A true masterplanner: Sir Terry Farrell discusses a Gold Medal-winning career

Last month, it was announced that Sir Terry Farrell CBE had been awarded the Royal Town Planning Institute’s (RTPI’s) Gold Medal in recognition of his “outstanding achievements as one of the world’s most influential architects, planners and urban designers”.

The Gold Medal has only been awarded 14 times in the RTPI’s history. Past recipients have included figures such as Sir Patrick Abercrombie, Lewis Mumford, Sir Colin Buchanan CBE and Sir Peter Hall. The Gold Medal will be presented to Farrell at a ceremony in the autumn.

The award has been made in recognition of his outstanding contributions to developing thinking in urban design and policy shaping at a national level, as well as his championing of urban planning and his “outstanding impact on placemaking”.

Property Week caught up with Farrell to find out what first attracted him to a career in the built environment, which projects he feels best represent his career and what the award means to him.

What first attracted you to a career in the built environment?

I’ve always loved drawing and sketching and I was particularly interested in the countryside and the town and how the two worked together. I drew and painted both. I grew up in Newcastle, where there is extraordinary countryside even right in the middle of the city with the Town Moor.

I always liked the River Tyne and Grey Street, which are parts of the terrain. I was very aware of cities being formed on the basis of terrain and natural features. I still do a lot of work up in Newcastle and I love the river Ouseburn and the way it flows through the city, but also the terrain of the quayside and the way Grey Street comes down the hill. It was a wonderful place to grow up and understand nature and city-making at the same time.

So it was something you wanted to do from quite a young age?

Yes, absolutely. I’m actually going to leave my archive to Newcastle and I’ve got paintings and drawings of the Cheviot Hills. I did various drawings of the city from the age of 11 up to 16 and 17 before I went to Newcastle University.

Given that background, you must consider the work you did masterplanning the quayside in Newcastle to be a career highlight.

It was. I was involved in so much in Newcastle. I was voluntarily involved in connections from the quayside to the Haymarket and to the Town Moor. I was also involved in the bid for the European City of Culture, which was unsuccessful, but I came up with the idea of the Geordie Ramblas, which I eventually presented in the Hatton Gallery to the judging panel. It was from the Town Moor to the Millennium Bridge. I’m also still a visiting professor at Newcastle University.

Which other aspects of your career would you highlight?

What the Gold Medal represents to me, and I think to others, is a return after 40 to 50 years to the proactive, physical side of planning. Around the late 1970s, planning retreated into only a part of its potential, which was more to do with development control and reacting to other people’s ideas. In the minds of most people, that is what planning has become.

I don’t want to denigrate them because there are excellent people in development control, but if you plan a holiday or plan a shopping trip you actually set about as the originator of how you go about it - ‘to plan’ means something. You’re not merely the recipient of other people’s plans. As an architect, planner and urban designer, I think it’s a return to physical and creative planning and I think I’ve done that in so many different ways.

You’ve often said that the public, private and voluntary sectors have an important role to play.

I’ve been involved in the voluntary sector since the mid-1970s, with organisations such as the Covent Garden Community Association and SAVE Britain’s Heritage on large-scale planning. I produced the plan for London’s Spitalfields market that led the way forward.

On the South Bank and in Smithfield and on the future of Covent Garden market, I’ve taken great pride in continuing with voluntary work. I’ve worked with the Civic Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England on projects such as the Thames Gateway. So I think I have carried a real torch for voluntary planning.

But many of your most famous projects were private sector led…

I’ve been hugely involved, of course, in the public and private sectors - especially the private sector, because from the late 1970s onwards that’s where the action was. I was involved in not just Newcastle Quayside - which was both public and private sector led - but also in Brindleyplace, Birmingham, which I did the masterplan for and won planning consent for on behalf of Argent.

Recently, I identified Old Oak Common, in north-west London, initially voluntarily. I demonstrated that Old Oak Common was a place for growth. So I’ve been involved in voluntary, public and private sectors in a proactive way to get planning involved in its creative side.

Do you think enough people have pushed for the creative approach to planning you advocate?

Not enough people were doing it and people weren’t chancing their arms. I remember particularly on the Thames Gateway I used to tackle anyone presenting from the public sector. I was acting voluntarily at first but eventually got appointed by the government to do the masterplanning.

At the end of any talk I was listening to, I used to cross-examine those presenting from the London Thames Gateway Development Corporation. I would say: “Tell me what your plans are again?” And they would quote so many jobs, this much housing, so much inward investment. I’d say: “That’s not a plan - show me a drawing.” And they couldn’t. There wasn’t a single drawing.

So I did the drawings, identified the landscapes and proposed that landscape was the first infrastructure. Sure enough, I got funding and I was very proud of the Thames Gateway.

Why do you think the public sector retreated from creative, proactive planning?

The last time there was creative, physical planning was during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. It fell into disrepute because it was entirely done by the public sector - new towns, new universities, central area redevelopment. Newcastle was part of it. They built motorways through the centre and there was demolition of important buildings. It fell into disrepute because it was going in the wrong direction.

Do you think things are moving in the right direction now?

Now, I do see a change. That was partly expressed in the RTPI giving me, an architect-planner, the Gold Medal. I think it’s going in a better direction in that the private sector and voluntary sectors are recognised.

The private sector picked things up with projects such as Brindleyplace and Paddington Basin, but that wasn’t right either - it was too biased and too divided.

I think there is a reintegration going on. I hope the Gold Medal will be a recognition of where things are going and what should be happening.

I’m going to build on it because city-making is the biggest business in the world. The population boom continues inexorably. Migration to cities and the scale of city-making going on around the world is huge stuff.

It’s a very interesting time because we are coming to grips with the complexity of city-making. I’m hoping that this is the start of a new era of better understanding the processes that go into city-making and a recognition that it’s got to be physical and creative.

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