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Jane Duncan: The nine per cent president


In the first of a regular series, the AJ profiles Jane Duncan, the RIBA’s president elect who was voted in by a tiny proportion of the profession

On the face of it, Jane Duncan’s election as the RIBA’s third female president since 2009 is impressive – a progressive institute driving forward change in a still stuffy profession. Yet, the figures behind her victory present a more revealing statistic.

Not only was her win one of the narrowest ever – 172 votes split the difference between Duncan and her rival ORMS-founder Oliver Richards – but only 8.7 per cent of RIBA members backed her to be president.

Can winning less than 9 per cent of the vote really give this 61-year-old, salsa-dancing architect the mandate to lead the profession when she takes over from Stephen Hodder in September 2015?

The low turnout has not gone unnoticed: Manser Medal-winner Carl Turner called it ‘shocking’; blaming the RIBA for failing to engage with its members and architects for ‘their worrying level of apathy’.

Clearly Duncan – who in her previous roles at the institute has championed small practices and diversity, but whose 16-strong Buckinghamshire-based practice has never won a RIBA Award – has a massive job on her hands.

Duncan is not new to the RIBA: you might describe her as a long-term fixture. After 15 years in one role or another, she knows that improving communication is central to turning things around. ‘Most of the membership do not know half of what is going on at the RIBA,’ she has said, repeating what Hodder said two years ago. ‘Its work isn’t celebrated.’

Duncan’s own achievements on the other hand are more readily known. Her victory over Richards is partly down to how well she marketed herself. ‘I put a lot of me in my manifesto,’ she has admitted, a lesson she may have learned from her roster of celebrity clients.

Her love of dancing is well documented – it is spelled out on her dedicated campaign website. So is the fact that she built herself a hempcrete eco-house five years ago. Despite this, neither of her grown-up children is interested in becoming architects, although they may have been put off by their inanimate siblings; she has been known to refer to her completed projects as ‘babies’.

Duncan knew she wanted to be an architect from the age of 13 and was educated at The Bartlett. After university she worked ‘for a lovely chap’ – she refuses to say who – and at the tender age of 25 asked him for a partnership. He said no, so she left and set up on her own.

With 36 years running her own firm, Duncan can count herself among the most experienced architects in the business. She knows the day-to-day challenges facing architects around the country as well as – if not better – than a salsa copa or comb move. The biggest issue facing architects in the UK, she claims, is the ‘lack of confident business skills’. Duncan’s biggest problem this year, however, is a barn conversion for Ozzy Osbourne plagued with bats.

Ozzy’s bat problem is ongoing, yet will likely be solved long before the RIBA’s woes are effectively dealt with.

If Duncan is to achieve anything during her presidency, getting to grips with the labyrinthine processes and back room machinations is vital. Hodder’s first year has been torpedoed by how the RIBA is run and the ongoing power struggles between the board, council, officers and the controversial Israeli motion.

Sources who have seen the institute’s Great Place to Work survey – currently kept from external eyes – claim the employee feedback makes for miserable reading.

Beyond the internal politics, does this self-styled voice of the small practice have the skills to catapult the RIBA back to the top table, regain government’s ear and make the profession relevant to solving the housing crisis?

‘I have never shirked from anything in my life,’ says Duncan. ‘The profession’s voice needs to be considerably louder. And perhaps we need to be less polite.’


Born July 1953
School Queen Elizabeth’s Girls’ Grammar School, Barnet
University The Bartlett, UCL
Practice Jane Duncan Architects, Amersham, Buckinghamshire
Achievements Vice-president of RIBA Practice and Profession (2007 – 2013). Established the role of RIBA Equality & Diversity Champion, chair of the RIBA’s Small Practice Committee
Favourite author Hilary Mantel
Favourite filmThe Matrix

What Jane says

‘You are almost born into architecture. It is a vocation – no question. But I am thankful that this is my job. I just pity everyone else.’

‘There is nothing like taking somebody around a building you have given birth to. Every building is like having a baby.’

What others say

‘Confident and strong in the face adversity, Duncan can do the right thing for our profession and the public. She can put her campaigning words into practice – diversity, pride and leadership in construction industry.’

Angela Brady, RIBA president 2011-2013

Favourite building

Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water

In a nutshell

Tougher than Reed.
Less whirling than Brady.
More cocksure than Hodder. But potentially stymied by her insider status.



Readers' comments (12)

  • Yes, DGR; that maybe the result, but they could always retire, I suppose. As for not wanting an Architect who has won an award for RIBA President, well; I wonder. Even captains of football teams are normally amongst the best players.

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  • There is a strong undertone in this article that suggests the President of the RIBA shouldn't be designing houses for celebrity clients, but more 'worthy' architecture - whatever that is. The RIBA serves all architects, not just the ones that design museums and cultural centres! Who cares if she hasn't won awards, in case no one's noticed the President of the RIBA isn't actually asked to sit down and design anything, it's about policy, management, and good decision making.

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