Taking stock as Rock starts RIBA presidency last lap
'I like a reputation as a fighting president - I have nothing to lose,' says David Rock, now approaching the last phase of his two-year riba presidency (his successor will take over next July). It is certainly possible to view the course of any presidency as a series of alliances and skirmishes, occasionally out-and-out war, with the individuals and organisations which make up the institutional world within which Portland Place sits. Rock is part of this world and has been since becoming a member of council 30 years ago, but he can put it in perspective, as he used to in his anonymous satirical council reports which enlivened the riba Journal's coverage of institute affairs. Groomed for the presidency as Rod Hackney's right- hand man ten years ago, he walked away, disillusioned by what he now calls the 'poisonous atmosphere and undercover political moves', and by the demands of his old practice, Rock Townsend.
So has he enjoyed the presidential role, having come to it after retiring from full-time practice? ''Enjoy' isn't the word I'd use,' he says, 'but I feel I'm getting something done, more than I'd expected. I have a feeling that things are easier to change now - I feel useful. There is a benefit of having people as president at the end of their professional career - it means you are much freer to say what you think.' He thinks at length about the future of the profession, but inevitably much of the presidency is taken up with day-to-day events. Rock reckons to spend the equivalent of four-and-a-half days per week on riba matters, and devotes a further two days to the Arts Council, where he runs the architectural group advising on Lottery funding. Certainly his willingness to give time sitting on competition juries and his presence at Portland Place events is well known; he insisted on being present, and speaking at, the launch of Architecture Week last week, ever conscious of the riba's need for maximum exposure.
Anxious to work with other professional institutions, Rock is nevertheless very much a believer in architectural values. ('You can design your way out of problems,' he told me in respect of riba council structure - the thought occurred that you can design yourself into them as well.) And indeed in the professional ethos, though he sees that as being under pressure. 'There has been an education in the values which are seen in professions . . . we are much more on our own, and we have to be less gentlemanly, not clothing what we think between the lines of civil service-ese.' Straightforwardness, occasionally bluntness, is part of the Rock style. Responding to the Department of Culture's consultations on architecture, he says the riba has taken the high ground on the issue. 'The dcms can only talk about things it gives money to. You don't build an architecture policy on that.' However, this criticism is backed up with constructive proposals as to what should now happen - currently in departmental limbo.
Occasionally the issues are simpler. Rock was swift to intervene over the scandalous case of Lifschutz Davidson's competition-winning Hungerford Bridge design, where the entire design team looked as if it would be crucified on the cross of Westminster Council's standard procurement procedures, despite having attracted massive Lottery money through design quality. Rock co-ordinated several other professional institutions, and the scheme was saved.
But most of the issues facing riba presidents are of a more intractable nature, and, like presidents before him, Rock is currently grappling with the future of the library and drawings collection, and with the ambitions of a registration board to assert and exercise its potential powers to the full. On the first matter, Rock is happy that the conceptual structure is now in place to start a new chapter in the life of the drawings and special collections. 'I've been very hands-on and I spend a lot of time on this. It means the collections moving from us to a new trust, a new partnership. It should be well on the way before the end of my presidency; we'll be appointing shadow trustees prior to implementation. A lot of work has been done on the brief, and Mace is looking at space and costing so we don't abdicate this and leave it to the new trust. But we're being cautious - we proceed as though it is not going to happen.' Certainly if the new trust is in place within the next six months, with a clear policy about location and funding, it will be a triumph after the disappointments of recent years.
The other big area of controversy is the registration board, though Rock seems quite relaxed about it. The board has dealings with four riba departments on various matters. He says he gets on well with the board's chair, Barbara Kelly, with whom he has numerous meetings, and he speaks well of Andrew Finch, the board's registrar, though he thinks the latter's tendency to express things in a legalistic way can lead to misunderstandings. Evidence of co-operation, he feels, are the speedy re-writing of the professional conduct code, with help from experienced riba members; agreement on affixes; and an agreement 'round the table' that the bodies will work together on education. 'Barbara Kelly has said the board doesn't want to take over education, but it does have a legal responsibility. We've agreed to keep talking - the riba is committed to a long-term responsible position on education.'
This may be the biggest issue facing the president as he begins the process of handover, with the new electoral process (devised by Rock) about to come into effect for the first time, with elections in the New Year. The next president will inherit a council invigorated by the introduction of nationally known talented architects, at the instigation of Rock, by a new committee structure aimed at concentrating more resources on the most important areas of activity, and a policy-studies operation which may bring fresh thinking to bear on much more than the local concerns of those who run professional institutes.
Rock is pleased that the debate over brownfield versus greenfield sites for housing, raised as an issue in his inaugural address, has developed into a national debate in which the institute, through its own researches, is playing a part. He is also anxious to stress the importance he attaches to the co-founding of the Urban Design Alliance (spearheaded by Terry Farrell); he believes it has the potential to become a significant force, and while reminding its first annual conference that many architects have been engaged in 'civic design' for many years, he is more than happy to see the current initiative being taken forward by a truly multi-professional organisation. On a more specifically architectural front, he is pleased with the launch of the small firms initiative - though maintaining it will be a tough task.
Whatever happens in these areas, Rock's successor should take over a stable ship.Subscriber and student member numbers are well up, and in January council will lay down a template for corporate strategy for the next generation of riba councillors. Not everything will turn out for the best, but it will not be for want of trying.