Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Odd Couple


British architecture throughout the 1980's was pretty much a straight fight between high-tech and postmodernism. Nicholas Grimshaw (High-Tech Athletic) and Terry Farrell (Po-Mo Allstars) were two of the architects slugging it out. Strangely enough though they had once been in partnership together. Their fifteen year collaboration (1965-1980) fell apart due to obvious stylistic differences but the fact that the two had worked together at all suggests an area of unlikely common ground. This offers a glimpse of another route that British architecture could have taken after the 1960's, one unfortunately snuffed out by the belligerent arguments of the time.

Grimshaw's refined industrial aesthetic and Farrell's postmodern eclecticism seem irreconcilable when viewed today. But Farrell's autobiography Place suggests areas where they came together. The most obvious of these was the idea of flexibility in buildings. This was a key concept coming out of the '60's when there was a fascination with temporary/lightweight structures, allied to non-hierarchical ideas of spatial and social organisation.

For Grimshaw, this meant buildings that were literally flexible; sophisticated mechanisms that could move and change over time. The Grimshaw camp within the partnership developed a sequence of supposedly repeatable and adaptable metal framed office buildings. Farrell's notion of flexibility was less aesthetically driven. He was interested in adaptable buildings too, but crucially it was the people and the function that could change, rather than the buildings themselves. For Farrell, this approach encompassed existing terrace houses and semi d's, as well as industrial lofts and old factory buildings. This idea of revitalising existing buildings through adaptive re-use led to Farrell becoming an early unlikely hero of the conservation movement.



These two tangents were fused in the iconic conversion of a Victorian terrace into student housing that they completed at Sussex Gardens in 1968. The project involved a clever spatial re-modelling of the existing houses as well as the addition of several pre-fabricated elements including a spiralling external tower of bathroom pods. Internally they designed movable furniture to colonise the hollowed out interior of the terrace. This project imaginatively re-used existing buildings but its investigations into prefabrication and a clip-on aesthetic got most of the attention.



Some ten years later Farrell taught a unit at the AA called Learning from Chigwell, where the students looked at Essex bungalows and semi d's for clues about successful housing (This sort of populism must have been even more crashingly unfashionable then than it is now). Farrell's own adaptations of his family's Maida Vale house were a modest version of the same investigations. The drawings for this are sweetly un-architectural, devoid of the usual spatial gymnastics or obsessive detailing that architects inflict on their families.



The interior of Farrell and Grimshaw's own offices shows the evolution of their ideas. Place has two photos; one of their joint office and another of the same space reconfigured by Farrell after the split. The earlier one is an endearingly 1970's interior; all acid oranges and brown plastic, with flexible service tubes running to individual work stations. Farrell rejigs it with kitsch surfaces and postmodern spatial illusions but retains the metal service tubes which now protrude from marble effect columns. Filing cabinets are piled up into ziggurats and garden trellising used to divide space. This is typical of the odd hybrid of high tech devices and pop classical references which Farrell pursued for a number of years subsequently.



His two temporary buildings for Clifton nurseries are the most interesting results of this fusion. The most well-known of these briefly occupied a corner of Covent Garden. Its famous temple-like front sat on a visual axis with Inigo Jones' St Paul's Church at the opposite end of the square, although half its portico was in fact a skeletal 'ghost' concealing a car park. This fragmented classical pediment fronted a lightweight tensile roof structure and an impermanent function making the classical elements poignant rather than bombastic.

If the building's slightly clunky classicism seems a bit stale today then his other nursery for Clifton still seems highly relevant. This was a polycarbonate clad greenhouse - an extruded tree shape in section - where any hint of classicism was subsumed into the cartoon pop aesthetic. The building has a lyrical DIY quality, echoing some of Frank Gehry's early Lo-fi experimentalism.



Less known well was the giant exhibition hall he designed as the temporary replacement for the burnt down Alexandra Palace. This giant shed combines high-tech materials, Archigram-esque clip-together curves and Pop Art super-graphics. It's a lovely building, a sort of super stylised Edwardiana, reminiscent of Ken Adam's eccentric sets for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.



