Quinlan Terry: a critical appreciation

Could the Covid-19 pandemic have been caused in part by ugliness? 

And I do not mean Boris Johnson, although his mishandling did not help.

Many new buildings are designed to be airtight, insulated to protect (against) the environment but then cooled in summer by air conditioning systems which circulate bad air. Even between pandemics ‘Sick Buildings Syndrome’ was a major factor of contemporary office-economy. Researchers in Korea found that air conditioning was responsible for the spread of Covid in a call centre and in a restaurant. It is not possible to open the windows in many modern workplaces. In the UK, medical specialists said that air circulation was vital to allow office spaces to open.

Quinlan Terry, who celebrates his 84th birthday this week, might think so. 

The 1992 Maitland Robinson Library at Downing College, Cambridge, designed by Terry (CC BY-SA 3.0 The wub)

The preeminent contemporary classical architect, the bete noire of Modernists and beloved of Prince Charles, he has advocated against the shortsightedness of modern building developments and for the universal beauty of ancient inspired architecture throughout his long career, specifically pointing to the health and social benefits of good architecture.

He learnt his trade in the old style as an apprentice to Raymond Erith (after studying at the Architectural Association). Erith was a classical architect, a self effacing designer with a subtle eye. The two men, with a 33 year difference, had similar tastes expressed differently. 

Erith would joke to Terry that whilst he was a Puritan, Terry was a Jesuit. This is played out in Terry’s love of the Baroque (Borromini is a favourite and Palladaio and Lord Bulington are name-dropped in his writings like colleagues), a curmudgeonly showmanship and a taste for ostentation. 

The contrast in temperaments can also be seen in their approach to working in the tradition.

When asked to upgrade 10-12 Downing Street by Harold Macmillan, Erith said he didn’t want to leave his mark on the buildings: “I attach no importance at all to originality or modernity and I shall be content to carry on in a way which is not very different from other buildings”.

Years later, when Terry was asked to tidy up the State Rooms of 10 Downing Street, attributed to William Kent, the doors in the Yellow Room were too low. In order to design the perfect filigree panel to go above them, he sent his son Francis to Rome to measure the Ara Pacis, the Altar of Peace set up by Augustus in the decade before Christ’s birth. The delicate panels above the door set off the room exquisitely.

It is a different way of doing the same thing.

Egyptian Baroque

When startling new discoveries shook the very centre of Christendom and changed it forever.

Both men respected the ancients.

Erith wrote that the classical orders “are so perfect in their proportions and detail and application to the art of building, that they could not be invented by man”. Terry developed the theme alluding to the theory that the Classical Orders were given to Moses on Mountain Sinai: “the visual form of the building in which the one true God was to be worshipped could not be left to the vain imagination of man”. (Terry’s professed beliefs can be safely called supersessionist). In the same article, he argues that the style was taken up in Egypt based on a passage from the Old Testament (II Chronicles 12). He later qualified this by arguing “I do not think it is necessary for one to believe that they were given to Moses when he built the tabernacle in the wilderness, or to Solomon when he built the temple in Jerusalem, but it is necessary to believe in their intrinsic merit”. 

Certainly anyone who has seen Brentwood Cathedral understands something of the divine order which permeates all architecture, that sense of some perfection or balance which the stone speaks but cannot fully articulate.

Terry sees the role of the architect as something higher. “To the Christian all secular work is holy […] all buildings should honour the Lord”. He never mentions the other important British Christian artists of the Twentieth Century like Eric Gill or David Jones, but Jones’ lines about the Willendorf Venus must have struck a chord: 

“Whose man-hands god-handled the Willendorf Stone”

Brentwood Cathederal

Really though Terry’s beliefs can be summed up as “Classical architecture is beautiful, Modern is ugly”. Yet this pithy quote, belies a thoughtful response to the impact that the built environment has on the world.

Foregrounding the historical in his work gives him a perspective as an artist within space and time. He has raised awareness about the environmental costs of architecture saying  “If we want a future for our grandchildren, I propose that we build traditional buildings”. 

He has developed these ideas in talks and articles, arguing against the shortsightedness of modern buildings which are resource intensive and in many cases not long lasting. 

Modern materials like concrete can be energy intensive. Although many new buildings seek to be carbon neutral, this was not always the case through Terry’s career where major infrastructure projects focused on finances. He argues that “Stone and sand only need to be quarried”. It should be noted he is not averse to transporting stone long distances – perhaps we can use the term “Pile miles” in a similar way to ‘food miles’. His building for Merchants Square in colonial Williamsburg used sandstone from Cumbria, whilst Ketton from Northamptonshire was used at Latourette Farm in New Jersey. 

