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Hodder: The big agenda item for the next few years is 'RIBA for clients'

Next week Stephen Hodder succeeds Angela Brady to become the 75th RIBA president. Richard Waite interviews the first-ever Stirling Prize-winner on how he will approach the role

How are you feeling about becoming RIBA president?
There is a weight of expectation. It is important to me that I deliver what I’ve set out to do.
I’ve had enough grounding, both as vice-president of regions then as president elect, so I feel quite comfortable stepping up.
But you can’t [change the world] and in truth there have been presidents who have had very ambitious agendas that could not be delivered in two years. I’ve been very deliberate in saying that I want to deliver a few key things well.

Is the RIBA ‘machine’ too clunky to do that?
There are processes any charitable organisation has to go through. On occasions the external perception has been that the RIBA is a little bit unwieldy. But Harry Rich did a lot to streamline the RIBA. Decision-making is far leaner. I realised very quickly that I couldn’t come into office on 1 September and then start thinking about the processes. Some of the things I hope to deliver started two years ago – like the membership review and improving communications with members. The new website will be delivered at the end of the year.

What are your aims?
To improve the professional, cultural and economic environment in which our members work over the next two years. Hence the big agenda item for the next few years is ‘RIBA for clients’ – a new initiative. There hasn’t been enough investment from the RIBA in how to engage, support and guide clients.
Find an Architect, which used to be the RIBA Clients Advisory Service, is going to be relaunched. The website will be far more navigable and I’m expecting a lot from it.

We’ve seen a tail-off of client referrals from 4,000 a year a decade ago to just over 700 last year

We’ve seen a tail-off of client referrals from 4,000 a year a decade ago to just over 700 last year. While that can be set against a backdrop of the economic downturn, it is also in part because we haven’t invested enough in the process.  

But, at the same time, practices need to update their information on the website. We can only match clients with architects if their portfolio on the database is up-to-date and ‘of a quality’. We looked at our own. Hodder + Partners’ was shocking. Just narrative. No images. Not many clients are going to pick us from some essays.

As part of this, are you looking at competitions?
Yes, another strand of the client initiative is the competition review, led by Martin Knight with a number of people including clients like Jonathan Falkingham at Urban Splash. This is not just about revisiting how the RIBA runs competitions. We sometimes forget competitions are just another means of procurement.
I’ve also appointed [ex-3DReid director] Nigel Ostime to chair a client liaison group. Though I’m not sure quite yet of the forum, the idea is to examine the three active sectors: housing, retrofit and contractor-led procurement.
Perhaps we invite the housebuilders and key politicians into the RIBA and we talk about the repositioning of the architect in construction.
We’ll ask ‘What do you expect from us as a profession?’ This isn’t necessarily a mission to convince people – it’s more about formally recognising the changing world of the architect and that we understand the need for collaboration. Historically our profession was seen as slightly insular.  
Hopefully all these, and an improving economy will help us generate work for our members, particularly in the regions.

It’s not the RIBA’s role just to hand out projects, but we can influence the environment

It is not the RIBA’s role just to hand out projects, but we can influence the environment.

Do you want to take on architectural education too?
The triangle of the profession, practice and education is hugely important to me. For the first time the views of SCHOSA and the RIBA are aligned and we need to see big changes in education over the next two years. The necessity for a close relationship between education and practice has never been more important. We’re all waiting for the EU directive, but there are some very strong ideas emerging at the moment into how education can be reformed.

One idea is the consolidation of practical experience. Another, which Simon Allford put forward while he was vice-president of education, is the concept of the ‘teaching practice’. Certain teaching modules would be ‘let’ as a kind of three-year contract to practices, enhancing the connection between the schools and practice.

What do you intend to do in light of the membership review?
The review has been the largest survey of members there has ever been. The response will embrace rethinking the role and benefits of the associate category, namely for those post-Part 2. Do we think about an affix, so they can put some initials after their name to give it traction, such as ‘associate RIBA’?

What is very clear is that members do not want the gold standard, the RIBA chartered practice status, touched. That remains highly valued.

But I have been making the case for a much more tailored >> chartered practice offer. What BDP wants from us, say, is completely different. They don’t need advice on employment law or health and safety. They have all of that. What they want is influence and connections. So the idea may be an almost pick-and-mix approach.

I have one final goal, which references Richard MacCormac’s presidency [1991-1993]. He opened the institute’s doors. The new Carmody Groarke gallery on the ground floor, which showcases the RIBA collections, will open at the end of the year. Allied to that is Mann Island in the North-West, which opens in April. For the first time the drawings collection can come out to the regions and communicate to a wider public.

