House-proud and playful
By Ruth Slavid
Housing and play are the two specialisms of Noel Farrer, the Landscape Institute’s energetic next president.
The Landscape Institutes next president, Noel Farrer, is a man of extraordinary energy. He runs a practice, Farrer Huxley, in which, despite the name, he is now the sole principal and which has recently won two fantastic jobs in competition. He has just moved offices.
He works in London but has his home in the Lake District. Last year he was made a fellow of the LI, he has been vice-president at the Institute, he was formerly a CABE commissioner and he has a regular column in Horticulture Week. It sounds exhausting and yet he is willing, and eager, to do more by taking on the presidency to which he will dedicate three days a week.
Sue Illman is a hard act to follow but Farrer, while as hard working and as keen to communicate and to build profile for the Institute, has very different interests. Illman’s main focus has been on the technical and topical issue of water – a message that she will continue to promote – but for Farrer the vital issue is a different part of the sustainability message. ‘There are three aspects to sustainability,’ he says, ‘environmental, economic and social – that third one is my baby.’
He brings to the role wide-ranging experience, particularly in the fields of housing and play, so that it is apposite that the two recent wins for his practice were the rethinking of Coram’s Fields, a children’s dedicated space in the heart of London, and the Maritime Streets competition for a depressed housing area in Barrow in Furness.
Farrer has an impressive professional pedigree, having worked in the public sector, as a private practitioner on public-sector projects and, more recently, as opportunities for that kind of work shrank, in the private sector. But what kind of person is he? What kind of a landscape architect?
I can describe this best by relating my first meeting with him, when he got in touch a few years ago during the London Festival of Architecture and invited me on an evening tour of the Peabody Estate in Victoria where he had designed improvements to the public realm. That reaching out to somebody unknown is sadly uncommon among landscape architects. The tour was fascinating not so much for the design ideas as for the aspects of his work that most pleased Farrer. Of course he showed off the seating and the giant sculptural fruit in the new public realm, but he was much more pleased by the fact that the atmosphere had changed so much that parents now felt they could leave their prams downstairs safely, that there were casual meetings by the bin store and that some of the residents had colonised areas of the scheme with their own planting, even creating a mini allotment in front of an electric transformer box. It wasn’t what Farrer had intended but he was delighted that it had happened. Good landscape design is vitally important to Farrer, but in the service of people rather than as an end in itself.
After our meeting I wrote a feature but I haven’t referred to it in order to write this piece. I remembered it, I remembered his messages, and when I met him again a couple of years later at an LI reception, I remembered him and he remembered me. Noel Farrer is a people person, he wants to communicate and, fortunately for the Landscape Institute, he wants to communicate on its behalf. ‘I want to get people to realise that investing in landscape will deliver value for money beyond their wildest dreams,’ he said.
He is keen to engage in the political process. ‘I am interested in the political agenda,’ he said. ‘I do want to influence government.’ And not all of this would be behind the scenes. ‘I would like to be on the Today programme every three months,’ he said. Housing, he believes, is a good basis on which to talk about landscape. ‘If you talk about landscape and housing,’ he says, ‘you are talking about health and wellbeing, about human conditions. That is very translatable to all other areas.’
So where does this boundless energy and work ethic come from? It doesn’t seem to be inherited. ‘I am the first member of my family to have worked for six generations, ’ Farrer said, adding rather quaintly that he grew up as one of the ‘landed gentry’ in the Lake District. He was a second son and the money was running out so, the first in his family to do so, it was time to get an education.
It was the 1980s and ‘I rebelled’ he said, studying landscape architecture at Manchester Polytechnic (now Manchester Metropolitan University) and living in a squat. The course, which recently closed, was, he believes, one of the best in the country, and students in his year and the year above included Jason Prior, Peter Neal and ‘a lot of other very successful landscape architects’.
A year out with what was then British Rail ‘made a great impression’. After his diploma, Farrer joined the parks department of Haringey Council in London ‘where I started to develop a public-sector ethos and values. The real role of landscape is to improve people’s quality of life, particularly people more unfortunate than oneself. What interests me is the public domain that is available for public use.’ He decries the growing demonization and isolation of the poor and the lack of investment in the areas where many live as ‘the last acceptable discrimination’.
Both in Haringey and subsequently in Islington, Farrer worked in some of the most deprived housing estates. He learnt that the first requirement was to make people feel safe and that if that required the erection of a huge security fence for a time then so be it. Once the area became safer, the fence could come down and other improvements could begin.
Feeling safe and feeling valued makes people feel better and behave better, Farrer believes. He points to a wall at the back of the small park facing his office. It was previously covered in graffiti but was then painted white. Some people might have thought this was mad, but the result has been – no graffiti.
‘I want to articulate the relationship between landscape and people,’ Farrer says, ‘so that we can all start to recognise its importance.’ He believes that the profession’s work should have an impact on every scale, not just at the local level but in what he describes as ‘the big moves’. When growing up in the Lake District he was as enchanted by the views of distant power stations as of the fells and fields. ‘Landscape shouldn’t all be about mitigation and hiding.’
Some of the changes Farrer would like to see are unlikely to happen during a two-year presidency. For instance he thinks it would raise the prestige of landscape architecture in the UK, and therefore the amount the profession was listened to, if there were courses in the subject at the Russell Group universities. It would be the equivalent of the landscape programmes at Harvard and – cause or effect? – landscape architecture has a much higher profile in the US. Achieving this might be hard, but it is a great aspiration to have.
So, if Farrer doesn’t manage everything that he hopes for in two years as president, he may still do a lot more than many would think possible. He understands what it is like to run a practice in good times and bad, and he knows about making places better for people. He believes passionately in the value of landscape and wants to tell everybody about it – the public, the profession, the politicians. How could they fail to listen to such a persuasive advocate?