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hyett's high noon

PEOPLE: Paul Hyett took an unorthodox route into architecture. Last Sunday, armed with a raft of ambitious plans, he became president of the RIBA. At once belligerent, boastful, modest, erudite and blunt, just what makes him tick?

In 1971 Paul Hyett left the merchant navy and hitched out of Southampton; picked up by two nuns, he was offered a room in a convent where a vow of silence was strictly maintained. Hyett stayed for three days, and he has not stopped talking since.

Hyett will talk candidly about almost anything, lurching easily between biography and politics, between aesthetics and the realities of running a practice. His speech will also be peppered with book recommendations and casual references to Cedric and Willy.

'I'm the only person who can call Will Alsop 'Willy' and get away with it, ' he says, recalling his years at the AA.

Hyett is either a liar or, not yet 50, he has indeed lived a fascinating life: he sports a ring worn by his uncle on a finger shot off in the war; he ran away to sea at the age of 17;

and he once counted Harry Philby (son of Kim) as a friend. And although a graduate of the AA and the holder of an MPhil from the Bartlett, Hyett left school with two poor A levels and was thrown out of Canterbury School of Architecture after his first year.

Even his entry to Canterbury was unorthodox: having missed the deadline for applications, he simply turned up and showed the admissions tutor a clutch of sketches he had knocked out during his 18month stint as a junior officer cruising with the British India Shipping Company. But the following summer, his solution to a design brief for a hall of residence was less well received. Instead of a new building, he argued, students should be dispersed in B&B accommodation - furthermore, tutors should make the effort to visit the students, negating the need for the university buildings which should be torn down.

'What's the point in a new building when you don't need one?' the precocious Hyett asked his tutors, who recommended he try the AA instead.

Taught by Peter Cook, David Shalev and Cedric Price (with whom he still maintains a close friendship), it was at the AA that Hyett began to formulate a personal philosophy founded upon both socialism and the profit motive. Raised with the benefits of the welfare state, Hyett began practising architecture early, employing two people in his final year and billing an astonishing £26,000.

After a spell with Alan Baxter Associates, Hyett set up his own practice in 1979 which, after various incarnations, this year merged with the Ryder Company to form an outfit employing 65 people and turning over £4 million annually. In spite of this, Hyett strives to retain left-leaning principles: 'I don't like consumerism. Socialism failed for one reason alone: we, as a society, are not sophisticated enough. We can operate only the crude instrument of the market.'

Hyett may be a socialist, but he is also blisteringly realistic. One of the central planks of his two-year term in office at the RIBA is to engage the profession more readily with the financial regime that New Labour is working so hard to promote - and that includes the much-derided private finance initiative. The full-blooded scorn he pours over architects who 'bury their heads in the concrete' and refuse to work with PFI, partnering, and design and build is too vitriolic to report in full here, but this is a drum that Hyett will continue to bang.

'Architects have to look to where the work is coming from and ask the questions, who's got the money? Who's got the power?

These procurement methods are here to stay, it's just a matter of making them work in the interests of architects and the community. Let's refine it, let's go forward, because there ain't no going back, ' he says.

One idea is to establish a quota system to give small firms a fair crack of the whip - if a contract goes out for 20 schools, for example, seven should go to local practices.

On the other hand, Hyett also swears he will try to bring a more inclusive approach to the RIBA. The chairman of a largish, commercial practice, Hyett argues that the institute has focused too heavily on either signature architects or small firms. Likewise, he also aims to build better links with the regions (especially north of the border) - something that might come easily to someone with an office in Newcastle and who is happy to travel rather than sleep.

Staff at Ryder are expecting Hyett to be absent three days a week, but they will be lucky to see him at all with the programme he has carved out for himself. Although he insists Marco Goldschmied has been a 'great president', Hyett has a list of priorities which covers more than three pages of A4. These include the reform of the planning system, refocusing education along more vocational lines, tackling the 'excessive' powers of English Heritage (AJ 28.6.01) and building closer relationships with international bodies and the likes of the ARB and CABE.

Ambitious stuff, then. But already Hyett is anticipating bruising encounters with the council: 'If I try and move things along fast, people will say I'm being undemocratic; on the other hand, if I set up 17 working parties, then others will say nothing is happening and that my presidency is moribund. God, do I sympathise with Blair, Hague and Kennedy. I sympathise with them all.'

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