My first priority is to raise the understanding of what architecture is and what architects can do to promote it. In the last 20 years the credo of privatisation at all levels of society from local authorities to public transport, the suspicion and pillorying of all the professions, and the cult of the individual, has damaged the cultural and community appreciation of many aspects of life, not least the practice of architecture. A few high profile projects and practices are lauded and publicised, architecture is discussed more than ever before but, arguably, this has only served to make the profession as a whole more remote from the ordinary man in the street. At the same time unjustified accusations against the profession of incompetence, of late delivery, of greed and of consumer exploitation have not been answered fully and have allowed freeloaders from construction and management backgrounds the freedom to occupy centre stage at the expense of both the cultural values of the nation and of the profession's ability to uphold and develop them. This, in turn, has put pressure on the riba to become a defensive organisation whose public image (and even among many in the profession) has become more akin to a trade union and whose voice, particularly in government, has been dismissed as one of a self- serving group protecting the short term interest of its members. Other, newer organisations with less baggage such as Demos, Friends of the Earth and the Architecture Foundation have, often on very limited budgets, taken the high ground and media profile as independent thinkers and innovators in the field of urban renewal, sustainability, transport, public participation.
The field of architecture is vast. It encompasses everything from cosmology to molecular science, from cities to door-handles, it plays with the fundamental building blocks of creation: space, air, water, fire and earth. Whatever mechanical or electronic devices are superimposed on the design, we rely on these fundamentals.
This breadth of view also distinguishes architects from many other fields of endeavour. We tread a path between narrow service in the interests of an individual client and those of the society and community in which we operate. Practising architects are, de facto, in the realm of politics and morality in much of what they engage in. The vision for the riba must include:
1. A high degree of public participation. A visible regaining of the high ground in the community and the creation of an image of an approachable, listening, but innovative, profession. Including primary and secondary schools.
2. A cultural shift in government understanding. Recognition of the primacy of architecture in the economic life of the nation.
3. A direction for tertiary education which is visionary, relevant and highly professional.
4. A direction for post part-three education which is accessible, specialist and in-depth. Strengthening recognition by degrees/diplomas and specialist registration in fields such as conservation, urban design, project management, brief writing.
5. Inspiration for its members. A further strengthening of the world- class riba brand. An outward looking, self-publicising proactive Client Advisory Service, building on the sound foundations, to dramatically increase the use of architects in all fields and particularly the small practices that constitute a majority of our members. Working with a wide range of professionals to streamline the planning process. Public competitions and promotions in both the technical and national press need to be at the core of these initiatives.
Becoming the voice
The riba must be accessible as one of the first ports of call for all media on the subject of urbanism, architecture, sustainability, conservation and heritage. Doing a few things well is better than doing many badly but that strategy could risk creating a reductionist inward-looking vision for the institute as a narrow interest group. While undoubtedly necessary to restoring the financial stability of the riba, such an approach if applied over the longer term could lead to the destruction of the institute as a relevant voice for the promotion of architecture. We need to do all the most important things well.
riba as a brand is still regarded as the key qualification for making architecture in the mind of the public. But things do not stand still. As more and more construction-related organisations are created and the list of construction-related acronyms grows ever longer, the role and primacy of the riba is in danger of becoming diluted. We have to do more and do it more visibly to maintain the central role of architecture in the construction industry of the future.
Historically, communications or public affairs has been regarded as a conventional department. Today that approach is anachronistic. Like it or not, organisations are judged at least as much by their messages as their actions, however worthy.
Everything the institute does is part of today's communications. A single consistent and articulate message is an imperative in today's sophisticated media world. The regions and small practices are crying out for national- quality promotion delivered at regional level. I want good design to reach into a million homes now at the mercy of jobbing builders. Employing an architect should be perceived, as it is in many other parts of Europe, as no more exotic or strange than going to a gp or a family solicitor. Only in this way can we regain the lost territory of the last 25 years.