Thirty years ago, contemplating his thesis subject (leisure architecture) at Manchester University, Charles Knevitt had the bright idea of seeking sponsorship. Money flowed from companies including Ladbrokes, Rank Leisure Services and the Playboy Club; a career involving architecture, writing and sponsorship had begun.
Knevitt has just taken over as director of the RIBA Trust, the cultural arm of the institute that is responsible, among other things, for the Library and Drawings Collection, events, awards and exhibitions. Chaired by former culture minister Tessa Blackstone, the trust marks, arguably, the most significant change to the structure of the institute since it was created in 1834. The clear separation of membership and sectoral interests from its public face is a radical reversion to the origins of the RIBA, which under its charter is charged with promoting 'civil architecture', not architects. And while his line manager is institute chief Richard Hastilow, Knevitt's responsibilities as director are to the trustees of the new body.
The new director is excited at the prospect of leading what should be the profession's biggest outreach programme in living memory, which will be marked by the opening of the architecture gallery (by architect Gareth Hoskins) at the V&A Museum, the new home for the Drawings Collection, in November.
'Architecture for All' is the umbrella name for the trust's programmes and one Knevitt heartily supports: 'It's all about making architecture more accessible to all sorts of people, and that should help establish our funding priorities. It has to be about outreach.' With a successful media career behind him (architecture correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph and The Times, architecture and planning correspondent for Thames Television in the 1980s), Knevitt has also been author/editor of numerous books, ranging from cartoons about the Prince of Wales to the Channel 4 publication Space on Earth, which accompanied a successful television series on buildings and the environment. As a player in the explosion of interest in 'community architecture', a phrase coined by him in a magazine profile about former RIBA president Rod Hackney, Knevitt was also a founder of the Community Enterprise Awards, sponsored by The Times for some years.
The emphasis on communities across the country is something he wants to re-establish. 'I'm very keen on the regions. I've spent much of my life in different cities, and we have a huge number of architectural ambassadors out there; a fantastic resource. I will be going to the cities to see what the appetite is for involvement, and to listen to what people think the trust should be doing. I think I know how regions tend to view the centre.' The role of universities and their schools of architecture could be brought into play, he feels, especially given the huge sums of money being invested in their capital programmes. This is something Knevitt knows a lot about, since for the last seven years he has been working as a professional fund-raiser, bringing in (by his estimate) about £10 million to various universities, most notably Liverpool, but most recently Manchester, where he has been involved in the combining of Manchester University and UMIST into one institution ('Project Unity'), making it a major player on the university world stage.
His role at the RIBA Trust is not as a fund-raiser, though he expects to review the way this task is currently approached, given the expertise he has acquired. Curiously, his involvement in the world of fund-raising began after his media/marketing company ran into trouble in organising an exhibition (with the support of the Prince of Wales) about the Hungarian 'organic' architect Imre Makovecz. Everything went well except the fund-raising, which was being handled by a separate group of people. They failed dismally. Knevitt's firm was left holding the financial baby, and that marked the end of his involvement in architecture - until now.
'It does feel like coming home, ' he says.
'I never imagined I would be working for the RIBA, but the new trust gives an opportunity to make a real difference. I think it's probably the best job in architecture.' That view is partly based on his experience of the growing confidence of regional cities to push for better design on their patch. 'It's great to see cities in competition with each other to create really good buildings and spaces in-between. The trust's job isn't to push architects as such, but people need to use the best available advice they can get on design, especially urban design, and that can obviously involve architects in a big way.'
Knevitt likes what he sees as the 'narrowing gap between architects and planners', and thinks it would be 'difficult to imagine the Prince of Wales making the sort of speech he did in 1984? things have moved on'. He returns to the territory with an observation that design quality has greatly improved in the last six or seven years, but communication of its possibilities still leaves much to be desired. He sees opportunities in school and communication programmes to address this, and believes that some of the work carried out by the American Institute of Architects in getting a message across to the public is well worth considering.
In his first few months as director, Knevitt will partly be finding his feet, partly banging the drum for the new V&A gallery, and partly cementing alliances with like-minded organisations. He will also be a member of the RIBA holding company, which sits between council and other RIBA operating companies. In short, a tough, interesting job.
His success would benefit not just the institute, but architecture as a whole.