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Large-scale institutional benevolence with a touch of humanity

In his bookThe Birth of the Modern Paul Johnson vividly describes the tremendous surge of energy that fuelled the enormous changes to both the physical and the social structure and organisation of our society in the early Victorian era. There was extraordinary progress in this period, which saw the formation of our first schools of architecture, and indeed the RIBA.

The Architects' Benevolent Society (ABS), which celebrated its 150th year last week with a concert and dinner in the splendour of the Banqueting House in Whitehall, was also set up in that time.

Sadly, its work is undervalued by our profession. But what clearly distinguishes this organisation from similar institutions is its humanity. It seems to have been able to maintain a non-institutionalized touch, working quickly and effectively on behalf of those in need in surprisingly varied ways.

As well as managing its own retirement homes the ABS also provides practical, often very simple help in all sorts of situations. For example, one 76-year-old architect was given an electric buggy at a cost of some £2,500. He now enjoys a level of mobility hitherto impossible.

Regularly giving a couple of thousand pounds for redecorating someone's home, paying for urgent repairs, or even supplying a new carpet, the ABS seems to operate with a sensible minimum of bureaucratic red tape.

Of course it takes care to check that real need exists but it is willing to be extremely flexible in the kind of help it gives: paying or supplementing rent; paying TV licences; and arranging a holiday or organising a period in respite care to relieve a family helper. It is sensible human caring action effected in a non-institutionalized way, but on a very large scale.

The ABS also keeps in touch. One architect who received help was surprised that someone from the head office near the RIBA in Portland Place continued to visit every six months, telephoned often and even sent personal letters during his time of need - just to see how he was and stay in touch. The crisis in his life over, he has since been able to return to work and has established a new career as an urban designer.

One out of every 20 architects will, at some point, call on help from the ABS - usually because of the loss of a wife, husband or partner, a long-term physical or mental illness, shortfalls in fees for nursing homes, financial need in retirement, or temporary incapacity through illness or accident.

What is sad, however, is that the architectural profession, which is in many ways so generous, does not manage to give more to the ABS, whose continued work is heavily dependent on donations and legacies. These rarely exceed £200,000 per annum: an average of only £6. 66 per UK architect per year!

Despite this, and through the careful investment of past gifts and the sale of the ABS insurance agency in 1988, the society is able to give about £1 million a year to needy cases.

RIBA branches provide additional help through a countrywide network of support by nominated representatives who assist in local liaison work.

But the efforts of the society are expanding, under the leadership of John Lane, to meet ever growing needs. There are plans for major renovations to existing nursing homes as well as the construction of further accommodation.

So, think of the ABS which provides invaluable help for architects, technicians, and their dependants at many stages of their lives. You can contact it on 020 7580 2823 if you want to arrange a covenant, single gift or legacy. Among the biggest bequests received this year was one from past RIBA president Sir Alex Gordon, who generously left the ABS £320,000 from his estate.

As someone who suffered blindness at the end of his life, Sir Alex would marvel that the ABS was recently able to install a voice scanner which reads books and correspondence automatically for a couple who had both lost their sight following retirement. The ABS even taught them to use the machine which has, of course, transformed their lives!

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