In the race for Beijing’s £300m theatre, Terry Farrell bust his budget and spent 18 months at the drawing-board. So why was he pipped at the post?
“It is not architectural models or drawings that win these things alone,” says architect Terry Farrell of the closely fought international competition to design a prestigious new theatre in Beijing. “It is the sheer investment of the nation in trying to achieve it.”

Farrell is understandably disappointed. In the past 18 months, he has made seven trips to Beijing and produced four designs for the £300m, 120 000 m2 National Grand Theatre.

He deployed all the diplomatic and financial resources at his disposal – including a Department for Trade and Industry grant – only to lose to French firm Aéroports de Paris.

“I went into this thing with my eyes open, so I can’t be resentful,” says Farrell. “The DTI and [culture minister] Chris Smith tried very hard for us within the rules of Great Britain and the way we work. And the British Embassy and Consulate tried hard for us. But we don’t market Britain architecturally, like the French do,” says Farrell.

Paul Andreu, chief architect at Aéroports de Paris, plays down the French government’s role in backing his bid: “All the embassies supported their entrants. Farrell had photos of himself with Tony Blair and letters of recommendation. Yes, the French Ministry of Culture supported our bid. But [culture minister] Mme Trautman did not act directly on the Chinese.”

Whatever their differences, the two camps are both glad it is all over. “It feels like I have just done 10 rounds,” says Farrell. “Towards the end, I was about to crack up. I was on the brink of depression,” confesses Andreu.

So how did China’s first open international architecture competition turn into such an ordeal? It would seem that Beijing’s politicians were unwilling, or unable, to make a decision, and then moved the goalposts.

Farrell says: “With China, you are grappling with a country that is just emerging on to the world stage, that is definitely willing to make powerful architectural gestures. But like a lot of people, they used the competition process to work out the brief.”

The long march for Terry Farrell & Partners and Aéroports de Paris started in April 1998 when the Chinese government launched the open design competition in a spirit of economic openness and “common cultural purpose”.

In the end, these things come down to the encounter between people

Paul Andreu, Chief Architect, Aéroports de Paris

The brief said: “We would cordially like to invite both local and overseas architects, who are concerned about the modernisation of China, who have originality of thought and rich design experience … to create the National Grand Theatre as one of the best arts palaces in the world.”

The “arts palace” would combine a new national opera house, concert hall, national theatre and mini-theatre, with a total of 6000-7000 seats and a new public park. And it had been allocated a prominent 3.89 ha site on Tiananmen Square, next to the Great Hall of the People.

Forty architects, including 16 from China, submitted 44 entries. In an unprecedented public consultation exercise, these were displayed in the Great Hall of the People in June 1998.

Farrell says of the first stage: “All the entries were boxes. Height and boundary restrictions on the site meant that’s all you could do. Ours was an open, light, ephemeral box, 250 m long, 30 m high and 150 m deep. It had a giant foyer featuring electronic screens where performances going on in the auditorium could be viewed and beamed around the world.”

An initial list of 15 was whittled down to six in September 1998 – Terry Farrell & Partners, Aéroports de Paris, HPP International, Arata Isozaki of Japan, Carlos Ott of Canada and Chinese Architectural Design Institute. All six were then given feedback on their designs and advised to refine them.

“We were told ours did not show enough respect for Chinese tradition,” says Farrell. “Tradition and modernism was a big issue. Not just East meets West but history meets modernity, Beijing’s historic centre meets steel and glass. They told us they needed more solidity, less glass.”

The six were whittled down to four. Terry Farrell & Partners, Aéroports de Paris, Carlos Ott and the Chinese Architectural Design Institute were invited to refine their designs again.

Farrell says: “At this stage, we were strongly advised that our scheme was the most favoured. We were told all we had to do was get more of a profile on to the roof. So we gave a higher roof to the foyer and enclosed the fly-tower.”

We don’t promote Britain architecturally, like the French do

Terry Farrell, Terry Farrell & Partners

In January 1999, the designs were to be presented to prime minister Zhu Rongji. Farrell believed that the practice had almost reached the apex of the bureaucratic pyramid and that a verdict was imminent.

But then it was announced that the building would no longer be situated on Tiananmen Square, but on a less prominent site 70 m behind the Great Hall of the People. “This removed the height restriction and lessened the emphasis on Chinese tradition,” said Farrell.

So, fourth-stage entries were invited for a deadline of May 1999. Aéroports de Paris took the opportunity to redesign its scheme completely. “I said, ‘I can’t just push my building around like a piece of furniture’,” says Andreu. “It would have made a nonsense of the urban design. So, I came up with a new concept.”

Farrell was stunned when he saw Aéroports de Paris’ titanium-clad dome, with its glazed entrance, ornamental lake and landscaped gardens. “I thought the process was supposed to be a refinement of the original submission. I asked ‘Is this permissible?’ and apparently it was.

“I think when it went on to a fifth stage, we were beginning to lose our momentum financially. Because the French were state-owned, they had deeper pockets than us,” says Farrell.

Farrell had spent twice as much as the Chinese compensated him for, although he reckons this was fair. “We were spending £300 000 to get £3m architects’ fees, which doesn’t make any economic sense. It is the prestige of the thing.”

Andreu admits that Aéroports de Paris spent considerably more, but adds: “Our budget is not unlimited. We have as assiduous accountants as any private firm. In the end, these things come down to the encounter between people.”

Andreu acknowledges that his experience of designing the brand-new terminal at Shanghai Airport and a proposed new multisports complex in Canton helped him interpret the government’s brief for the National Grand Theatre. “By working with them, you understand what they mean – it gets easier to interpret what they want.”

Meanwhile, all is not lost for Terry Farrell & Partners – the practice is currently shortlisted with Carlos Ott to design a huge civic centre in the booming Guangzhou province.