Sir Terry Farrell, the architect and master planner of major city building projects, is waiting for me at Chelsea Waterfront. This eight-acre site straddling Chelsea Creek, closed to the public for well over a century, will soon hold 706 new homes, spread across the former Lots Road power station, in two new towers of 25 and 37 storeys designed by the Farrells practice, and a series of low-rise blocks.
Unusually, 39 per cent of these new homes will be “affordable” or for rent below usual market rates, encouraging families and those on lower incomes as well as the mega-rich to move in. There will be shops and a new waterfront open to all. This, for Farrell, 77, epitomises the organic nature of London’s growth.
“That mixture of heights, densities, families and single people, with shops, cultural organisations and railway stations — I like that,” he says. “One of the underlying problems of Paris is they’ve shoved all the social housing out beyond the Périphérique. What I find extraordinary is that London regenerates itself in a way that is true to itself.”
It is a big project but only represents a fraction of Farrell’s current activities in London. There is his scheme to develop the Royal Albert Dock as a hub for Chinese businesses, and his masterplan for Henry VIII’s former dockyard, Convoys Wharf in Deptford, which, along with the Chelsea project “will open up a kilometre of previously inaccessible waterfront”.
There is Royal Mint Gardens, a new development squeezed around the DLR tracks behind St Katharine Docks, and the Eagle House redevelopment at Old Street, a renovation of an Art Deco block that influenced the design of the accompanying new tower.
There are the master plans, too, for the vast Earl’s Court and Old Oak Common sites which, Farrell points out, along with Chelsea Waterfront and White City represent a swathe of west London brownfield development of the kind more commonly found in south or particularly east London.
He advocates building to greater density within the M25 to accommodate London’s predicted population growth of two million, but thinks overall city planning needs “a light touch” rather than overweening schemes.
That said, he is an advocate of expanding Gatwick rather than Heathrow in order to “turbo-charge the economy of Croydon and Merton”.
He recently suggested the expansion of London’s “core” to embrace Tottenham, Thamesmead, Croydon and Heathrow, with better traffic links extending outwards.
And he told Homes & Property that east London would be better served with seven low-level lifting bridges to encourage cross-river foot and cycle traffic and mixed-use growth at either end, rather than one or two “motorways” over or under the Thames.
So, Terry, is there a bit of London you aren’t building on?
“We haven’t cornered the design and building market at all,” he protests. Although his firm’s name appears at the top of many schemes — including Old Oak Common and Chelsea — much of the building will be done by other architects.
Yet one can see in all of them a touch that is distinctively his: a respect for and wish to preserve original buildings that give an area character; joined-up thinking with regard to transport links and shops that make an area a community; and an interest in social housing. He likes to look at the whole practice of planning and building holistically, “from the chair to the far horizon”, as he says.
Not that he is averse to building for the wealthy. He has defended the money that will flow from China into Royal Albert Dock by pointing out: “London has always been an immigrant city that has traded with the world.”
Farrells opened its Hong Kong office in 1991, and has built all over Asia, including the KK100 tower in Shenzhen and Guangzhou South railway station. Lots Road power station was built by an American to fuel the originally US-owned Tube network, and Hong Kong-based developer Hutchison Whampoa is now opening up the riverfront there and in Deptford.
“Developers in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies were fairly crude and wholly financially driven,” he adds. “Now they have great fun, they have style, they like to create things, they vie with each other for awards. And it pays dividends.”
Argent won a contract to develop a 192-acre site at Brent Cross on the strength of its sensitive work at King’s Cross. Not that all development is necessarily good. Simple economics mean that “if you build 72 stories in a tall, thin tower, you have to sell it to the super-rich”. This is a thinly veiled reference to Renzo Piano’s so-called “mini-Shard”, which Farrell believes is wrong for its proposed location in Paddington, and represents, like the Shard itself, “someone [having] chanced their arm”.
‘People think the Gherkin is fun, or the Walkie Talkie isn’t, or that the Shard is nice. Architecture has become part of entertainment, almost like art has always been’
Farrell believes that home buyers, like developers, have become aware of the importance of good design and planning, whether that be through a greater appreciation of open space, infrastructure and decent room volumes, of interiors (Farrells is designing every last detail of Eagle House) or of the wisdom of employing an architect on even a smallish project, like glassing over a side return.
“Architects are part of fashion now,” he says. “Once upon a time buildings were done by architects all building in a similar kind of way. Now there’s character and almost artistic intent and fashionable egos around the place. People think the Gherkin is fun, and the Walkie Talkie isn’t, or that the Shard is nice — architecture has become part of entertainment, almost like art has always been.”
Farrell is a passionate, engaging talker and an enthusiast. He becomes almost boyishly excited when talking about Crossrail. But he is also getting to a stage in life where he must plan his own firm’s future.
A recent article in New London Quarterly detailed plans to devolve power within Farrells as it embarks on projects that will take 10, 15 or 20 years to complete: his son Max, also an architect in the practice, joins us in our interview.
Terry Farrell will eventually leave behind a London which is more organic, more thoughtfully developed, and more enjoyable than it would have been without him. But I wonder if there is a particular building of his he would commend to posterity.
His own favourites, he says, are the Home Office in Marsham Street and Embankment Place, the futuristic steam train of a building at the back of Charing Cross. “But when I am giving a talk to students in darkest parts of the world like China and Melbourne, I show slides of the MI6 building and they all instantly recognise it. Everyone knows it because of the Bond films.” Farrell looks briefly affronted: “They keep blowing it up, though.”
Prices at Chelsea Waterfront range from £1.5m - £13.9m; through Savills & Knight Frank. Call 020 7352 8852 or visit chelseawaterfront.com.