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Stephen Hodder: 'The Palestinian issue made me ill'

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Manchester-based Stephen Hodder, the outgoing RIBA president who was famously elected unopposed, talks candidly about his two year stint in the Portland Place hot seat

Did you deliver what you set out to deliver?
There were four areas I wanted to tackle: outreach, education, membership and opportunities. What I said [when I started] was that I’d learn from previous presidential terms and try and deliver a few things well.

Inevitably you get to the end of your term and in those four areas, there is ongoing work needed. But I’d like to think there are strands I’ve initiated that will still be a significant thrust in the next five years.

The work on the website, which had already started, was delivered in the early days of my presidency. Although work to be done on membership areas, the dwell time and people engaging with architecture.com is far greater than it used to be.

In terms of 66 Portland Place, the RIBA has never been able to exhibit work from its collections there because there are no environmental controls. So I had the idea of launching a competition for a [new architecture gallery] which was won by Carmody Groarke. What we saw there was the largest single piece of investment in 66 that we have seen in many, many years.

40,000 people came through the revolving doors of 66 Portland Place

The architecture gallery was a major part of the outreach programme. That was launched with The Brits Who Built the Modern World exhibition, which was extraordinary. It was amazing to have those six people [Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Michael and Patty Hopkins, Terry Farrell, and Nicholas Grimshaw] on the stage in the Jarvis Hall in my presidential term. That has got to be one of the highlights.

But not only that, the fact that 40,000 people came through the revolving doors of 66 to see an exhibition, accompanied by the three-part BBC series – each programme had a million viewers.

The gallery then held the Brutalist playground which on the opening night it was incredible – there was 1,000 people in there. What’s more it was a young generation coming in, kids subliminally engaging with architecture.

Assemble's Brutalist Playground

Assemble’s Brutalist Playground

There is still work to do – and I had hoped [the space at] Mann Island in Liverpool would be delivered during my presidential term. That hasn’t been possible, but it will be in the middle of next year.

So what about the education agenda?
I’ve always been involved in education, in one way or another. I had the romantic idea I could unify the holy trinity of education, practice and the RIBA. So I took on the role of professor at Belfast that challenged my diary at times.

But that was in the sincere belief to bring academia and practice closer together. A key part of that was the education review, which wasn’t something I initiated but was happy to elevate and support.   

That culminated in holding council in a public forum, which I don’t think had ever been done before, where more than 200 people came to listen to council’s machinations about education. It was probably the most significant development in architectural education since the Oxford Conference in 1958.

The reivew sets out the future for architectural education

The five points of that review had been something the education review group, steered through brilliantly by David Gloster and Roz Barr. The fact that council endorsed those overwhelmingly will set the pattern for the future of architectural education.

And in terms of your progress on membership issues? 
If there is one area of frustration during my term it is probably the membership review. I instigated it while vice president of membership – to look at reconciling the whole member benefits and addressing the issues of chartered practice. This one-size fits all doesn’t work.

The first tick in the box was to reinstate the fellowship. But unlike previously, where fellowship was awarded for the number of years that an architect had been a member of the RIBA, this was on merit.

This one-size fits all doesn’t work

This whole fellowship pack is ready but the problem is, because we are changing an affix, it has to go through the privvy council. It has been with them for a year. We believe everything is going to be fine. We have [already] established the panel [who will review the applications for fellows].

On the chartered practice side the idea is to create a much more tailored benefits to suit particular practices. What a sole practitioner wants is quite different to [a major practice]. BDP don’t need any advice on health and safety or HR or legal issues. They have all that in house. They want the RIBA’s network and its influence. 

That [chartered membership package] will tip toe into Jane Duncan’s presidency. It will be relaunched later this year.

Are chartered numbers dropping?
No they are not. During the recession they held firm. From this time last year the membership is up.

Membership numbers are not a worry for me. But the RIBA has got to be constantly looking at itself to remain relevant and the next generation of architects coming through. That is part of the consultation for the next five year plan.     

And what about your opportunities agenda?
There were three component parts. One, I wanted a review of competitions because there was lots in the press about wastage. Again, I was aided by a spirit in council wanting that too.

The recommendations were approved by council and we have been going through the delivery phase. What is missing, over and above what the RIBA Competitions office does, is guidance for clients on how to procure by way of competition. That guidance is about to come out – I’m hoping mid-September.

The second component part was re-invigorating the Find an Architect search tool on the website – because it was just completely unnavigable. 

The new site enabled me to do that – though it is not quite there yet. It is still in Beta form.

I have been quite fortunate that my presidency has been over a period with the profession emerging from recession. But since we launched the new Find an Architect we’ve received nearly 600,000 hits.

I have by and large delivered what I set out to

And of course there is the new Client & Architect: Developing the Essential Relationship report.  We asked hundreds of clients about how architects can bring value to them.

