Shining a public light on the built and natural environment

The Farrell Centre in Newcastle, UK, aims to provide a platform for debating the future of architecture, planning and the built and natural environment that gives everyone a voice.

New centre for architecture and the built environment opens in Newcastle in the UK with a pledge to give the public a voice on building a more sustainable world.

It’s often said that the public should have a greater say in the way that cities and the built environment are planned and delivered. Well, a new centre has just opened in Newcastle in the UK that aims to do just that. The Farrell Centre’s mission is to widen the debate around the crucial roles that architecture and planning play in the contemporary world in ways that are innovative, engaging and challenging.

Instigated by renowned architect-planner Sir Terry Farrell, the Farrell Centre, which opened to the public on 22 April 2023, was inspired by an original recommendation in The Farrell Review, a report commissioned by the UK government into the UK’s built environment published in 2014, that every city should have an ‘urban room’ where local people can go to learn about the past, present and future of where they live.

The centre’s mission will extend further, exploring local, national and global issues at a critical time when the world faces the seismic challenges of the climate emergency and an urgent need to make cities more democratic, sustainable and inclusive.

That tone of sustainability and inclusivity was very much in evidence when I visited the centre this week prior to its public opening. Gazing out onto Newcastle city centre from the centre’s large windows, Farrell Centre director Owen Hopkins told me that the centre’s role was very much to widen the debate around the crucial roles that architecture, planning and the built environment play in today’s changing world.

“The centre is about being open and communal,” he said. “How can architecture and planning become more sustainable, immersive, inclusive and more democratic? This is a key question we’ll be looking to discuss in everything we do here,” Hopkins tells me. In those discussions and debates, Hopkins says that ensuring that everyone has a voice will be central.

Farrell Centre director Owen Hopkins speaking to journalists at a media visit to the centre.

The Farrell Centre building project has been designed by local architects Space Architects and Elliott Architects in close collaboration with centre director, Hopkins. The centre, which forms part of Newcastle University’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, also reflects the university’s mission to reach net zero CO2 emissions by 2030, with the building project aiming to be an exemplar of how historic buildings can be sensitively transformed while dramatically improving their energy performance.

Walking round the centre, you can’t fail to be inspired by the impact that the built environment has on our everyday lives and also the need for that impact to be sustainable. The inaugural exhibition, More with Less: Reimagining Architecture for a Changing World, offers a new vision for architecture in the face of climate emergency, showcasing innovative installations by four UK-based architects.

The installations are truly fascinating, highlighting variously the hidden but major role of insulation materials in making new and existing buildings more energy efficient, society’s relationship to nature and architecture’s role in mediating it, how we need to learn to love ‘uncomfortable’ architecture and The Living Room, a soft, cosy, snug internal space with thick sculpted walls, grown from organic, locally available waste materials and microbial processes to radically reduce the environmental impact of construction.

The architects McCloy + Muchemwa’s installation at The Farrell Centre, entitled A Place at the Table.

I was particularly struck by architects McCloy + Muchemwa’s presentation in the exhibition, A place at the table. The installation has a dramatic swathe of landscape emerge from a boardroom table around which visitors are invited to sit and converse. By literally giving nature a place at the table, the installation encourages people to see architecture and nature as part of the same world as we all inhabit, so that we can all do something to safeguard it for future generations.

Elsewhere at the centre, situated on the second floor, the Urban Rooms comprise three multi-use spaces where local people can engage with the past, present and future of where they live. Exhibits and installations, designed by architecture and ideas studio CAN, explore aspects of Tyneside’s built environment and provide a backdrop to the Urban Room’s programmes of public talks, seminars, meetings and roundtables, as well as workshops for schools, families and young people

Every city should have a place like The Farrell Centre. It would certainly go a long way to raising the profile of the built and natural environment and the positive impact it can and should have on people’s lives. As the centre’s director Owen Hopkins says: “In a world defined by profound environmental, social and technological rupture and transformation, the potential of architecture and planning to create a more inclusive, democratic and sustainable world has never been more important.”

Admission to The Farrell Centre is free and offers a variety of experiences for visitors of all ages, including exhibitions, public talks and debates, activities for schools, young people, community groups, events for built environment professionals, as well as publications, podcasts and other digital projects.

Click here to find out more about The Farrell Centre.