The height of creation …Terry Farrell’s KK100. Photograph: Terry Farrell & Partners
‘I’ve never thought of myself as a skyscraper man,” says Terry Farrell, sitting in his richly decorated London flat. Above our heads hang models of historic aircraft. Across the room, amid lots of exotic plants, goldfish circle each other in huge bowls. “Many of the world’s most famous skyscrapers are designed by architects few people in the profession can name.” I ask him if he can remember who designed the Empire State Building and he gets it wrong. “Well,” he says, “you’ve made my point.”
But Farrell – perhaps best known in this country for the MI6 building, that hulking, postmodern fortress on the banks of the Thames – has just become a skyscraper man, thanks to KK100. This gleaming, 442-metre high colossus that shoots up, pencil-thin, from the business district of Shenzhen in China isn’t just his first skyscraper, though. It’s also the tallest building ever realised by a British architect.
With a chuckle, Farrell explains that the tower is for a group of developers known as Kingkey, who were keen to show China and the world how far they, and Shenzhen, had come in the past few decades. “So they asked for a 100-storey design and wanted to call it the Kingkey Tower. I told them that, in English, this sounds like ‘kinky’ and might not be a good idea.” But these giant high-rises are all a bit phallic, aren’t they? “Machismo, yes,” says Farrell. “It’s the characteristic that drives China’s skyscrapers.”
In fact, if anything, KK100 looms like an improbably tall blade of glass over Shenzhen, a city on the border with Hong Kong that has indeed come a long way at breakneck speed. In May 1980, Deng Xiaoping, then chairman of the Communist party, declared the former fishing village a Special Economic Zone. In a little over 30 years, its population has exploded from 20,000 to over 10m; its container port on the Pearl River is, after Shanghai and Hong Kong, now the third largest in China.
“I find it astonishing,” says Farrell, who founded his practice, Terry Farrell and Partners, in London the very year the Shenzhen boom began. “It changes so fast. I first came – well, to Hong Kong, actually – in 1964. I was on a travelling scholarship. I had a Chinese pal, a friend from Newcastle University, in Hong Kong and went to see him. I took a photograph over the Chinese border towards Shenzhen. Here it is.”
Farrell turns the pages of one of the monographs he keeps of all his work. The colour photo of Shenzhen sits within a full-page shot of KK100. The low mountain backdrop appears the same in both images, but where one shows paddy fields and junks moored to thin strips of land, the other is dominated by a forest of skyscrapers, with KK100 reaching into the tropical cloudscape.
Farrell is not one of those architects who has rushed to cash in on the recent boom in foreign-led design in China, but someone who has built up a long and increasingly rich relationship with the country. His Hong Kong office, opened in 1990, is the same size as the London one he opened a decade earlier; last month, he opened a third, in Shanghai. This is understandable, given the sheer number and the scale of the stations, airports, hotels and public buildings he has created across Guangzhou, Kowloon, Hong Kong and Beijing, not to mention the vast urban masterplans he has developed around the country.
Farrell is clearly proud of KK100. “I can’t quite believe it’s real. As an architect, you get asked to do design after design, competition after competition, and you’re used to ambitious projects coming to nothing. I was amazed, really, when we started to build a real skyscraper.” Sheathed in glass and steel, KK100 boasts floor after floor of offices that taper up to a 250-bedroom hotel. This is all rounded off with a delightful sky lobby, rather like a vast and ultra-modern birdcage, with a bar and terrace open to the public. The space inside this glass tip is taken up by an egg-shaped pod several storeys high containing small private spaces, some perched on balconies, where guests can sit, drink and take in jaw-dropping views of Shenzhen and beyond. By night, the tower is lit from top to bottom by LED lights.
Can a developer like Kingkey simply stride into central Shenzhen with a pile of cash and build what it likes? “Far from it,” says Farrell. “The city does have planning regulations – you can’t just do what you want.” The site of KK100, he says, used to be Caiwuwei village, a poor and rundown area. Kingkey had to build seven towers to rehouse local people and a further seven for other locals to own and rent out, so that they might share in the boom. It’s an extraordinary idea: even as China hurtles into capitalism, it does still show remnants of old socialist ideals.
Because all of these new towers took up a lot of space, the only way Kingkey could make the kind of money it was looking for – lots – was to build its showcase tower as high as possible. The company, notes Farrell, was “founded by a bricklayer”. He clearly approves – but then he is one of the few British working-class boys (Norman Foster is the best known) who have risen to the top in architecture. Farrell was born in Sale, Manchester, in 1938, his father a messenger for the Post Office. His devoutly Catholic family moved to Newcastle upon Tyne. Farrell wanted to be a painter, but his parents wanted him to be a civil servant; they thought artists were immoral.
He got to university – architecture at Newcastle – and since those days this unpretentious, highly intelligent and likable man has kept his feet firmly on the ground, even as his buildings began to soar skywards. Between designing the bright and colourful, low-cost HQ for TV-am – one of the best British buildings of the postmodern era – and setting up shop in Hong Kong in 1990, Farrell produced one memorable and controversial work after another, not least One Embankment Place, a monumental office block built around a great arch over the platforms of London’s Charing Cross station.
There are other ambitious buildings in the pipeline. Farrell shows me designs for the 520-metre, 123-floor Z15 Tower, which will be the centrepiece of Beijing’s Chaoyong business district when it opens in 2015, as well as a taller neighbour to Rem Koolhaas’s mighty CCTV HQ. Continuum, a book cataloguing his practice’s work, explains that Z15’s elegant concave shape was inspired by traditional Chinese wine vessels, bamboo-weaving and sky lanterns, not to mention “the freshness and beauty of flourishing lotus flowers”. A very Chinese skyscraper, in other words.
In fact, sitting talking with Farrell in his flat – with its Chinese pottery, low lighting and sliding screens – the ways in which his life and work have become entwined with China is richly apparent. And when his wife Mei Xin Wang, a volunteer for the British Museum’s Department of Asia, comes home, the picture is complete. Farrell is wedded to China.
He is still, though, very much the young man brought up in the north, with a love of British buildings, aircraft, paintings and railways. He has even had a train – a First Hull Trains high-speed number – named after him, following the success of The Deep, his thrillingly angular aquarium on the Hull waterfront completed in 2002. “The train’s been moved to another line since then,” says Farrell, “and they’ve taken my name off it.” But then he has been an architect for long enough to know that reputations, fame, fortune – and even one’s name – come and go as fashions change and economies swing from boom to bust.
While his firm continues to pick up more commissions in China, rivals are getting in on the act, racing up ever higher buildings. Farrell seems to welcome the competition, shrugging it off and saying in his matter-of-fact way: “We won’t have the tallest building in Shenzhen for long.”
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