That has culminated with this legacy publication, which will be published on 15 September. It is a document that will have a shelf life and has some very significant messages.

So overall, while it isn’t possible to address all the issues, I have by and large delivered what I set out to.    

Have you had to be a diplomat rather than a bull in a China shop?
[Laughs] I have had to learn the skill of diplomacy - absolutely. Harry Rich said to me: ‘Have you thought about joining the United Nations?’

Look at the things we have done – such as acquiring 76 Portland Place. Why shouldn’t the procurement of that be best practice for the RIBA?

But then we had the problem with the [onerous entry requirements]. I had to step in and politically deal with that. In the end we ended up with Patrick and Soraya [Theis + Khan] – a fantastic appointment and they delivered.

But how did the process get to that point where you had to intervene?  
When you are delivering as many projects as the institute is, inevitably…. Well, in London alone there are 200 staff there and you have various directorates….

This is the point I am making and the message I’d give to Jane Duncan – or any incoming president – it is about the team at the end of the day. The president does not run the institute.

You can’t be pivotal to every decision

You have got very, very capable senior staff who are there to make decisions and run the institute.

In that instance, probably, the decision that was taken at that time was made for sound reasons. The scheme had to be delivered by a certain time because the lease on 77 Portland Place concluded in December last year. We couldn’t go beyond it. So somebody said ‘We need a practice of a certain scale who can guarantee delivery.’

But unfortunately it was a slightly siloed view and not thinking about the other issues that were going on regarding procurement and so on. I became aware of it and obviously we got a successful outcome.

But you can’t, as president, be pivotal to every decision. It just isn’t possible.

However I did initiate a cross-cutting forum because there was a view that all the various directorates thought in a siloed mentality and that vice-presidents were meeting with the group exec.

Now we meet for a whole half day and each vice president talks about burning issues for their particular directorate. That was an attempt to improve internal communications.

But the decision processes within the institute are still perceived as being very slow.
Yes I would agree with that. But I think it has got better. The idea that Harry Rich had of making all the main decision-making committees was to make sure we didn’t have to go through all the layers of decision making. Again there have been occasions when we’ve wanted to drive through something and it has taken too long.

The fellowship is a case in point. But conversely we have expedited a decision very swiftly. Although it was a challenge for me at the time, what we were able to do when the Israeli motion came out and mobilising the international task group – what Peter Oborn did there and delivering the Designing City Resilience conference – there is an example where the RIBA has been quite swift.

Was the Palestinian issue too much of a distraction? Would you have done anything different if it happened again? 
That’s a difficult one. Necessity is the mother of invention. What it did do was bring about certain processes – and had those processes been in place then of course I would have done something differently.  

I’m the sort of person who likes to think something positive came out of it

When the motion came in, it could have been scrutinised a little more diligently. But I’m the sort of person who likes to think that something positive came out of it. And that was a very considered programme of engagement that Peter went through. Mobilising the task group.

Now the RIBA has a policy on dealing with issues of human rights and conflicts that it didn’t have before.

So yes it was a distraction. I had to set up a group to deal with the outfall of the motion and that took up resource – from me and the staff. 

 It has been interesting to see what the institute has been able to deliver this year [2015] – a phenomenal amount - compared to the first year of my presidency.

You can’t have been prepared for the intensity of reaction surrounding the issue?
I’ve said to one or two people I hope my presidency is recognised for the really constructive stuff we have achieved over the two years. But inevitably that happened [during my term]. I guess you are right, I wasn’t prepared for it.

A very eminent and notable developer – who I am not going to name – came to see me and said firstly, ‘Can I help you?’ and secondly ‘I suspect you are not equipped to deal with this sort of thing’.

It was always something the institute would take time to recover from.

But I was at the AIA conference just after the natural disaster in Nepal, and there was a debate by all the presidents about what kind of policies the institutes had to deal with in these situations. I was actually able to talk and come from a position of strength because, for the first time, we actually had that in place.

How did the Palestinian issue affect you personally?
It made me ill. There were times when I didn’t know which way to turn. I didn’t know how to deal with it and everybody was looking to me for leadership.  
We were being criticised from all sides. The institute was being criticised. I was being criticised. It was an unwinnable position. And at that time I was trying to steer the institute through it, together with setting up this little group knowing that I had a problem with it as well.
I’ve never been someone who is about confrontation – it is not in my nature.

There were times when I didn’t know which way to turn

I took on the role to give back to the profession and to promote architecture – that was my passion. So I was ill-prepared for dealing with things like that. I didn’t have the knowledge, I didn’t have the experience.     

It was one area in which I had to grow up in my two years and deal with some quite significant characters.

What needed to happen was for the institute to establish a policy. A policy that was robust. That needed a lot of consideration.

Did you fear the Palestinian issue was never going to end?
Oh no. We had a plan. And we executed that plan. We had set December to get a policy in place.
There was a lot of work behind the scenes to try and ensure that there would be an effective policy. So, in theory, I had an idea when it was going to end.

