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At the RIBA's roots lies the key to a solid foundation

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The new RIBA Foundation represents an extraordinarily bold attempt to revert to the ideals which spawned the institute. Paul Finch assesses its prospects

Plans to create the RIBA Foundation have been far from secret, yet the implications of the proposal have made little impact on the membership, despite the radical nature of what is being attempted. Indeed, it would not be exaggerating to suggest that the foundation, in essence, will be the institute, and that the rump of activities for which it is not responsible will be akin to that of any other membership organisation.

The RIBA's Royal Charter spells out the true nature of the organisation: the advancement of civil architecture. It is not to advance the cause of architects in the way of a professional trade union, but to provide architectural ideals within society as a whole (carrying out the task without architects would, of course, be rather difficult).

In effect, the new RIBA Foundation, not least under its crusading motto, 'Architecture for All', is picking up the gauntlet laid down in the charter. The assets it can employ in its task, especially the 40 or so staff members who will come under its aegis, are those of a cultural rather than organisational institution. In particular, the library and drawings collection, funded without protest by members for more than 150 years, comprise a priceless collection (literally, since the contents could not be sold without a profound split within the profession), which forms the bedrock of the new organisation.

The collections are managed by another charity, the British Architectural Library Trust (more on this later), and are now intimately connected with the Victoria and Albert Museum, which will house the drawings and make them and other artifacts more widely available to the general public through the new V&A gallery, designed by Wright & Wright and due to start on site this autumn. This collaboration between the two institutes, smoothed by a £3.5 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, is at the heart of the 'Architecture for All' programme.

That programme, however, will include much more than gallery and storage facilities. The new foundation will be responsible for the entire RIBA cultural programme: events, lectures, exhibitions, conferences, awards, the RIBA Stirling Prize and other familiar institute activities. You could argue, therefore, that there is nothing new here and that the new arrangements mean merely shuffling responsibilities from one part of the institute to another. That would be true were it just a question of which department does what. But a brand new foundation, a separate (though wholly owned) charity with its own trustees, chair and director - that is a very different matter. Moreover, a key task facing the new foundation will be the communication of architectural ideas, achievements and possibilities way beyond the geographical confines of either Portland Place or South Kensington. If the foundation is able to exploit the energy and enthusiasm of RIBA members across the country, it may be able to achieve, at least in part, what has eluded other organisations in the past; that is the systematic promotion of interest in, and understanding of, our current and future built environment, unfettered by a slavish devotion to 'heritage'.

The prospect of an outward-looking, proactive education and cultural proponent of new architecture seems light years away from the inevitably more prosaic day-to-day activities of the RIBA as a membership organisation. My introduction to the institute, in early 1972 as a gauche trainee reporter, was to attend a press briefing by the then president, Alex Gordon, as to why he had asked all council members to resign, and re-stand as election candidates in a make-or-break argument about not architecture, not cultural policy, not planning, not the structure of the profession, but subscription levels. It didn't impress me then and it still doesn't in retrospect.

Along with almost all of its fellow professional institutions, the RIBA has been far too introverted, endlessly rethinking its internal structures and its constitution rather than proselytising on behalf of architecture itself.

Presidencies began to be judged by the efficiency with which institutional organisation was managed, rather than on how architecture had been advanced in society at large.

That has changed over the past decade, but it must be said that the presidents with ideas about architecture (Duffy, MacCormac), about society's future demands (Rock), sustainability (Goldschmied) and the institute in the 21st century (Hyett), have been ahead of the overall institutional game.

That is now about to change fundamentally, not least at the prompting of the chief executive, Richard Hastilow. As with any new organisation, especially one created within an existing structure, there is every possibility of the foundation suffering growing pains and creating some structural tension within the institute, which one hopes will largely be creative. This will depend, of course, on the goodwill of the RIBA council and the management skills of the chief executive and management board.

On the one hand, they need to exercise enough (light-touch) control to provide members with some comfort as to budgets, direction and performance. On the other, the institute needs to let the foundation breathe, not least because too tight control will stifle initiative, shackle the director and alienate trustees, particularly the chair.

There is also the delicate diplomatic matter of relations between president and foundation chair. (Who speaks first at the Stirling Prize ceremony? ) Ways need to be found to avoid duplication and rivalry, though since the foundation chair is certain not to be an architect, this may help.

And what about the British Architectural Library Trust (BALT), which already has a chair and independent trustees? It probably needs spelling out that the RIBA has no intention of walking away from its ownership of, and responsibility for, its cultural assets, but again good management will be required to establish a working relationship between the RIBA, the new foundation, the BALT and the V&A.

As to finance, the foundation starts life with the relevant share of RIBA operational budgets, though as we know these are scarcely adequate to maintain the quality of the drawings collection and library at the levels they deserve. Fundraising will doubtless be high on the agenda of the new foundation trustees and director; it should not be aimed simply at plugging holes, however. For one thing, the BALT has it own funding programmes. For another, the role of the foundation will be significantly more concerned with 'outreach programmes' (ghastly phrase); it needs to be shown how new funds raised have made a difference rather than simply kept the ship afloat. One of the organisation's main concerns will be to work cooperatively with other organisations in the territory, particularly CABE, which has taken on increasingly public-related activities and which last year launched its own education foundation.

What the RIBA Foundation can bring to the table is substantial assets, which have on the whole remained latent rather than put to good use. If the property, cultural and human resources of a committed profession can be unlocked, then the RIBA will have pointed the way to a new professional future - by going back to its roots.

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