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designs on the presidency

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George Ferguson has set his sights on becoming the next president of the RIBA. And he believes his time as a 'big mouth in Bristol' will serve him and the profession well at Portland Place Self-proclaimed big-mouth George Ferguson is easy to spot. He's the one in the red trousers. They have become his signature, and his nickname - a maverick statement, maybe, or just some oddball obsession.

Whichever, Ferguson does not plan to give them up if he wins the presidency.

Fifty-four-year-old Ferguson is not the obvious successor to the post. With only six months' experience on RIBA Council, he is still something of an outsider. But, he says, this fresh perspective gives him the edge over the other candidates.

He once made a bid to design a golf course clubhouse. 'When the client asked me whether I liked golf I said: 'No, I bloody hate it.' But, I said: 'I'll give you the best clubhouse because I'll go and find out everything about it. I won't assume I know.''He won the job.

Ferguson's history supports his claim to be something of an anti-authority figure, not shy of a fresh challenge. His first experience of politics was not unlike his current bid for the presidency.

At the age of 24, Ferguson became Bristol's first Liberal and youngest councillor. He had no interest in politics, he says - he 'roughly agreed' with their manifesto and only joined the Liberal Party after he was elected - but felt there were causes to be fought.

'I did it to try to change things - to ask questions and unstitch what I saw as a very stitched up city. There's a hell of a lot of power in the question and in the media and that's what I used.'

As councillor, he campaigned against the rash of ill-considered development taking place, arguing for a more considered attitude towards Bristol's architectural heritage. He fought plans for a motorway that would have 'crashed right through the city' and began his continuing fight for a tall buildings policy. 'I like to think that in some way I helped to change the way Bristol saw itself, ' he says.

It was a two-way exchange - his time on council raised his own awareness of the city's many social problems. 'That six years was as important an education as my six years at architecture school, ' he says. 'It made me realise the conditions in which some people live and the hardship they must go through.'

This insight into his adopted city - he moved to Bristol to study architecture in 1965 - developed his enthusiasm for places and 'place-making'. He locates the root of this passion in childhood - the son of a NATO officer, his formative years were spent travelling from country to country. Out of this love of 'place-making', Ferguson has been instrumental in regenerating Bristol's Harbourside area.

His interest in Harbourside began when he and a group of friends each put up £100 to rescue the disused dockside cranes, followed by a campaign to have the city buy them back and preserve them. They reinvested their profit back into the dockland by setting up a ferry line. Later, as part of the Concept Planning Group, Ferguson helped refine a £44 million Millennium Commissionfunded masterplan for the area.

The fight that made his name also focused on Harbourside. In 1999, Ferguson mounted an opposition to Arup Associates' proposals for Canon's Marsh. He successfully halted the plans, but not before launching a public attack against the 'arrogant' Jocelyn Stevens, then chair of English Heritage, who supported the scheme.

His concern to preserve the best of the old while still looking to the future is reflected in his own work. His practice, Ferguson Mann, which he set up in 1979, combines the 'creative reuse' of historic buildings with new-build contemporary work, some of it social housing. 'We're about the most eclectic practice going, ' he says. He cites his favourite architects as Richard Murphy, Chris Wilkinson and sole practitioner David Lea.

His latest project - for which he is both architect and client - is the renovation of a 1910 tobacco factory in Bristol's Southville.

Six years ago, after failing to convince English Heritage that all six factories should be listed, he raised the money to save just one. The building houses a theatre, dotcom company offices, voice studio and cafe bar. 'I filled it with the things I like, ' he says.

The conversion of the top floor into apartments will complete the project.

Recently divorced, Ferguson will be taking one for himself - a huge open-plan space with views across Bristol. He also owns an old brewery building close by, which he plans to convert into a cookery school.

He has an obvious pride in his achievements in Bristol, which he says prove that the little things can make a difference:

'That is why I have the cheek to think that I could be president, ' he says.

Ferguson is now looking around for a new challenge, and has set his sights on the wider political arena and the RIBA presidency. His platform is more a broad outlook than a set of detailed proposals.

He says he is for environmentally sustainable architecture, a planning system that encourages good design and the rolling back of the mistakes of the '70s. He suggests spending as much on the destruction of awful modern buildings as the repair of historic ones. He is for independents as opposed to chains and multiples. He is for education about the built environment in schools and English Heritage under 'brilliant' Sir Neil Cossons.

He is for a popular RIBA that gives value to its members and for the creation of 'regional satellites' - collaborations between the RIBA, architecture centres and buildings exploratories. He is not an anti-London candidate, but believes the RIBA must provide more for its regional members. And as a founder member of the Acanthus network of practices, he believes he has a real insight into the concerns of provincial practices.

As far as the personal qualities he can bring to the job, Ferguson sees himself as an 'unbuyable' anti-establishment figure. He prefers 'jaw jaw' over 'war war', except when a fight truly needs to be fought.

He is enthusiastic about getting practically involved and 'leading from the front'. And he clearly loves the limelight, with regular appearances on local TV shows.

And the red trousers? Not some hungover hippy statement, he assures, 'just a cheap bit of branding'. When the membership goes to the vote in April, we will find out if they've helped him swing it.

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