A little ignorance can be a valuable commodity. A report which went before riba Council last week criticised staff at the riba Clients Advisory Service (cas ) for recommending practices on the basis of little more than the quality of their brochures and their geographical location. Good for them. It's a transparent procedure which prevents the bias towards London practices that would inevitably occur if a bunch of Londoners was in the business of pushing practices which they felt personally able to recommend.
How refreshing to hear of a selection process which is not based on favouritism or cronyism, or some well-meaning attempt to be arbiters of taste. The report complains that staff at the cas are not in a position to judge the competence of architectural practices. Why should they be? Theirs is a task which is particularly open to abuse. If they are in a position to judge, they are also in a position to give work to practices they like. Like eunuchs in a harem, the particular tastes and desires of the Clients Advisory Service staff should be an irrelevance.
Another criticism levelled at the service is that the volume of enquiries is 'low' at 4500 a year. But is it really that low? The figure equates to around 20 enquiries per working day, or just more than one enquiry per registered practice per year. How many clients can be relied upon to get in touch with possible projects every single year? Of the 4501 enquiries fielded in 1998, the report tells us, only 688 were for jobs costing more than £150,000. Again, this doesn't seem disastrous. Large commissions, after all, are generally accompanied by professional clients who tend to have contacts of their own. The fact that 85 per cent of the enquiries were for small projects suggests that the riba is performing an important role in serving first-time or 'amateur' clients who think they want an architect, but have no idea where to start. Doubtless, there is room for improvement at the Clients Advisory Service, but there is also a good deal worth saving. Let's hope its overhaul doesn't turn out to be a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water.