in the news
Last month's RIBA Council was made quite memorable (no, really) by one moment of pure theatre from the honorary treasurer, Colin James. During a dicussion about the assets of the institute, he showed a bar chart of all the normal numbers you'd expect - but then drew gasps from all sides of the chamber by standing to show what the library and special collections bar would look like if it was drawn to the same scale. Up he sprang and unfurled the mother of all charts, A4 sheet after A4 sheet, before hitting dazzled councillors with his piece de resistance - the collections were worth a staggering £350 million!
Not the performance of your usual, guarded money man, you might think, but by all accounts, it was fairly true to James' character, as his systematic and revolutionary rethinking of the RIBA's attitudes to its coffers is fast proving.
Born in 1941, James trained at the Welsh School of Architecture (his career must have proved interesting to his offspring - his two daughters have architecture and engineering degrees). He worked at Basil Spence's and then the GLC as a senior project architect in his late twenties before moving on to Northampton Development Corporation as a group leader. There was 'no pyramid' in the staffing structure there - each took a quarter of the town, says James, 'and did everything'. Not an approach he's found applicable to every p lace he's worked in s ince .
Then it was more local authority work at the West Midlands Metropolitan County Council, getting involved with the new Birmingham airport and the UK's largest land reclamation project. The latter scheme sparked James' interest in the whole brownfield land debate - he is to present to the All Party Parliamentary Group on the subject on 24 February. It's extremely relevant to RIBAmembers, he says, since brownfield housing development always needs an architect, as opposed to greenfield housing schemes, 80 per cent of which, he estimates, are designed without one. And it will be the smaller practices which will feel the benefits: money well spent.
James' next outpost was at Oxford County Council, which unlike the other institutions, was privatised rather than abolished. But now he's a sole practitioner specialising in providing advice to building material manufacturers. 'I get asked to do small buildings and I can tell you that they're very interesting but they don't pay, ' he says.
Indeed, he sees the man with the purse strings in any institution as being in a strong position: 'To have control you have to have your hands on the money, ' he says.