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Exclusive interview with Angela Brady: ‘I will stand up and fight’

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RIBA president Angela Brady, who will be inaugurated next week, promises to shake-up 66 Portland Place and to revolutionise the competition system and procurement, as well as tackling the government and public perception of architects

How will you approach your presidency?

I’m a campaigner. I’m not afraid to speak out. If I disagree with something, whether it’s about student hardship or procurement, I will stand up and I will fight.

The government has devalued architects in the eyes of the public, how will you go about addressing this?

I don’t think the Conservatives ‘get’ architecture. We’re an easy target if anything goes wrong. The Labour government pushed for good design with Design for London and the Architecture Centres. But half of them have been shut down because the new government said that was Labour’s thing. There’s a lot of ground to be made up politically and the best way of doing that is to bring architecture to the public, and that’s something I’m good at. I’ve been doing that for many years, giving talks, going into classrooms, running workshops. If you can get the public interested, they will ask for better because they will know what better is.

How are you going to reach the public through the RIBA?

I want to open up the doors of the RIBA so it’s not just a place where architects talk to other architects. I would like to make architecture popular again and engage the public in loving their environment. Portland Place isn’t quite right for this. It’s a nice building, but it’s too formal. I want a place where I can have a drink, where I can take a client for lunch and get a sandwich, not just a formal meal. How fantastic it would be if our ground floor wasn’t an office, but had exhibitions, or Lego for people to come and play with buildings?

We’re in the wrong building

When I went for my first meeting with RIBA chief executive Harry Rich, I said to him, ‘You know, we’re in the wrong building – we should be in Hoxton Square’. There is already an in-house group looking at how to make the building more engaging. 

What is your take on the Localism agenda, and will you be involved in enabling it?

The coalition’s whole drive for Localism hasn’t been thought through. They needed to keep some of the Architecture Centres and vision groups open, then bring in their Localism policy. It would have been much quicker, and much easier. But trying to reinvent it and then going backwards is very difficult.

We can work with the government but they’ve got to realise we’re the ones that have the skills to help them, we’re the ones who are the innovators, we’re the ones who are going to go out there and engage with the public.

We need to support our Architecture Centres while we still have a few of them left.

Do you mean financial support?

I don’t know if the RIBA can support anybody financially. But if they had a campaign to stay open, I would be the first up there with my placard.

I’ve campaigned all my life for things. I just think we need to say to politicians, ‘We need these people’. You need the centres to run Localism, and reach the public.’

You’ve been involved in campaigning for more women in architecture, and greater diversity. Will you be shaking-up the RIBA’s internal organisation?

We’re looking for diversity in all committees from now on – not a quota as such, but I will be looking for the best women architects to become involved. I’ll also be setting up some special ‘blue sky thinking’ committees on specific tasks. They will not be talking  shop. For instance, there may be one on education, and how education can be better suited to practice. Ex-president Ruth Reed had her thing as an educationalist, but as a small practitioner I will be bringing in practical measures. Should we get 100 practices to adopt a Part 1 student to help them through college, or pay part of their fees, or take three of their mates in for crits once a month? We need a closer relationship between education and practice as I still feel there is too much of a divide between working in an office and the unreality taught in colleges. There needs to be realistic, real-world input to help students make the jump from being a student to working in practice and being useful.

What other things will these committees look at?

One of these committees is about Building Information Modelling (BIM) – it’s the way forward. If we don’t get in on BIM now we won’t be able to lead on it. We’ve got a whole new group working on BIM at the moment.

We have got to embrace BIM, because if we don’t we will be left behind. We won’t even be able to tender for any jobs in future. Besides, BIM is nothing to be afraid of. 

What else are you doing for small practices?

I’ve already got a team together on procurement and we will submit a paper into the EU next April. Procurement is killing small practices at the moment. It is a most ridiculous system of tick boxing, to select a firm based on a Pre-Qualification Questionnaire (PQQ) full of irrelevant questions that don’t have bearing on quality, or how good you may be at your job. It’s part of your professional indemnity to insure the risk, and risk is just not the way to choose a suitable, relevant architect for your project. Also, competitions: I will make sure there are more paid competitions, and I’m not interested in competitions that are not going to be built. If it’s an ideas competition, that’s different, but we should not be giving false hope to architects.

Membership to the RIBA is expensive, and optional. Why do you think architects should join?

You join a professional institute because you’re proud to be a member of it. I want people to be proud to be a member of the RIBA, but I’ve got to win that. It’s like respect, it must be earned. I am there to help our members, and if they have a problem, I’m on the other end of an email or phone call.

Earlier this year we reported on in-fighting at the RIBA. Has this died down now?

There was in-fighting, but it’s gone, done and dusted. I have a good relationship with Harry Rich. I am confident with the team, and I am pleased to say that they are bloody good.

And finally, what changes will you make to your office?

I’m going to paint my office magenta and hang Irish art on the walls. Maybe I’ll also invite other people to hang their pictures. Why not?  By the way, the first council meeting will not be in the council chambers, with its podium for the president. I want to make a statement from the very first meeting that things are going to be done differently.

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