It should be noted he is not averse to transporting stone long distances – perhaps we can use the term “Pile miles” in a similar way to ‘food miles’.

Terry argues that modern materials do not stand up against the weather and annual changes in temperature and humidity. Meaning that modern buildings need repairing or demolishing much sooner than buildings’ built with traditional materials. It is hard not to reflect on the tragedy at Grenfell, caused by criminal negligence in the use of unsafe materials. 

The reason for building in modern materials is not always economical. The final cost for his Richmond Riverside development was cheaper than the price estimate for a design produced by a rival firm.  

Modern buildings are sometimes said to be more practical. They are designed for a specific function. Yet as our needs for spaces change, buildings built for specific functions are no longer useful. Many proponents of Classicism, like Terry, argue that their multi-function rooms are flexible and their use is able to change throughout time (on its many levels – daily, seasonally and historically). 

Following modern styles, also means that buildings can be dismantled when they are no longer fashionable.

However, we must bear in mind that it is not always that our needs change, but that we become more aware of the needs of other members of society. Old buildings are not the most accessible, especially in terms of mobility.

Only time can test the value of Terry’s work and it is in time, the court of history, that he hopes to find his fairest judge.

One of the charges levelled against Terry throughout his career has been a charge that his style is a pastiche, perhaps even dishonest to the period in which he is building. This is perhaps to misunderstand what he is doing.

He writes:

I think we are very poor judges of how our work will look in a hundred years time. It is important for us to realise that Palladio did not try to express his age when he built the Villa Rotunda but thought in terms of a Roman house; and yet, to us, it looks the epitome of the Quattrocento. Similarly, Colen Campbell and Lord Burlington built Mereworth Castle in Kent, which was the closest copy they could get to Palladio’s Villa Rotunda; and yet, Mereworth does not look like Italy or the 15th century, but the epitome of 18th century england. Somehow or another, whether it is the materials, the brief from the client, or the way we detail our mouldings and weatherings, the age and the national characteristics always find their way into the end result. I have no doubt at all that my work will look like late 20th-century English Classicism.

Terry is not working in a style but within a language, with its own grammar. Just as the poetry of Milton or Bernadine Evaristo, although written in the same language and touching on similar themes, are clearly both of their own times. 

This argument slightly ignores the fact that style is one of the key indicators for the age of building. Most people could date a Neo-Gothic train station, Art Deco cinema or Brutalist tower block but might struggle with a building with a classical pediment as these have been popular at different periods. Historical buildings can be valued for the extent to which they represent the historical period in which they were built, more than any intrinsic value. 

Terry has designed buildings for a range of purposes, although his true metier is designing private houses for Thatcherite Oligarchs. He designed for Lord Heseltine, the most delicate summer house. Terry is definitely a High Tory who sympathises with this stratum of society, identifying them with the old aristocracy for whom Colen Campbell designed their country houses. Although inspired by these earlier buildings, and working in the same historical tradition, Terry’s buildings are not designed to obscure their own modernity. 

He designed a column in 1976 for West Green House in Hampshire which states in honest thief’s Latin “This monument was erected at great expense which would sooner or later have been taken away by the tax-collectors”. 

The joke hasn’t weathered as well as the column. 

The best place to appreciate Terry’s style is on Regents Canal, as it gently sweeps past the North West corner of Regents Park on its way towards Little Venice. 

“Put on Nash’s shoes and go on walking”, he was told by the Crown Estate when he was commissioned to design buildings for a narrow site overlooking the canal. John Nash had designed it so that the canal would be hidden from the park. In his day it was an important but dirty industrial transportation route from the east end of London. Today, the canals are popular as green swathes cutting through the city. 

Terry’s six buildings, playing with different versions of ‘Classicism’ also reference John Nash’s eclectic style. One building is the most perfect Strawberry Hill Gothick, playing with the criticism of such buildings that they are “a classical plan with Gothic treatment”. Whilst the Corinthian Villa vaunts in its columns inspired by Borromini’s example and based on the Temple of Clitumnus as reported in Palladio. 

Although in central London, the buildings feel like country houses. The public park becomes an English country estate, albeit one with hyenas and giraffes. The captive animals of London Zoo are also visible from the canal.

A dream-like space. This is perhaps the closest to heaven, you can experience in central London, and the best place to appreciate Terry’s perfect and cosmic vision.