Kong to visit an old univer­sity pal. “Ce­cil Chao Sze-tsung was a class­mate of mine, and re­mains a friend to­day” Far­rell re­calls. “He’d gone back to Hong Kong after grad­u­a­tion. Be­cause I knew him, I stopped off there on my way back from Japan and that cre­ated my in­ter­est in the city.” Of course, in the 60s, Hong Kong was a very dif­fer­ent place. “There weren’t any sky­scrapers and the har­bour was much wider – the yacht club was an is­land! I went to the bor­der with China and took pho­to­graphs of the rice fields. I’m sure I looked towards Shen­zhen – and it didn’t ex­ist then ex­cept as a small fish­ing vil­lage. Now if I stood on that same point, I’d prob­a­bly see tower blocks, of which we have the tallest one [the 442-me­tre-high KK100].”

De­spite be­ing fresh out of his stud­ies, Far­rell made the de­ci­sion to set up a busi­ness al­most as soon as he re­turned from Asia. “I got back to the UK in late 1964 and by Jan­uary I’d set up a prac­tice. I didn’t re­ally work for any­one else. It was quite un­usual to be­gin with such lim­ited ex­pe­ri­ence and it was pretty hair-rais­ing at first. I knew ab­so­lutely noth­ing about the prac­tice of ar­chi­tec­ture,” ad­mits Far­rell. “It was a dif­fi­cult birth. In those days I had quite long hair and ca­sual clothes, and I re­mem­ber in my first meet­ing with a con­trac­tor, I was asked if my fa­ther ran the prac­tice!”

Fast-for­ward to 1980, with Far­rell & Part­ners go­ing strong and a re­as­sur­ingly more ma­ture out­ward ap­pear­ance, it was time to re­visit Hong Kong. The prac­tice en­tered a com­pe­ti­tion for a Hongkong Land de­vel­op­ment and Far­rell based him­self in the city for six weeks, plot­ting a fu­ture in this land full of po­ten­tial. An­other com­pe­ti­tion in 1991 gave him the break he’d been wait­ing for with the win of the Peak Tower and an en­vi­able hat-trick of jobs fol­lowed, lead­ing to the es­tab­lish­ment of an of­fice in the city. “The win en­abled us to com­pete for the new Bri­tish Con­sulate, which we won,” re­calls Far­rell, “and then not long after we com­peted for Kowloon Sta­tion and won that too. It was a big un­der­tak­ing.”

“IT IS NOT AL­WAYS AP­PRO­PRI­ATE TO A IM TO BE ICONIC ” – Sir Terry Far­rell

This is no ex­ag­ger­a­tion from Far­rell. Kowloon Sta­tion was per­haps the most com­pli­cated of the three projects, thanks in part to the way in which Far­rell, mirac­u­lously, man­aged to con­vince the rail op­er­a­tor to build the sta­tion as a grand hall rather than the ‘mouse hole’ style of sta­tion seen else­where in the city. The sta­tion’s sur­round­ing de­vel­op­ment is now home to 35,000 peo­ple as well as the In­ter­na­tional Com­merce Cen­tre, Hong Kong’s tallest build­ing.

It’s now 25 years since Far­rell’s opened its of­fices here, and there are 100 staff mem­bers in­volved in projects all over Asia. “Hong Kong now is a more so­phis­ti­cated place than it was back in 1991,” says Far­rell. “It’s even more buoy­ant and suc­cess­ful. I think Hong Kong will find it­self chal­lenged by some cities in China, but the growth keeps go­ing on and on.” The com­pany is con­tribut­ing to one of the big­gest arts cen­tres in the world, the much-de­bated M+ in Kowloon, sched­uled to open 2018-2019.

“[Her­zog & de Meu­ron] were cho­sen to do it but they needed help lo­cally so they ap­proached us,” he says. “To their credit, we’ve been in­volved in dis­cus­sions from the very out­set, but they are the de­sign lead.” That lo­cal knowl­edge has served Far­rell’s well, and they have been in­stru­men­tal in many other build­ings in the re­gion, in­clud­ing the Bei­jing South Rail­way Sta­tion and In­cheon In­ter­na­tional Air­port.

For Far­rell, Hong Kong pro­vides the per­fect nat­u­ral back­drop for an ar­chi­tect. “The city has this un­be­liev­ably unique set­ting – all that wa­ter and the moun­tains; the sky­scrapers sit at the bot­tom, as the only place to re­ally build is on the edge of the coast­line, so all the tow­ers rise up and are seen against the moun­tains. It’s not dif­fi­cult to look won­der­ful in Hong Kong. It’s like tak­ing pho­to­graphs in the sun­shine. There are other cities in China with lots of sky­scrapers, but with flat land and no wa­ter they don’t work. They are amor­phous and more spread out. Hong Kong has this in­cred­i­ble thin crust.”

Far­rell’s head of­fice is based in Lon­don, ar­guably an­other amor­phous city, so how does that com­pare with this unique set­ting he ad­mires in Hong Kong? “To some ex­tent Hong Kong has it easy,” Far­rell con­cedes, “as their pub­lic trans­port runs where all the de­vel­op­ment is and it’s in a very lin­ear pat­tern, whereas Lon­don is spread out. Re­gard­less, I think Hong Kong could teach Lon­don a lot about get­ting things done and about run­ning pub­lic trans­port.” Lon­don, how­ever, has a spe­cial place in Far­rell’s

heart and much has been made of his abil­ity to nur­ture old build­ings in the cap­i­tal, some­thing he is now ex­port­ing to Hong Kong.

