“Get involved, agitate, and demand better”: Newcastle Uni’s new Farrell Centre for Architecture and Cities

Maud Webster interviews Owen Hopkins, the director for Newcastle University's new Farrell Centre for Architecture and Cities.

Maud Webster
10th August 2021
Farrell Centre, Newcastle, UK. Artist’s impression. Credit: SPACE / Newcastle University

Plans have been released for the Farrell Centre, a new on-campus multipurpose exhibition and events space dedicated to addressing the big questions facing architecture and urbanism in the coming decades. It will be named after Sir Terry Farrell, who studied at Newcastle in the fifties before embarking on a successful career as an architect and planner, and has worked on local projects including The Centre for Life, the Hancock Museum and Newcastle’s Quayside development. 

The centre will house a gallery, exhibition and events space designed to flexibly accommodate a wide, interdisciplinary programme of events, exhibitions and discussions. The “new type of public institution” will also offer subsidised studio spaces for start-ups working in the built environment, on the building’s top floor, and will open at the start of the 22/23 academic year.

Farrell Centre, Newcastle, UK. Artist’s impression. Credit: SPACE / Newcastle University

Owen Hopkins, who was appointed director of the Farrell Centre back in 2019, envisions a strong relationship between the university, its students and the Centre:

We hope, at the very least, students will be a core part of our audience. 

But we also hope that students will be able to contribute to the programme as well, which can work in a number of ways. I've run a couple of different research projects for master's students who are basically undertaking a research project, which contributes in some way to the Centre. The first one was about the Urban Room itself. The second one is about a project that may eventually become an exhibition. 

So there's opportunities there, there's also opportunities for working directly with some of the [School of Architecture’s design] studios. So maybe down the line, once we're up and running, some of the studio subjects could have an output at the Farrell Centre in mind, whether that's work being made for an exhibition, or whether the exhibition itself is the work. 

If students want to go on and do something, and it fits with our overall ambitions, then that's great. We can offer curatorial and organisational expertise and experience to help shape and guide as much or as little as is necessary or useful.

Farrell Centre, Newcastle, UK. Artist’s impression. Credit: SPACE / Newcastle University

The centre also hopes to be a way to help retain graduating architecture students in Newcastle. Hopkins intends for the careers service to be linked to the studio space for start-ups available on the top floor of the Farrell Centre, and wants to use the space as a way to say “actually you can start a practice in Newcastle and there's plenty of work so that some of the opportunities that you'll get in a city of this size are far bigger than you might get in the City of London.” 

The Farrell Centre focuses on the concept of the ‘Urban Room’, recommended by Terry Farrell in the 2014 Farrell Review as a space for a city's citizens to come and engage in debates about architecture and planning, and have a say in their city’s future. This will serve as a place for more democratic and accessible discussion around the big questions facing architecture, planning and cities in the coming decades. As Hopkins says:

What the Farrell Centre can do is to connect the public - not just a segment of the public, but everyone, is our aspiration - with these debates, because for them to be meaningful, they need to have the voices of the community. Otherwise, it's just debates and discussions that are sort of self referential.

There’s this interesting activist, sort of bottom up aspect to it, of engaging the public, connecting them with what can seem distant, remote, inaccessible language of Architecture and Planning, and through that hopefully agitating for positive change.

The goal of the Farrell Centre is to engage people with architecture in cities, to empower them to get involved and agitate and demand better.

These urban questions, which the Farrell Centre hopes to host activities to facilitate discussion about, include thinking about what cities should do with post-retail spaces. 

You read every day, the stats of something like one in seven units on high streets are currently unoccupied. I mean, it's kind of staggering. And it's hard to think what's going to fill those spaces and particularly for a city like Newcastle, which has historically been an industrial city, but has also been a shopping city. And yes, it still has Fenwick, one of the small, still surviving small chains of department stores, there's still a big John Lewis. And there's now a massive, gaping hole where Debenhams was. And what's going to fill that building?

Hopkins is also interested in the future of the central motorway, a very useful piece of city infrastructure, but also one which is widely considered by most urbanists as disastrous. This urban issue is something which, as he puts it, “the type of thing that afflicts many cities, across Britain and indeed across, certainly the US, and much of the Western world because this was a sort of playbook of urban renewal in the 1960s.”

This nods to another one of the centre’s aims, which is to encourage collaboration and connection between Newcastle and other cities, to help address urban issues on a wider, more impactful scale. 

Sir Terry Farrell commented on the centre to the university:

The Farrell Centre will realise my combined visions for an urban room for Newcastle alongside a vibrant and multi-dimensional hub in which architecture/planning professionals can grow new businesses and interact with the public in a dedicated space that champions conversation and the exchange of ideas and creativity. I can think of no greater honour than to have this building in my name.


You can find more details about the new Farrell Centre, opening on campus towards the end of 2022, on their website, or keep up to date by signing up to the newsletter.

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AUTHOR: Maud Webster
she/they | third year architecture & urban planning student @ newcastle | co-head of culture for the 21/21 academic year

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