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Why the sudden interest in paying the RIBA president?

Paul Finch’s Letter from London: Perhaps the RIBA should stop thinking their president is more important than everyone else’s and reduce the term to a year

On the surface it sounds like an attractive idea: if architects are to give up two years of professional life to support their institute as president, they should be properly rewarded so that they, or their practice, suffer no financial loss from their contribution to the Big Society. Payment would make it possible for sole practitioners, as well as big beasts in the design jungle, to lead the RIBA.

Almost unanimous support for the idea from the current and past presidents suggests payment is an idea whose time has come. However, before rushing to judgment on this issue, it is worth unpicking the reasons for this sudden interest in payment and examining the history behind the present situation.

The first argument is that the economic situation precludes individuals from standing, hence the sole candidacy of Stephen Hodder to succeed Angela Brady. This is nonsense. Previous recessions – particularly in the early 1990s – did not stop good people standing (for example, Richard MacCormac). Moreover, one reason people who might otherwise have stood often decide not to is because of the obvious commitment and strengths of an institute member who has already put their hat in the ring.

The second argument is that non-payment is leading to an erosion in the quality of presidents. This unproven and unprovable proposition smacks of Après moi, le déluge. The reality is that no RIBA president has ever been paid to do the job and there is no evidence that this has affected the health of the institute one way or the other compared with other factors, of which more
in a moment.

The third argument is that poor architects (in a pecuniary sense) and/or sole practitioners find it impossible to stand for the presidency, meaning that presidents represent large practices rather than the majority of the profession.

This argument is unassailable – or unAssaelable. But does that make it a sound basis for finding institute leaders? I don’t think so. The RIBA exists, as it says in its charter, to promote civil architecture. It does not exist to promote small practices, large practices, or indeed architects, as economic beings. It has a higher calling and the idea that presidencies should be dished out on some sort of all-must-have-prizes basis would only add to the idea that 66 Portland Place is the home of the world’s worst trade union.

Underlying all these arguments is the notion that the health of the profession is somehow dependent on the individual who seeks the presidency, whether they have designed a building anyone can name (or which has won a RIBA Award), whether they are or have been BNP candidates or whether they have supported their institute on a long-term basis. It is not, which may explain why the voting turnout is so pitifully low.

It is time to revert to the system which operated successfully for a century, whereby the RIBA Council elects the president from among its members. That encourages good people to stand for the council and allows councillors to get an idea of what sort of person they are dealing with when election time comes round. The council itself should comprise national representatives and regional chairs, thus making regional elections more significant.

Finally, if it still sounds like too much work for too little reward, perhaps the RIBA should stop pretending that its president is twice as important as everyone else’s and reduce the presidency to a year. Limo and apartment included, and a ban on arse-wearying, navel-gazing away-days.

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