“We have been work­ing on the [new MTR sta­tion com­plex] in Kennedy Town … it’s like ur­ban surgery – we’ve got new bits and old bits work­ing to­gether,” he ex­plains. “I think that’s in­creas­ingly the case in Hong Kong. Her­zog is do­ing the Cen­tral Po­lice Sta­tion site [Tai Kwun, due to open in 2017], which is a won­der­ful ex­am­ple of nur­tur­ing; I went around it in April. It fits in with that area of town very well. As cities get more es­tab­lished and ma­ture, there is more to work with. Hong Kong was a new city more or less after the Sec­ond World War, bar a few colo­nial build­ings, but all th­ese years later there is more to work on.”

Given that Far­rell strives to nur­ture build­ings, it is per­haps not sur­pris­ing that one of his bug­bears is the oc­ca­sional de­struc­tion of his work. “As a painter or a sculp­tor you don’t ex­pect your work to be to­tally abused dur­ing your life­time. As an ar­chi­tect though, I’ve had quite a few build­ings de­mol­ished, gone! And some hugely al­tered.” The fact re­mains that, where ar­chi­tec­ture is con­cerned, some­body else is pay­ing, which means let­ting go and ac­cept­ing that orig­i­nal vi­sions may change. A case in point for Far­rell is the Peak Tower. “They’ve messed about with it. They filled in the legs – which were orig­i­nally clear. They took bits off and added things on. I can’t say whether they im­proved it or not, but what they’ve done with it is slightly in­com­pre­hen­si­ble. The essence of the Peak Tower is still there but I’ve had two or three build­ings where you can’t even work out what the orig­i­nal de­sign in­ten­tion was. The brief changes, bud­gets change, sizes change, ev­ery­thing changes; I’ve won com­pe­ti­tions for art gal­leries that end up be­ing shop­ping cen­tres in­stead!”

For Far­rell, the de­sire for his cre­ations to stick around is driven by pas­sion, not ego. The same can­not be said for many of his con­tem­po­raries, many of whom are la­belled as ‘star­chi­tects’ in the me­dia. “Just as pop singers in the last 30 years are no longer fa­mous for singing songs but for be­ing who they are, star­chi­tects are the same,” he says. “Peo­ple seek them out the same as they might seek out hav­ing a paint­ing by a fa­mous artist on their wall. It’s tan­ta­mount to say­ing, ‘I’ve got a Pi­casso.’” It might not be what Far­rell does, but he does un­der­stand why it hap­pens. “I can see why peo­ple do it – we all en­joy­ing read­ing and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing stars. There are stars in movies who are great and there are peo­ple who aren’t stars, yet still make un­be­liev­able movies.”

In­ter­est­ingly, and de­spite hav­ing cre­ated many famed build­ings in his own right, Far­rell is not a con­stant be­liever in ‘icons’ The UK press re­cently re­ported of his pub­lic dis­ap­proval of the Padding­ton Pole, planned by Renzo Piano, ar­chi­tect of much­lauded Lon­don sky­scraper The Shard. “There are times when it’s ab­so­lutely right to go for reg­u­lar back­drop ar­chi­tec­ture – it is not al­ways ap­pro­pri­ate to aim to be iconic,” ex­plains Far­rell. “I sup­ported The Shard but the Padding­ton Pole was to­tally wrong in its set­ting, next to Hyde Park, in the mid­dle of con­ser­va­tion ar­eas. In an old city like Lon­don, there are places where you can re­ally build tall build­ings, but around the parks are not it.” Far­rell was clearly not alone in his view, and the pro­ject was re­cently scrapped after protests.

When it comes to his own home, Far­rell has no com­plaints. After all, he cre­ated this par­tic­u­lar

mas­ter­piece all by him­self. Built in the 1920s, the art deco space in North Lon­don was orig­i­nally a fur­ni­ture fac­tory, and was later taken over as an air­craft man­u­fac­tur­ing plant dur­ing World War II. When Far­rell ac­quired it in 1983, he orig­i­nally based his prac­tice there, but later moved the of­fices to the ground floor next door. It was the break­down of his sec­ond mar­riage that led him to see it as a po­ten­tial home. “When I be­came sin­gle again, I de­cided to make the space an apart­ment and moved in.” The space, The Old Aeroworks, heav­ily ref­er­ences its past, with a bat­tle­ship-grey metal stair­case, cor­ru­gated steel roof and in­tri­cate model spit­fires hang­ing from the ceil­ing, among end­less other arte­facts; in­clud­ing mes­meris­ing art­works from his daugh­ter Jo, an award-win­ning pho­tog­ra­pher, archival ar­chi­tec­tural mod­els, ex­otic plants ga­lore and gold­fish swim­ming around in enor­mous bowls. It’s the Spit­fires, though, that re­ally dom­i­nate.

“A friend told me about an old model air­craft he’d seen in an an­tiques shop in Is­ling­ton, so I asked him to buy it,” ex­plains Far­rell. “The next week, the same friend found an­other one in the same shop so I called them and it turned out they were sell­ing a col­lec­tion of 25, one at a time. They were all in a barn in Bris­tol. I sent two peo­ple from my of­fice down to see them and they found 25 of them in won­der­ful con­di­tion. I bought the whole lot.”

It seems fit­ting that to­day Far­rell lives in this space, right next door to his of­fice, with his Chi­nese wife of well over a decade, Mei Xin-wang who he de­scribes as “the best thing to ever hap­pen to me”. China, it seems, may al­ways have his heart.

“I ’ VE WON COM­PE­TI­TIONS FOR ART GAL­LERIES THAT END UP BE­ING SHOP­PING CEN­TRES IN­STEAD!” – Sir Terry Far­rell

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