Francis Terry: ‘Architects tend to think if it’s popular, there’s something wrong’
The neoclassical country piles designed by Quinlan Terry and his son Francis are adored by the royals and multimillionaires. Now Francis is striking out on his own
In the 1980s the architect Quinlan Terry was a bogeyman to much of his profession. Unbendingly traditionalist, he believed that the classical orders were handed down by God. He saw nothing good in modern architecture. He thought that the stainless steel exo-viscera of Richard Rogers’s Lloyds building needed brick walls and a slate roof. His stance also made him a pinup, in his three-piece suit and all, to those who thought that new buildings should like just like old buildings. In the decade when economics were handed down by Margaret Thatcher – for whom, indeed, Terry designed interiors in No 10 Downing Street – and aesthetics by the Prince of Wales, an era when radical finance felt the need to dress itself in the trappings of old England, he was a man of his time.
Well, here we are again, in the reign of another she-Tory and another time of patriotic nostalgia, of the promised return of dark blue passports and a hoped-for relaunch of the royal yacht Britannia. Quinlan Terry is still at it, designing, among other things, country houses in Dorset, Ireland and Kentucky, but now there is also his son Francis, who last year set up his own practice after nearly 20 years working alongside his father. He is carrying out the same type of work as the older Terry – he has country houses on the go in Wiltshire, Norfolk, Hampshire and Ireland, and a mixed-use development in Twickenham – but he has also developed a new line of business, developing counter-proposals, backed by local residents, to overweening developers’ plans in places like Mount Pleasant and West Hampstead, London.
It’s tempting to cast the younger one as Quinlan II, as the architectural face of Brexit Britain, but it’s not as simple as that. For sure, the idiom looks remarkably similar across the generations – variations on Palladian or Georgian, with sallies into other historical styles such as neo-Greek or Louis Quatorze (“the French look is quite popular with the Russians”.) But Francis differs from his father in important respects. He seems to have more fun. He’s less dogmatic. He expresses doubt.
He can draw, the outcome of childhood holidays spent sketching Italian buildings with his father, whose stiff draughtsmanship he now exceeds for fluency and liveliness. For three years he tried his hand at being a painter – a “lovely and self-indulgent way of carrying on” – producing canvases he calls “Velázquez-y” and “Caravaggio-y”. But he “missed the collaborative aspect”, so he went back into architecture. Now he perches at an old-fashioned, pre-digital drawing board that stands solitary in an office on the outskirts of Colchester. Around him are the team that turn his drawings into reality, led by Les Canham and Martyn Winney, who in the decades since they joined pére Terry at an early age, have learned on the job how to get these kinds of designs built.
Francis Terry likes to create full-size drawings of the elaborate decorations for houses like Kilboy, Co Tipperary, a pedimented, Doric-columned, stone-and-slate mansion that he and his father created for a scion of the family that founded Ryanair. Completed in 2013, the savings made on charm and comfort for millions of passengers are here transmogrified into an all-out demonstration of a fantasy that the last 250 years didn’t really happen.
“Those ho-ho birds are the size of swans,” he says with relish of a prodigious feat of rococo ornithological plasterwork, in which these mythical creatures seem about to detach themselves and flap about in the opulent drawing room below. As a student at the University of Cambridge, he enjoyed designing stage sets and likes what he sees as the theatrical aspect of his work. For the Howard theatre at Downing College, Cambridge (also with Quinlan) he painted a backdrop that fused the college’s classical buildings with the Athenian Acropolis. He’s proud of a facade he did in Prince Charles’s model village of Poundbury, Dorset, which was painted in trompe l’oeil rather than actually constructed.
He embraces the common accusation that this work is “pastiche”. “Tarantino pastiches,” he says, “Amy Winehouse used to get things from jazz or R&B or whatever” – Quinlan has been known to make a similar point, but citing the Psalms as his example – “just doing a thing out of your head is equally arbitrary to learning from the past.” And, he says, people like it. “It’s funny what most architects respond to. They tend to think if it’s popular, there’s something wrong with it. I prefer the Andy Warhol approach. If it’s popular, it’s good.”
“Take Lois, who brought the tea in,” he says. “She did a degree in interior design, she’s just local and she seemed a nice person, so we gave her a job. But she’s really passionate about classical architecture. Usually it’s just tweedy males who are supposed to like it.” Later he asks Lois to speak for herself: “there’s loads of hidden beauty” in her home town, Ipswich, she says, and she “loves anything classical, anything with a story behind it, anything architectural, mythical, not just glass and straight lines.” At the same time, this argument obliges him to concede that classicism doesn’t have a monopoly on popularity – “people like the Gherkin for some reason”. He acknowledges that other people might have other tastes – “if you want to invent things, modernism might be your thing, or Gaudí or something.”
For myself, I find the reduction in dogma welcome. It’s also impossible not to be impressed by the artisanship of those plaster ceilings and stone porticoes, even if they’re in the category of People Doing Amazing Things But You’re Not Sure Why. As one way among many of doing buildings, the quasi-classical is welcome to join the party. There are certainly worse buildings than Terry’s built in the name of iconic innovativeness. My objections to the approach as practised for the last 30-odd years centre on the utterly, awfully, terrifyingly dead quality of much of it, the queasy way in which its inherent fantasy is strangulated by pedantry.
I mostly hope that Francis Terry will use his newfound freedom to push what he does as he can. The split from his father wasn’t easy – “architects like to work all their life, and my father wanted to carry on. I wanted to find my own voice.” But he takes inspiration from the inventor of the Mars bar: “His father had a small company in America producing Milky Ways, but he said that this business was not big enough for both of them. So he went to Britain and set up on his own.”
A speculative proposal for a block of flats in Knightsbridge shows a glimmer of what Terry’s Mars bars might look like. It’s certainly got a lot of nougat and caramel, in the form of piled-up arcades and giant Corinthian columns. It’s like the excessive, baroque-flavoured apartment buildings that were built here and in the US early in the last century. But the pointy roofs of his design don’t deal with the fact that the top floors of such developments now house glass-walled, premium penthouses. Advocates of new classical architecture argue that it has an inherent flexibility that can respond to the demands of the modern world. Francis Terry has the chance to show how. Or, failing that, he should continue to try hard to have more fun.