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people the bigger picture

The fight for the RIBA presidency is on, and candidate David Thorp is keen to bring some local colour to proceedings. He feels showing architects in the context of ordinary people is vital to the institute's development

David Thorp knows what it is like to exchange verbal crossfire, and some of it has flown to and from the massed ranks of the institute he now wants to lead. 'I've rubbed up a few people at RIBA the wrong way but I won't denigrate George Ferguson, ' he says.

The election has confrontation daubed all over it, nevertheless. Of course, lots can happen between the deadline for nominations in late February and June's outcome. But, by Thorp's own admission, it is being seen as a scrap between factions: the anti-London lobby verses Thorp's anti-bigpractice gang.

Thorp is unhappy about this. 'It seems to suggest the election will have a strong 'anti' theme and this helps neither of our bids.'

That said, the two negatives could positively swing that vital constituency of small practices his way, even if he does not see himself in such single-issue terms.

Brian Godfrey, another 'small-isbeautiful' candidate, has already quit the hustings and this can do no harm to the lone wolf from Moseley scurrying to lead the pack. But Thorp, aged 42, is at pains to point out the wider picture of his campaign.

'People see mine as a small-scale, smalltown and small-minded approach. I don't mind being seen as a replacement on the little-practice ticket. But I don't want to be seen as only appealing to those so hard up they work for bales of hay.

'You can be small but big-minded, and successful in your own way, even if it isn't necessarily financial.' Take Paul Hyett, whose RIBA throne he covets and whose rumoured plot to scupper Godfrey was an exquisite reminder of the election rancour festering in Portland Place (AJ 1.11.01).

Hyett's triumphant path was also pitted with controversy. 'At the time, people said he was on the big-practice ticket. Now they say maybe I'm trying to push things the other way, but that's nonsense. If George Ferguson, myself and Paul Hyett had to decorate a room for a RIBA event, I'm sure we would roll up our sleeves and get on with it. Hyett has been a really good president, and everyone I've spoken to says the same thing: he puts others before himself and hasn't a shred of vanity.'

The trio would no doubt crack open a sixpack, only Thorp is a Muslim convert and may forgo the beer for a night in with his wife and two teenage children. However, what goes on in that RIBA room is the thrust of Thorp's election bid.

'I've had a fairly turbulent time with RIBA. From a local level it seems remote and elitist. I have been to so many local meetings in dowdy, dust-filled rooms where big names have been invited to talk about their practices. Inevitably they go on about philosophy and how wonderful things have been for them.

'A lot of people sit there in grey Macs saying, 'I wish life had been like that for me'.

Can they entirely relate to airports in the Far East, which are exciting but too remote from the people and politics of mainstream British design? I want rather less of that and something more intimate that does us all some good, regardless of practice size.'

Thorp refuses to nominate his worst past president, but Rod Hackney was the best for just these kind of reasons, he says. 'He had a personal touch and an intimacy that allowed him to capture the imagination of architects across the country. We need more local colour and must show architects in the context of ordinary people.'

He is already zeroing in on some of 'RIBA's more quirky pursuits' and attacks on continuing professional development and the Clients Advisory Service have baited barbed words out of RIBA. 'Staff have had a pop at me on occasions because I've been critical. But if something doesn't work terribly well, it must be fixed.'

CPD is a lavish marketing platform for building-product firms, says Thorp, who believes the providers' network racks up £500,000 for the RIBA. Very little filters down to serve the members, he says, pointing to regions which slum it with a telephone answering machine, Yellow Pages and quarter-page ads.

The Clients' Advisory Service, on the other hand, could do with marketing the CPD way. For starters, Thorp wants to see adverts in the national dailies. He gives 'grudging' praise to former president Marco Goldschmied for Channel 4's tie-up with the Stirling Prize, 'though I don't like the backslapping element'.

Again the RIBA let the show down. 'Why on earth spend £120,000 to buy the name architecture. com and not flag it up in the top left-hand corner of the TV? As things now stand, you go to CAS meetings, read out the job leads and find three people have phoned up about roof extensions.'

Goldschmied is a painful reminder of Thorp's first tilt at the presidency. Marco won and Thorp's problem then and now is securing nominations.He needs 60 to get off the ground and feels 'people like me have to jump through hoops'. He cannot use Ribanet because of bureaucracy, he says, and architects who would sign nominations at events often do not have their membership numbers to hand.

Thorp, who trained at the University of Wales in 1987, spent 15 years at West Midlands County Council and Birmingham City Council before going it alone. He is keen on self-build and recently launched www. modelintentions. co. uk to highlight the potential of architectural models.

Such initiatives are tentative examples of what networking can mean, says Thorp, who is amassing a client database. 'This kind of networking would keep all architects in the spotlight and that's what I'm about - if given the chance.'

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