Farrell and Grimshaw's most successful buildings was the aluminium clad Park Road flats near Regent's Park. The building used a slick, lightweight aesthetic that contrasted radically at the time with the contemporaneous Brutalist flats being built at Alexandra Road and the Brunswick Centre. More interesting are the photos of the interiors of Farrell and Grimshaw's own penthouse apartments in the building. The fact that they lived in adjacent penthouses at all is perhaps a sign of the times, reminiscent of The Beatles in Help, although their respective interiors are radically different. While Grimshaw's is straight architect pad chic, Farrell's is full of Victorian furniture, patterned rugs and a parrot in an ornate cage.



In fact, the interiors of Farrell's various houses are amongst the most interesting pieces of design in his book. Some of them are incredibly odd, featuring Egyptian columns, trompe d'oeil ceilings, antique furniture and tiger skin rugs. They have a gloomy, intensely decorated Victorian quality that must have been fabulously unfashionable for the time.



Although Farrell was seen as the defector, swept off into Jencksian postmodernism, he was arguably the one that developed the partnership's work into interesting new directions. Grimshaw's subsequent work, all precision gaskets and tension cables, developed along more predictable lines. The industrial sheds have a certain elegance, but the obsession with gadgets and mechanics seems oddly irrelevant now. His Camden Town Sainsbury's, while falling short of something like the Lloyd's buildings icy perfectionism, doesn't pull off contextual urbanism either.

The first part of Farrell's autobiography stops at 1982, which is about right for me. The slide into a straighter, more commercial postmodernism in the mid '80's means that interest begins to pall. The earlier work walks a more ambiguous, genre blurring line, fusing elements of '60's radicalism, classicism, pop art, high tech and the vernacular.

(All pictures are taken from here. Slightly outrageously without permission. Oh well.)

11 comments:

owen hatherley said...

So, no defence of MI6, Charing Cross station or Alban Gate? Am feeling a strange combination of relief and disappointment.

Charles Holland said...

...comes to something when you are accused of playing safe by bigging up Terry Farrell. Actually you have a point. Charing Cross station ain't bad. Hints of Futurism....

Hugh Pearman likes MI5, so there is hope for your disappointment to be fulfilled in other areas.

owen hatherley said...

Good heavens. He likes Stirling's Number 1 Poultry as well, as I recall. Dear oh dear.

Predictably, my favourite thing by Farrell is the Blackwall Tunnel air vents. Particularly the one that now sticks out of the Millennium Dome. Also like the fact he nicked the design from Corb (Assembly, Chandigarh) who nicked it from cooling towers, so returning it to engineering by accident...

Charles Holland said...

...Portcullis House too. I'm with him on that. Fabulously dystopian.

In his book Farrell makes a similar point to you. Not that he copied the forms of the cooling towers, but that they are modernist industrial forms used, unusually, for industrial purposes. As opposed to Rogers, The Smithsons and Goldfinger who in the vicinity of Farrell's towers use industrial language for non-industrial programmes. Not that I entirely agree with that you understand but....

owen hatherley said...

I can see how Porticullis House could be good if it wasn't for the horrible pinkish colour of the stone - dystopian and jolly is a very New Labour combination and one which I cannot abide.

Rob said...

Look what I just found lurking on my server from a couple of years back:

http://no2self.net/wp-content/docs/AD1976.pdf

More old AD goodness.

Charles Holland said...

Ooh thanks Rob. Very nice....

Geoff Shearcroft said...

Yes I know that nothing is original, and everything has been done before but realising that much of what I've thought in the last five years is merely following in the footsteps of El Tel is mildly surprising/annoying/brilliant. Learning from Chigwell? Is this from the man who was at Penn in 1964, presumably hanging with Bobby V as well as being taught by Louis Kahn?

Vincent Lacovara said...

Yes, it seems that everything has been done before. Including that 'Climatron' idea i've been working on. Bugger.

http://www.terryfarrell.co.uk/projects/relaxing/relax_climatron.html

Charles Holland said...

Al true. We should form an orderly queue of people ripping off Bob and Denise!

Charles Holland said...

Or people ripping off people ripping off Bob and Denise.

Enough already!