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Looking back, thinking ahead

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Outgoing RIBA president Paul Hyett reflects on his term in office and the legacy of his presidency

It all began with The Architects' Journal, when Paul Finch asked me to take over the late Ray Cecil's column. I established a routine of commenting on topical issues on a week-by-week basis - subjects ranging from Continuing Professional Development to fee agreements, from new construction legislation to employment rights, and from Professional Indemnity cover to the then new adjudication laws. Articles which were intended to be informative and entertaining in their own right, spiced up with anecdotes from my own life in practice.

My AJ experience did three things which led directly to my becoming president. Firstly, the process of research and writing on a weekly basis gave me a tremendous insight into practice-related issues, providing a good platform for later political engagement; secondly, the opportunity to 'talk' to the profession transformed me quickly into an 'officehold' name; and thirdly, my writing brought me to the attention of David Rock who, as president, had the power to co-opt additional members to council. The rest is history: I remained in that post during Marco Goldschmied's subsequent presidency, and was myself elected president in 2001.

Whatever presidential candidates may promise (or threaten) during elections, there are checks and balances at the institute which must continue to conduct its core business in a responsible and controlled manner. I would mislead if I said all was cosy and rosy in this period of my office 'friction', both internal and external, is an inevitable part of the job. But overall, relationships have been very constructive and I have had the welcome privilege to preside over a period of significant change both in terms of the structure of the institute and the culture of the profession.

Clinging to past perception

First, culture. For far too long, the architectural profession in the UK has operated as if under siege. Desperately clinging to a past perception of the role that architecture should hold within the construction industry, it has resisted change to procurement, from 'design and build' back in the '80s through to the new financial initiatives that were on stream by the mid-'90s. Strange, this, in a profession that has often recklessly embraced new technologies in construction (consider the high levels of litigation against alleged building failures arising from inadequate research, testing and development) and that has, in only two decades, totally transformed its working methods through computer-aided design: architectural information is now produced, distributed and recorded in a totally different way than when I was trained only 25 years ago.

Yet when it comes to new working relationships with other professional disciplines or - heaven forbid - across to the supply side of the construction industry, our profession draws its battle lines and resists intensely.

Other issues include our resistance to specialisation - we are all supposed to be able to design anything and deliver everything, which is absurd. But most of all we have failed to understand the enormous changes that have taken place around us and to which we have to respond. So, if my presidency has been about anything, it has been about giving a very loud wake-up call, which I did at Interbuild in 2002. Abandoning the long tradition of the president's inaugural address, I took stock for a year and then delivered the 'state of the union' address at the joint AJ/RIBA conference.

Social experiment

In short, the message was this: the British people had engaged in the biggest ever social experiment in the form of the welfare state following the Second World War. At its peak, the state employed some 65 per cent of the architectural profession who delivered virtually all of the nation's state infrastructure - from prisons to libraries; from municipal housing to hospitals; from schools to police, fire and ambulance stations; and from public sports buildings to law courts.

The state-employed architects worked in very large offices which were widely dispersed. Every borough, city and council had an architects' department, as did the coal and steel industry, the National Health Service and most other nationalised bodies.

And then there was the PSA. As a young graduate my ambition was, as with most of my colleagues, to work for the housing department of Camden or the GLC - great design departments whose work was admired the world over.

But the programme, laudable as it was, had become moribund and, rightly or wrongly, Mrs Thatcher shook the tree and effectively dismantled the entire apparatus.

Many state-employed architects retired, but many either privatised their departments or left to form new offices, or indeed join existing private-sector firms. Circumstances were made even more difficult when the profession and industry subsequently experienced the misery of recession in the early '90s.

Today, a mere 15 per cent of architects work for the state. Their role is, and will remain, critical and we must maintain an effective public representation for architecture.

Consequences of change

But the consequences of change are inevitable: new opportunities have opened up big time for the private sector. They are no longer substantially restricted to commercial and retail work - the commercial sector has been able to move extensively into state-sector provision. But these opportunities have come with conditions: as a profession we are required to adopt new working relationships and to operate through new procurement arrangements. In short, changes to our culture have been increasingly demanded and, predictably, these proposed changes have been received with much howling.

Criticisms are, of course, justified but our role is to develop these new procedures as effective methods to deliver best design, not to resist change in the honoured but futile tradition of the Luddite.

My main point during the Interbuild 2002 address was that the structure of our profession is inappropriate to the demands in front of us. Some 61 per cent of us work in firms of one to five people; 20 per cent in firms of six to 10; and only 19 per cent in firms of 11 people or more - and this was held by a large proportion of our members to be a desirable status quo.

Accordingly, I was frequently told I should work to protect the prevailing profile of the profession. But my view has always been that we are in a constant state of change. We used to have big offices - they were called local authority departments - and they offered the enormous resources required to undertake major building projects. The challenge now is to find ways in which our profession can deliver major buildings - the huge hospital and education programmes to which the government is committed - to high quality, but through a largely private delivery system.

So the wake-up call was given. I was charged in the press with alleging 'time is up for small practices' (which I never said) and the headlines called for my resignation.

What price an honest review?

But we are now well on the way to changing the profile of our profession to meet the opportunities that lie ahead. There will, of course, always be an important role for small practices, but some exciting developments have seen the linking of practices such as Bill Dunster, who specialises in sustainable design, with large firms like PRP, and there are many others. In short, there have been mergers, alliances, loose associations and general networking - all arrangements through which the depth and breadth of resources available through our profession have been improved in the interests of architecture and our service to the public.

Moving now to the issue of our institute's structure, we have seen the most significant changes to the RIBA since its formation back in 1834. Marco's legacy was the clear recognition of the need for fundamental change - to be a more outward looking and accessible organisation. He also confirmed his clear support for chief executive Richard Hastilow's concept for achieving this. My role has been to see this through, working with our council, senior members and executives to put that strategy into place through a complete reorganisation of the institute's basic structure.

New structure

The new structure focuses the RIBA's activities through three operating companies. The RIBA's charitable foundation addresses outreach to the public - in accordance with our charter which calls for the advancement of architecture. Through-life support of architects - similarly vital to the advancement of architects - is channelled through a new not-for-profit professional services company. And RIBA Enterprises (formerly RIBA Companies) provides quality services to the construction industry while making profits to fund RIBA outreach.

All of this is now managed by a new board of directors who are responsible to the council trustees, and to whom the separate boards of each of these divisions report. The intent has been better focus, improved clarity, and greater effectiveness in all that we do, combined with the ability to do much more.

And, already the proof is in the pudding: external audiences and partners are noticing the improvements.

Concurrent with all this activity, there has been the usual work of a president - visiting the branches and regions, working with the 850 elected members that service them; representing the RIBA overseas and at home in Westminster; and meeting colleagues throughout the rest of the construction industry. Any contributions that I have been able to make would not have been possible without the support of my own practice, Ryder, which during my presidency merged with an American practice to become Ryder HKS.

I have been privileged to work with a fantastic team at the RIBA, including those like Michael Rose who leads the Architecture for All campaign which aims to enhance quality of patronage, an endeavour crucial to our success in a market democracy.

Signing off, I wish you all well and ask you to remember change is inevitable. Shape it, be confident and remember you uniquely have the ability to shift and manipulate space. That is what we do well.

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