Is there a tension between the council and the executive board – and has council lost its power?
There’s a very clear definition of role between the board and council. When first elected, I sat in council listening to lengthy debates about pensions. Frankly that wasn’t what I was expecting. I wanted to talk about architecture and policy. With 60 trustees, you can imagine how unwieldy that was.
Abstracting operational policy from architectural policy was, in my opinion, a very positive move. Perhaps from the council members’ point of view, we haven’t demonstrated how those discussions are actually impacting on RIBA policy.

Is communication improving?
Absolutely. But there is more to be done. When I was vice-president of regions and went around the country there was this outpouring in terms of how the grassroots were informed. Could you believe that branches were not even allowed to access the names of their members because of information protocols [the Data Protection Act]? I unlocked that.

What is your view on the ARB? 
I am very pro-protection of title. I am very pro a regulatory body. I set up a group following problems that arose a few months ago regarding perceptions of ARB’s mission creep. I’ve had dinner with Beatrice Fraenkel and Alison Carr and we agreed there was a real need [for the ARB and RIBA] to work together at board level.
On the agenda is the issue of duplication. I worry about the demands on schools of architecture. At the end of the day they are there to educate. But the internal auditing procedures and prescription and validating are so unwieldy.

Does the institute have funding problems?
I can say the RIBA’s finances are incredibly healthy. Reserves are there for bad times. Predictably the demands on the RIBA increase during a recession. They are there to support the members.But there is a minimum amount of reserves that we don’t go beyond. If we have used reserves to support members, that is exactly what we should be doing.

Do you think the RIBA is too London-centric?
I’ve never quite understood this. Of course, RIBA headquarter is in London, as indeed are over 25 per cent of our members. But no other professional body has a regional network as the RIBA, with 11 regional offices together with RSAW, and agreements with RSUA and RIAS. I was the vice president for nations and regions, I am based in a regional city and will always support the regions, which includes the London region.

No other professional body has a regional network like the RIBA

With the nation and regions team, I initiated the Local Initiative Fund for local projects. This will continue. I believe there has never been better two-way communication between members and the RIBA, with consultation on key issues. Of course we can do better and I will support the teams to achieve this.

What do you want to come out of The Farrell Review?
The first thing to remember is that the review is the start of a process and, whatever the outcome, frequent review will be necessary for implementation and change.
Fundamentally, I would hope that the outcome is that design quality in architecture is much higher on the Government’s agenda, whether by demonstrating leadership as a client, or enabling processes that enable design support. Long term we need to embed the importance of architecture in our cultural education.

We need to embed the importance of architecture in our cultural education

The RIBA has a key role to play in this process. Work has commenced in demonstrating the tangible value of architecture; socially, environmentally and economically. This is the language that politicians understand. Demonstrating benefits and the importance of architecture to our lives is one way of ensuring that architecture ascends the political agenda.

People still remember you for the problematic Clissold Leisure Centre job, which hit the headlines a few years ago. How do you feel about that?    
The full story has never really been out there. It bothers me that there isn’t the recognition that when you go through an experience like that it informs your [future] approach.

I’d have been a fool not to rethink the way we work

When somebody said in the press ‘How can Hodder talk about procurement following Clissold?’ I’d have been a fool not to rethink the way we work.

Two RIBA regional bodies - RSUA in Northern Ireland and RIAS in Scotland refused to send out the AJ’s survey to members. Do you feel it was right for these two regional bodies to refuse to promote our survey?
The RIBA takes seriously its responsibility to promote equality in the profession. I’m pleased that my own institute supported this survey and commented on the results.

As president there will be significantly attention on you? How will you handle it?
[Being in the spotlight] isn’t something that comes naturally to me. Going back to when I was a student, I wasn’t the most extrovert of characters. I’d like to think that I am quite an industrious sort of person. A conscientious person. But I am also quite self-aware. If I feel there are shortcomings with how I engage with the press or represent the profession to government then I will work at them.

How are you going to juggle your presidential demands and maintaining a practice?
Claire [my wife] runs the practice.  We didn’t necessarily have a succession plan – but [becoming president] brought about that. However I am going to remains hands-on. I am determined to demonstrate that actually you can be president on three days a week, by focusing on projects and delivering.

I am going to remains hands-on

Members want me to remain involved in bricks and mortar. I know I am going to have to get involved in politics but I will be focused here and [at Portland Place]. My role here is design leadership and business development and that doesn’t take a full five days.

What are you going to do with your presidential office?
The theme is British Royal Gold Medallists. But I have managed to get a Vitra Eames conference table, a Louis Poulsen (PH5) /Jacobsen designed light fittings.  [The pink has gone]. Somebody said the office was rather masculine – perhaps it needs some colour.

 

 

 

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