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PRINGLE SWEEPS IN AT RIBA

AGENDA

There has been a debate going on within the RIBA for as long as most people can remember.

It is one that gets a surprisingly large number of members pretty het up.

Under discussion is the question of whether the venerable old institution should throw off the shackles of a charter that demands it primarily represents the interests of architecture, and morph into a trade union that will fight for the interests of architects.

The friction between the camps has been a running sore, especially when figures who clearly revel in being the face of architecture - perhaps best illustrated by Maxwell Hutchinson - are at the helm.

Conversely, these ambassadorial figures become frustrated and bored by the minutiae of the other end of the spectrum.

While it would perhaps be wrong to caricature either outgoing president George Ferguson purely in the Hutchinson camp and incoming boss Jack Pringle as a hardcore union-ista, both can be associated with moderate versions of these philosophies. Which is why this week, with Pringle finally taking over the chain of office, will be interesting.

Both have undoubtedly been keen to be seen to be singing from the same songsheet in the past year, to make sure that the transition is smooth and that Ferguson takes plenty of credit for his two-year stint as the man with the big office in Portland Place.

But one look at Pringle's plans for his presidency makes it clear that this could be a pretty spectacular departure for the organisation. His agenda can be summed up neatly. It is to put architects back in a position of authority in the construction process and to increase the standing and remuneration of them when doing so.

While he undoubtedly considers promoting the importance of architecture to Joe Public a worthy sideline, it is the business of looking after architects and their interests that Pringle considers his chief role.

PFI, ARB and education are the three strands of this policy. Reform the Private Finance Initiative, smash the ARB's power base and reform education so that its system is responding to the needs of the profession.

It is fair to say that any one of these three on their own would be considered a hefty ambition for a two-year presidency, but the founding partner of Pringle Brandon argues they all link together in one logical policy. And it is hard to argue that he is wrong.

The most easily understood policy is that on PFI. On a generic level, Pringle argues that the system is almost fatally flawed unless architects, and therefore design, are placed in a far more central role in the contentious system. This is no mean ambition.

However, one feels when talking to him that he would actually want to push this forward within the construction process as a whole.

After all, no one could pretend that the role of the architect on most major schemes has not been diminished since the 1960s and '70s.

Working with government and the wider construction industry to persuade them that architects must again be seen as pivotal will be one of his key ambitions. But why the urgency? 'The government is rebuilding almost the entire built environment for the public sector, ' he told the AJ last week.

'It is a once in a lifetime opportunity. If they get this wrong then it will be a disaster.

Architects need to be at the centre and we need to put them there.' But none of this will be achievable, he maintains, unless something is done about the ARB. Despite this being possibly the most boring, and certainly the driest, subject in the politics of the architectural world, Pringle has in no way been put off taking it on.

'We have come to the conclusion that the Architecture Act must be reformed. For example, currently there is no appeal process and there is no ombudsman. Something must be done.

'At the very least we will have limited reform to the ARB by the end of my term and at the very best there will have been wholesale reform.' Education is probably the subject that is closest to Pringle's heart - he was vice-president for education for some time before deciding to run for the top job. Pringle can barely disguise that the system is in crisis. But what to do?

The key here, he says, is for big practices to step in to the breach and get involved with ensuring that the system produces the right kind of architects. They must also offer assistance for students facing the problem of debt forced on them by the government's tuition fees policy.

Help is urgently needed and it must be developed now. 'Gone are the days when practices can simply sit back and let universities provide the trained architects that they require, ' he says.

It is at this point that the ARB rears its head again. It is essential that it is removed from any remotely significant role in education. The extra layer of bureaucracy is crippling schools, Pringle claims.

One thing is certain as Pringle moves in to Portland Place; he certainly suffers no lack of ambition. If even a small amount of what he proposes can be brought in to force, we could be looking at a very different profession in just two frenetic years' time. It is clearly going to be interesting.

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