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RIAS struggles to defend all-male convention

Industry figures including Peter Cook, Kathryn Firth, Jeremy Till and Kieran Gaffney have criticised the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland for failing to include any women speakers among the 21 men appearing at its Aberdeen conference this month, writes Merlin Fulcher

The Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS) is caught up in a row over both the absence of female speakers at its convention and the lack of women up for election to the body’s council.

Industry figures ranging from Kathryn Firth to Jeremy Till have been critical of the conference line-up which runs 10-11 May in Aberdeen.

Discord emerged last week when a ‘concerned’ Kieran Gaffney of Edinburgh-based Konishi Gaffney wrote to RIAS president Sholto Humphries after seeing ‘21 male faces starting out at me from the convention’s 2012 brochure’.

Kieran Gaffney's letter to the RIAS

Kieran Gaffney’s letter to the RIAS -click to view

His letter called on RIAS to issue a gender equality statement and to take steps to ensure women are represented at future events. Gaffney also raised concerns about the upcoming council elections, in which all nine hopefuls are male.

It has also emerged that there is only one female signatory among the 45 declared backers for the council candidates.

In response to Gaffney’s letter, RIAS secretary and treasurer Neil Baxter defended the line-up as, ‘Not by intent or design. It is an excellent group of speakers, all of whom happen to be male.’

He said the organisation had approached women to speak but none were available, adding: ‘There are many who would advocate positive discrimination for all fields of human endeavour. There are others who would see that as discrimination.’ Regarding the election, he said candidates were ‘self-nominated’ and encouraged ‘irrespective of gender.’

Kathryn Findlay has confirmed that she was asked to speak at the RIAS convention, but was forced to decline due to a prior commitment to speak at the National Architecture Conference in Brisbane, Australia from 10-12 May. ‘I was certainly asked, as I was last year, but couldn’t make it.’

RIBA president Angela Brady, who will not attend the convention due to a diary conflict, recently met with Scottish representatives at a recent ‘five presidents’ meeting. She said: ‘When I get an all-male line-up I’m well known for telling the organisers that it’s unacceptable in this day and age and not going to the event.’

The Portland Place chief, a long-standing campaigner for women in architecture, added: ‘I have given the same advice to the New London Architecture as they often have all-male line-ups for conferences and I say I will not be attending those.’

London Legacy Development Corporation chief of design Kathryn Firth, described the conference line-up as ‘discouraging’. She said: ‘In terms of the appropriate representation, it is not a matter of numbers or percentage but rather seizing the opportunity to give exposure to an under-represented proportion of the profession.’

Archigram founding member and former UCL professor Peter Cook also said RIAS ‘should have tried harder’. He said: ‘One always suspected that Scotland remains culturally in the comfort zone of the early 20th century.

Helen Lucas of Helen Lucas Architects said Baxter’s response sent a clear message that ‘women only have themselves to blame’.

‘What have the RIAS done to find out why no women stand? What is it about the RIAS selection procedure that is putting women off?’ she asked.

The convention is entitled ‘Re-engaging with the Past’ and day one, ‘Sporting Excellence’, focuses on the London 2012 Olympics and Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games and includes speakers from Glasgow City Council, Reiach and Hall and LOCOG.

Day two looks at contemporary Scottish and international architecture, with speakers Kengo Kuma, who is designing an outpost for the V&A in Dundee, and Charles Renfro of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, winner of a contest to revamp Aberdeen’s Union Terrace Gardens. Last year’s event had three female speakers.

Readers' comments (1)

  • The RIAS is hardly being slammed…Perhaps the AJ should take a more objective journalistic view and canvas a somewhat broader spectrum of opinion?

    You could ask Joyce Deans PPRIAS for her opinion?

    Putting together a cohesive, and engaging conference in Scotland with relevant industry leading figures is difficult enough in these challenging times, the sex of the speakers is something of an irrelevance; much like Peter Cook's spectacularly patronising comment.

    Unsuitable or offensive?

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