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Architecture Foundation set for relaunch with new HQ and director

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The Architecture Foundation (AF) is set to be rescued from a financial and leadership crisis, it has emerged

The cash-strapped organisation has been rudderless since the resignation of long-standing director Sarah Ichioka and the departure of Noemi Blager, who took over last September as maternity cover for Ichioka. Meanwhile former AF chairman Will Alsop has added to the woes, questioning the Foundation’s relevance.

The organisation, – which famously saw its dreams for a £5 million Zaha Hadid-designed headquarters dashed in 2008 – has been forced to downsize from six to two permanent staff, and is also quitting its Tooley Street headquarters in Southwark.

Now Simon Allford, who became AF chairman last November, has announced plans for a root-and-branch overhaul, including a new home, new director and new vision. The AF is looking to relaunch as a smaller, ‘more responsive’ organisation after what one source described as ‘a period of hibernation’.

Allford said the new-look charity had to become ‘smarter, more critical, more engaged’ and ‘do less, but better’. He said: ‘This is the start of the rebirth, the start of a new era.

‘We want to be more nimble, relevant, mobile, responsive to challenges, not afraid to express an opinion and provoke a debate. The changes are about focusing on a programme, not a base.’

We want to be more nimble, relevant, mobile, responsive to challenges

Allford wants the organisation to be reborn as a new, independent centre for ‘thinking about the possibilities for the future’, focusing on London as ‘one of the world’s most dynamic global cities’ and having three themes a year, which could see the AF hosting debates around the capital with leading thinkers.

He added: ‘The RIBA is in some ways trapped. Although it looks to promote architecture, it is inevitably caught up by the need to protect architects. New London Architecture succeeds as a canny commercial organisation which also promotes architecture as well as drawing an audience.

‘The AF needs to be about ideas and about the future challenges being faced in the 21st century. It is an independent voice. Neither of the other two can do that.’

The AF will temporarily be housed at the Cass at the London Met University opposite Whitechapel Art Gallery, thanks to the help of current AF trustee Robert Mull.

It is understood the AF has received significant financial support with the Tooley Street lease, which runs out on 24 June, from Roger Zogolovitch, of landlord Lake Estates. Zogolovitch said: ‘I did what I could to help them in this difficult time. The AF has the capacity to make new projects and provocations for the future of the city and our new buildings.

‘At a time when future development is so badly needed to house London’s population growth and demographic make-up, ideas are a critical currency.’

But Alsop remains unconvinced of its future relevance. He said: ‘I’m not sure what it’s for any more. Maybe the time has passed for such an organisation.’

The AF will begin its search for a new director in the autumn.

Speaking about the challenges of the role, former director Ichioka said: ‘Do you try to please everyone or trust your own compass? One generation’s cutting-edge is another’s passé; one profession’s irrelevant is another’s essential.’

Interview with Sarah Ichioka

What do you think your greatest achievement was at the AF?

I feel the most satisfaction about how our initiatives during my term helped to diversify the gene pool of the London architectural scene. We achieved this by brokering dialogues between architecture and other disciplines, and between the UK and many other countries, and by creating opportunities for a rising generation of architectural thinkers and practitioners, both British and international, to exhibit or build at pivotal moments in their careers.

To name some of them: Akihisa Hirata, Asif Khan & Pernilla Ohrstedt, David Kohn, the Center for Urban Pedagogy, Exploration Architecture, Wayward Plants, Kobberling & Kaltwasser, the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Carmody Groarke, PUSHAK, We Made That, vPPR, WORKac, Post Works, 2012Architecten, Ila Bêka & Louise Lemoine, and Jimenez Lai.
What was the most challenging aspect of the role?

The necessity to balance many different—and sometimes divergent—interests and perspectives. It’s the blessing and the pain of having a certain amount of institutional history and a diverse network of stakeholders: one generation’s cutting-edge is another’s passé; one profession’s irrelevant is another’s essential; one audience-member’s bafflement is another’s enlightenment. Do you try to please everyone or trust your own compass?

Has the AF’s location held it back?

The realities and perceptions of Southwark’s centrality are changing rapidly; the Shard is the latest and most obvious example of this. When we first moved to Tooley Street, one of our patrons griped that it was too far from his office. At first I couldn’t understand what he meant, as we were only five stops away on the Jubilee Line, but then I realised he was worried that his chauffeur might get stuck in traffic between St John’s Wood and Southwark. So perhaps for a few VIPs the location has been off-piste.

However, the London Bridge location afforded us some remarkable partnerships with the local authority, business improvement districts, and local residents—including our live projects such as the Bankside Urban Forest, the Skyroom, the Union Street Urban Orchard, and most recently Gibbon’s Rent that I wouldn’t exchange for anything.

The organisation has always been itinerant

In many ways I am sorry to see the AF leave Southwark, but the organisation has always been itinerant—from St James’s via various corners of Clerkenwell to Somerset House before the current London Bridge location—and it seems apt, since the impending expiration of our Tooley Street lease has coincided with my own plans to move on, that the AF seeks a new geographic area to explore and influence.

Our newest Trustee, Professor Robert Mull, has kindly offered to host The Architecture Foundation at the Cass, opposite Whitechapel Art Gallery. The building has undertaken a recent transformation with spaces carved out to support fluid relationships across practice.  As well as offering practicalities: exhibition, workshops and spaces for events will be available. There may also be opportunities for the AF team to collaborate with art, design and architecture practitioners based within the school and institutions and businesses around the rapidly changing Whitechapel and Aldgate areas. It’s good for Cass and it’s good for The AF. Win-win as we Americans like to say.

What have you learned and what are your plans?
I took the post right when Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, so I have learned to be resourceful. I now know that broad impact can be achieved with relatively modest material means, given a passionately committed team of colleagues and a generous group of collaborators. We have definitely punched above our weight these past years.

After six years of curating and delivering projects that were fast-paced and relatively eclectic in terms of their audiences and formats, I am now keen to focus on projects in greater depth. In particular, I am keen to identify and promote some of the radical yet practical solutions necessary to get humankind to the other side of what Paul Gilding has called “The Great Disruption”. In the first instance, I will be leading a research project into new models of intentional community in North American cities, supported by a generous grant from the Graham Foundation. It’s an exciting opportunity to connect all that I’ve learned at the AF about communication and advocacy with some of my previous professional experiences in urban research and policy.

Sarah Ichioka

Source: Susan Smart


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Readers' comments (1)

  • Congratulations to Simon Allford for succinctly stating some fundamentals that characterise the RIBA, the NLA and the AF, enabling the latter to identify a logical structural place within architectural discourse in London. (That the RIBA poses as a charity promoting architecture rather than architects is a relaity usually glossed over.) Interestingly, however, the only unmentionable – which has continued for 21 years without financial or programmatic crises – is Open-City's Open house London programme (as well as everything else it does). Why? because that project dares to energetically engage the general public and continue the global extension of an ethos that is, arguably, more about open community engagement than architectural design as a self-referential discipline. Many architects are genuinely strong (and often engaged) supporters (including Allford and his practice); some more simply see it as a marketing opportunity; the majority ignore its intercourse with a mostly non-client body of remarkably generous building owners, managers and the rest. This interesting equation of support-exploitation-ignorance repeats itself around the world and the organisation strives to protect its core values of openness, public engagement (architecture for the public, not architects), sharing and non-profit / zero-financial gain in every city location where Open House has been taken up. Meanwhile (manifesting the interest at issue),architectural tourism has become a huge international business. That all this hardly amounts to the 'models of intentional community' referred to above surely says volumes in itself. (Ken Allinson)

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