It is not because he receives few commissions that Quinlan Terry should be included among the architects we call underrated — quite the reverse is the case. It is because his work, in common with that of traditional architects, receives little attention from the architectural press, which for the most part reports only Modernist work. Now aged 71 and at work on numerous commissions, his classically inspired work in Britain and the US has included a cathedral, an infirmary, interiors at 10 Downing Street, a library and college court at Cambridge, residential and office buildings, and many country houses and villas. It might be supposed that such an architect would by now have received at least some slight formal recognition for his contribution to the public good. Perhaps it might be too much to expect that he would receive a peerage (never mind the Order of Merit), like those purveyors of heart-warming glass and steel towers, Lord Rogers and Lord Foster. But to have no public recognition at all is hard to understand.
Terry’s Richmond Riverside is a huge development, which nonetheless harmonises with local Georgian buildings in both style and scale, proving that you can build in an historic town without wrecking it. As a result of this project, he was invited to build Merchants Square in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, near the College of William and Mary attributed to Sir Christopher Wren, one of the most revered places of American history. Remarkably, he was also called upon to build in the immediate proximity to Wren in London, though this time in the face of opposition, allegedly, from the leading British Modernist architect Lord Rogers. The commission was for a large new infirmary at the Royal Hospital at Chelsea, next to Wren’s celebrated buildings of the 1680s. Terry’s infirmary features a Tuscan portico, the simplest of the classical orders, chosen in deference to Wren’s grander Doric on the main hospital building.
The infirmary is now nearing completion, while two of Terry’s very different projects are still rising: offices at 264-67 Tottenham Court Road, London, and Queen Mother Square at Poundbury, Dorset, for the Duchy of Cornwall. The former shows that a deeply modelled façade, articulated with classical orders and with huge windows divided by traditional glazing bars, can escape the chill character of the typical glass office block. The latter, his three-sided Queen Mother Square with its sheltering arcades of Tuscan columns and high tower, is a residential and commercial development on a monumental scale, providing a social urban focus that will help turn Poundbury from a large village into a small town.
One of Terry’s many other positive achievements is the employment he has brought to a vast range of builders, craftsmen, carvers, modellers and painters, working in different types of stone and statuary marble, as well as brick, wood, plaster, lead, copper, and metalwork in bronze and iron. He has also revived different treatments of brick — rubbed, gauged, stained and tuck-pointed — and is unusual among current architects for the trouble he takes with what we might call floorscapes, whether in parquet or marble. His ingenious patterns of lozenges in contrasting colours are inspired by the floors — not usually mentioned in guide books — of Venetian churches designed by Palladio and Longhena.
As a student at the Architectural Association in the late 1950s, Terry was told he would fail if he continued to submit any more classical designs. Things are not much different in schools of architecture today, where the establishment still follows the dictates of Adolf Loos, who argued in Ornament and Crime (1908) not only that “lack of ornament is a sign of spiritual strength”, but that it also accounts for the quality of Beethoven’s music, which would never have been written “by a man who was obliged to go about in silk, velvet and lace”. This is surely an absurd view.
Terry’s solid but beautifully detailed buildings provide solutions to the environmental problems that increasingly preoccupy the modern world. He claims that long-lasting buildings constructed in locally sourced, traditional materials are more sustainable than those built from steel, the forging of which uses enormous amounts of energy, and glass, which is joined with plastic seals that last no longer than five years. The purpose of architecture, he believes, is to build a beautiful building, which will last for hundreds of years and everyone enjoys. The problem today is that architects build thin walls with thin materials that cost the earth in carbon emissions. Moreover, the buildings don’t last; they have to come down after 40 years and their materials are not generally recyclable. Steel frames and cladding are what cause the need for air-conditioning, whereas in the case of masonry construction, “you can live with it when the oil runs out”, says Terry. His conclusion is that “a skyscraper is an environmental nightmare”. It is almost impossible to overrate the importance of Terry’s opinions and of the buildings in which he demonstrates their truth.