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Roula Konzotis has transformed the corporate image of major arts bodies, using a combination of management training and a passion for culture. Now she is taking on the RIBA as its new director of communications by david taylor. photograph by jonathan brad

'Corrrr! Cool, mum!'

This, of course, is absolutely not the normal reaction people have when they walk into 66 Portland Place. But then Oliver Konzotis is no ordinary architecture-loving visitor to Grey Wornum's echoey hall of fame. For one thing, he's only 10. And for another, he's the eldest son of the institute's newest, and some would say, most powerful, figure: director of communications, Roula.

And yet Oliver's immediate critique on the impressive size of riba's hq was probably a heartening, if concise, rejoinder for Konzotis senior to take in. Because although she's only been in the job for four weeks, Konzotis has already done enough 'sifting' internally and research externally to realise that communicating the message of architecture and the built environment is an important task best begun with those of tender years. She's also decided that it is a massive, complex and 'hugely stimulating' job that she has in store for herself, involving corporate image, efficiency and future strategy. But it's 'frightening' all the same.

'At the moment, like so many organisations, the riba is using the millennium as a very useful peg to look at its future direction and what that should be,' she says. 'If there's any way I can help with that process, having done it for national organisations, then I'm obviously keen to do so. There's a lot of skill and expertise at the riba and I think in some ways it's a much maligned organisation ... . I was appointed as a strategist.'

Part management consultant, part pr supremo, part marketing bod, even part visionary, Konzotis will be looking at every department within the riba, meeting up with the regions, busily organising and researching. (Handy then, that she has been a management consultant with Bonnar Keenlyside on various lottery and arts projects; head of press for the Ballet Rambert; and director of marketing for the English National Ballet.) She'll then set an agenda in terms of priorities for action, based on what these myriad people tell her they need. 'There's no way I can sell something unless I know what it is I'm selling,' she says. 'And are we all clear that I'm selling the same thing?'

Happily, Konzotis prides herself on being a passionate, 'can-do' person who can quickly tease out issues and grasp an 'overview' of organisations. She rapidly begins to see them, she says, like a cad model, in 3d. 'A strategy is exactly that - you don't just look at it from education's point of view, or from overall policy's point of view, but you look at overall policy's impact on education, on practice, you know? And that's what I think I'm quite good at. It's not flat; it's not a matrix; it's rounded.'

Changes, one feels, could come quickly. Konzotis believes that, come the new year, things will begin being put into place.

'My role is to communicate with the external world - and we have to prioritise and target who those constituencies are, like parliament and government, clients, developers, and the public who don't now use architects.'

A petite, headstrong, dynamo of a woman with a little bit of the teacher in her and a smattering of management-speak (though in a post-modern, self-referential way), 46 year-old Konzotis was born in Eastbourne to Greek parents. She was brought up in the heart of London's Greek community and speaks the language fluently, as well as retaining another passion for ancient Greek drama. Having studied for a drama-teaching degree at Manchester University in the mid-70s, she got a job as head of drama and English at the Cardinal Newman School in Sussex, where she stayed for three years before doing much the same role in Athens.

Since then, she has been integral in transforming the corporate image of the London Festival Ballet into the English National Ballet ('too quickly', she says) as well as her freelance projects and arts consultancy.

In her private life, she's nigh-on-obsessive about swimming, regularly taking her children and bossing them to breathe properly and do their lengths rather than play. 'I'm called 'The Grouch' at home,' she jokes. She's a fervent educationalist on arts issues, enjoying opening the kids' eyes to buildings such as the Ark in Hammersmith, which they glimpse from the fly-over during the drive from the Chiswick home she shares with their father, who owns an Internet company. A Chelsea fan, she tells institute president and communications advocate Marco Goldschmied he's 'very sad' to support Spurs. 'He should support Chelsea with the number of Italians in it.'

But although she has dealt with architects such as rhwl on various lottery projects, it's still going to be a steep learning curve. 'I like architecture but I've got a lot to learn both about architecture and about the business of architecture. I don't want to be coming in as I've seen people coming in from outside the arts thinking they know it all. I know my strengths and I know the bits I've got to work on.'

As to early impressions, it is Konzotis' view that the riba has problems, like any other body, large or small (she feels it 'inappropriate' to pick any out). But it has 'huge potential' on its side. It's not an image change that's important, however. It's what architecture 'needs' and how the message is delivered amidst a culture that revels in the kitsch garden and home-design programmes littering the tv schedules today. The 'mdf factor', she calls it. The task on that one is to raise the debate and show quality.

The regions, too, are important, and will play a large part in the immediate 'pro-active' activities of the riba. Konzotis intends to go to each regional office, having already been to see some of the staff under her communications umbrella - around 18 - at the competitions office in Leeds and the awards office in Birmingham. So much so she asks me to mention the press officer newly charged with the regions - Hilary Clarke.

So is a sea-change on the cards for the currently named Royal Institute of British Architects?

'At the moment it's examining the fundamentals and at the end the decision might be made that they don't need to be changed or that they need to be changed radically, but the important thing is to have the debate.'

Watch this space.

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