“Postmodernism was all-encompassing, not a style but an era, and as a phenomenon it was about holistic connectivity, the broadening of all viewpoints.”
Terry Farrell, 2011 (1)
Coinciding with the Victoria and Albert Museum’s major exhibition will be a discussion at the RIBA (25 October) about the legacy of postmodernism; amongst the speakers representing some of the movement’s protagonists will be architect Terry Farrell. But, has enough time lapsed since the end of the movement to assess or even appreciate its legacy? Some of its greatest examples in architecture are still considered controversial. Many postmodernist buildings – even the most well-known – are not protected, and the consequences can be currently witnessed in Camden where the Hawley Crescent façade of the former TV-am studios, designed by Farrell in the early 1980s, is being torn down. A model of its façade forms part of the V&A’s exhibition, one exhibit amongst many that together analyses the wide spectrum of material and cultural outputs of postmodernism, including: architecture, music, cinema, fashion and dance. Visitors will find that scenes from Bladerunner and the music of New Order are never far away.
Alban Gate – ‘healing’ the urban fabric
Despite drastic alterations to the studios, London is still though major showcase for work by Farrell and his firm, Terry Farrell & Partners. One commission that came a few years after the opening of the studios was Alban Gate (also known as 125 London Wall), which was a result of the expansion in the City’s office space during the financial ‘Big Bang’ of the 1980s.
War-time bombing had severely damaged this part of London and the area was a test bed for new urban forms after World War II. A system of dual carriageways encircling and radiating from the heart of the metropolis was planned, of which only a few sections were built. Unsentimentally named in the plan as ‘Route 11′, the western end of London Wall was one of the few sections built. (2) This stretch of road became a chasm lined with box-like post-war office developments such as Lee House and the edge of the “heroic 60s vision-becomes-reality of the Barbican”. (3)
In late 1986, planning permission was granted to demolish Lee House and for it to be replaced by a £150 million design from Farrell for a high rise office, residential and retail development which would reject the Modernist approach of its predecessor. (4) When opened in 1992, it was described by the journal ‘Building’ as “gargantuan Siamese twins – or mating robots” and with its large 34-metre deep floorplates created “40,000m² of IT-friendly office space”. (5)
Like Farrell’s Embankment Place, Alban Gate made use of air rights to build upwards to be able to accommodate many functions and create extra floor space in a constricted urban site. One of the scheme’s two 18-storey office towers straddles London Wall and rests on eight columns to allow four-way traffic to flow at street level uninterrupted, while pedestrians circulate along the podium above. Farrell’s scheme was to mend some of the damage done to the fragmented urban fabric by reconnecting the walkways of the neighbouring Barbican with the rest of the City, and act as a gateway for pedestrians. Even to this day, Alban Gate is one of the few accessible crossing points for people on this stretch of ‘Route 11′.
Postmodernism derives its influence from a wide range of heterogeneous sources, and in this case – in reference to the history of the local area – the form of Alban Gate’s two granite-clad towers is derived from the medieval Cripplegate that stood nearby in Wood Street until 1760. (6) The project’s low-rise west wing references romanesque and classical forms through its use of round arch windows and balustrades. Even the name is based on the remains of Wren’s St Alban’s Church, a casualty of the Blitz of which only the tower was saved.
Alban Gate is one of Farrell’s several major contributions to London. But the legacy of postmodernism is still very visible and controversial. On 25 October a frank discussion of its impact on the culture of today will take place; perhaps it will identify how the different philosophies (and some of the perceived excesses) of postmodernism still shape the way we design.
Research and talks at the RIBA
The sources for this post came from the British Architectural Library at the RIBA and utilises a small part of the resources for research that the Library offers for free. Everyone is welcome to visit and make use of its services. Through the collections of the Library, postmodernism is captured in colour photographs of the era and can be understood by the writings of some of its key players.
The upcoming talk, ‘The Legacy of Postmodernism’, will see Sir Terry Farrell, Nigel Coates, Piers Gough, Sean Griffiths, Kester Rattenbury and Jane Pavitt discuss the legacy of the movement on architecture and design in the UK.
6.30pm – 8pm, 25 October 2011
£8.50/£5.50 (members and students). Advance booking essential.
During a recent interview Farrell visits the V&A + RIBA Architecture Gallery and there he discusses some of his favourite items at the V&A. From the collections of the RIBA, he chose the caricature bust of architect Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens.
1. Terry Farrell: Interiors and the Legacy of Postmodernism, 2011, p.7
2. Building – 1992 June 19, p.37-43
3. Architecture Today – 1992 June, p.37
4. Building – 1986 October 31, p.9
5. Building – 1992 June 19, p.37
6. Arup Journal – 1987 Summer, p.15-18
See more images of Terry Farrell’s work on RIBApix