Harry Rich, chief executive of the RIBA, tells Richard Waite why architects must be prepared to stand up for themselves and explain to clients that their services are worth paying for
What was your perception of the RIBA when you became chief executive last year?
I thought it was an organisation with a fantastic heritage, doing a massive amount of interesting work over a remarkable span of areas, and that it was not always great at letting everybody know what it was up to.
Has your perception changed?
No. But one of the challenges is focusing our activity, as in any organisation. Nobody, including us, can do everything we want to.
Does it matter that you don’t have an architectural background?
I hope not, but that’s probably for other people to judge. My principal job is to make sure the RIBA functions well, and meets the purposes for which it exists. These are well set out in our Royal Charter, but we’ve rephrased them in a way that is more meaningful for the wider public. Now we talk about the RIBA as existing to champion buildings, strong communities and a greener environment, and achieving this through architecture and through our members.
The reason for the rephrasing was that people used to describe us as promoting architecture, which most AJ readers will understand. However, people out in the street don’t. If you went out and asked 20 people, ‘do you care about architecture?’, most would probably say no. But if you ask them about the place they work in or live in or shop in, they would get very excited. This is an opportunity for us.
Do architects make good businessmen?
Some do, some don’t. There isn’t a law saying all architects have to be good businessmen. Only people who are running an architecture business need to be able to do it well. In my view, people who don’t want to or can’t should work with people who can and do. If you give your creativity away for free, you are behaving as an artist.
Do you think architects should enter open competitions?
Architects should not provide free creative work. It is absolutely right and proper that architects should be prepared to stand up and explain their value to a client and why it’s worth paying proper fees.
What can the RIBA do to help architects with their businesses?
The thing we can’t do, and I’ve had to say this to a few people, is stop the recession. We can’t change the external environment. We have done a whole range of practical things, such as the Recession Survival Kit and the Business Benchmarking Survey. But architects are too modest and that’s really unhelpful. I don’t mean they should be going around showing off all the time, but architects add massively when they are involved in a project. We want architects to be confident explaining why it’s worth clients paying them fees to do a job – we need to work with them to make sure everybody understands why it’s a no-brainer to use a good architect.
What advice would you give architects to help them survive in this economic climate?
It may sound patronising, but it’s about thinking creatively about how you can add real value. One thing that’s alarmed me slightly since I’ve been at the RIBA concerns sustainability. Most architects accept it’s important, but not enough see it as a commercial opportunity and a social responsibility. Architects already have the skill and ability to engage with sustainability. That’s a big opportunity. Sadly, the truth is there is not going to be as much money for architects in simple plan drawing – it’s too competitive.
Do you want to stop fee undercutting? How can this be achieved?
I would like a situation where architects don’t sell themselves too cheaply. It’s hard to enforce in tough economic times, but good architects refuse to do jobs that don’t make them any money. Architects need to make the argument that it’s not about cost, it’s about value.
Do you intend to give more money to the RIBA regions?
I don’t see a distinction between the regions and the RIBA as a whole. We have to deliver our advocacy work and support services across the entire UK. The answer is not finding a big chunk of money and saying to the regional offices, ‘do what you like with it’ – it’s about saying that we want to put together a delivery plan for the whole organisation, including the regions. The RIBA needs to be a cross-UK organisation. Any organisation that becomes too London-centric is not successful.
What has been learned from the recent issues within the RIBA London region (AJ 06.05.10)?
Often when things go wrong in an organisation, it’s due to misunderstanding rather than will on any side. In the future, I will encourage people who feel there are misunderstandings to find ways of dealing with them. In an organisation with 40,000 members, things will go wrong somewhere; I don’t want it to happen but it’s a statistical fact. I will always do my best to make sure that we challenge any misunderstandings straight away and try to solve them.
We need to focus on our key purpose – supporting members. It’s about getting our message out there, and we shouldn’t get too caught up with internal issues.
What are your views on protection of title?
The overwhelming majority of the profession feels protection of title is useful and I bow to their expertise. The RIBA Council has said the same thing, but the issue feels much more important to architects than it does to the outside world.
Who is your favourite architect?
I don’t have one. But I was at the Venice Biennale last week and they had these wonderful pencils on sale, which had ‘you are my favourite architect’ written on them. I should buy a load of them and hand them out to whomever I meet.
What are you asked most frequently?
Are you enjoying your job? And people are very surprised when I reply that I do. Thoroughly.
- 1958 Born in Birmingham
- 1969-76 Attends King Edward VI Camp Hill School, Birmingham
- 1977-80 Studies law at Birmingham University
- 1981 Works as a Parliamentary researcher
- 1981-83 Becomes a solicitor at Warner Cranston
- 1984-94 Works for electrical wholesaler Rich & Pattison, becoming managing director
- 1995-99 Works as managing director of Tandem (UK) salons
- 1999-2007 Rises to deputy chiefexecutive at the Design Council
- 2007-09 Joins Enterprise UK as chief executive
- November 2009 Replaces Richard Hastilow as RIBA chief executive
Which buildings adorn Rich’s walls?
I have four pictures in my office. One is of Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre, which I think functions magnificently. Another is of the NEC in Birmingham, a building that changed the fortunes of the West Midlands – that’s an important element of building. Villa Saraceno, a Palladian house in northern Italy, also appears. I spent a weekend there years ago and was overawed. Finally, I have a picture of some modernist buildings in Tel Aviv, Israel, because they were mostly designed by German-Jewish émigré architects.