How was your relationship with Harry Rich?
I’m a fairly plain speaking person. When I came in I said how I wanted the relationship to be. I was acutely aware of the issues that had gone before (see AJ 31.03.11). I wanted a transparent relationship.

I felt there needed to be a build up of trust. I wanted him to feel that if there was an issue he could come to me. And equally if I had certain concerns I know I would go to him. I set that out.

We have a very effective working relationship. In any relationship, I’m sure we have had our disagreements but those have been managed. But at the end of the day it isn’t about any one person, it is about the institute.

You can’t allow personality conflicts to get in the way

People can work together for the betterment of the institute. You can’t allow personality conflicts to get in the way.

Harry is a very good strategist. Whatever the issues that have been identified by previous people - and those have been well documented - if you look at where the institute has come from over the last five years it has been while [Harry] has been at the helm.

I was very deliberate when I came in that I wanted there to be a shift. For the same reasons as with the Israeli motion. If there are tensions it diverts attention from what we all should be doing. I was very considered and constructive about how I wanted to work with Harry.

What advice would you give the incoming president Jane Duncan?
To deliver [an] agenda you have to recognise the capabilities of the excellent people that there are within the RIBA.
And work with them as a team. It is as simple as that. It is about partnership.

She has a very effusive personality

Jane has an energy and I think she is very decisive. She has a very effusive personality and that will infect everybody.

Given what you’ve said, are you glad you’ve done it?
Yes. There have been moments when I’ve jumped on the train north and I’ve thought: ‘Did I do the right thing?’ There were one or two dark moments where it was not what I was expecting.
You can have your agenda but the scale of the organisation is such that, as its chair, there are certain responsibilities. These responsibilities go beyond architecture. It has been a huge learning curve. It has improved me as a person.

What do you mean by that?
Well, dealing with certain circumstances. Political situations that I found myself in, having to weigh up all the pros and cons and making a decision. Steering the ship towards the right conclusion.

I am emerging from this as a better equipped person

Even though I always felt quite confident my own work, as president you are put in certain situations where you have to think on your feet. 

I am emerging from it as a better equipped person. Certainly better connected. I’ve built relationships over the course of two years – particularly political ones.

Howard Bernstein is asking me to front up some of the events on the [Manchester] MIPIM stand next year and we have been talking to the City about a Manchester housing design guide. These are situations that, although I have had a close relationship with the City here, they are positions I wouldn’t ordinarily have been able to assume had it not been through my experience at the RIBA.

How did you find the media spotlight – it was something you were unsure of when you were elected? 
I am much more confident at that kind of thing than I was. Look, even now I going into evens with fear and trepidation about how I am going to deal with it. But I feel far more confident now, say in terms of chairing a debate

Just the acquirement of knowledge has been huge – not just in terms of subject matter but also in terms of how to manage certain situations and manage people.

How has it been running a growing practice as well as handling your presidential duties?
I sat in a board meeting with Claire [my wife and practice manager] and the other directors at the beginning of the year. I said: ‘So how have we done in 2014?’. They said: ‘Turnover doubled. Profit doubled. Stephen…stay at the RIBA.…’ [Laughs]

I really couldn’t have done it without Claire. She has really grown in these last two years. She picks up the two kids. She runs the office. She has been unbelievable. I genuinely mean that.

If you were to mark your presidency out of ten, what would you give yourself? 
Isn’t it for other people to mark me? There are people out there, like say Ken Shuttleworth, who have said: ‘Yours has been a good presidency’. There are probably not that many people out there who would say to me: ’Your presidency has been crap’.  They aren’t going to say that are they?

I genuinely just wanted to give back

The question to members should be: ‘Has Hodder’s presidency improved your lot as a an architect?’So, if say that legacy document helps a practice to break into a particular sector, then I’ve done something.

That is all I ever wanted to do. I genuinely just wanted to give back. If there are some who answer ‘yes’, then that’s fine by me.   

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Readers' comments (5)

  • I have just received my copy of Client & Architect: Developing the Essential Relationship with RIBA Journal, briefly browsing it's an excellent piece of remarkable work which I look forward to reading closely then reading again. Can't remember any RIBA President in recent years who has achieved so much, top marks to Stephen Hodder PPRIBA

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  • Tim Bailey

    The key analysis of the Hodder Presidency should include that the brick batts were thrown at not by Stephen Hodder and while damaging in the short term have been turned to significant advantage for the long term. Seeds sown over the last two years I predict will have lasting and important effect both at RIBA and in the profession. I've seen the total commitment and hard work and Stephen needs to be repeatedly congratulated for steering a tricky ship so well.

    Tim Bailey
    xsite architecture LLP
    RIBA Council

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  • Stephen Hodder's low mark of scuppering the democratic decision of Council to take action on a matter of deep professional ethics and principle against the practice of architecture by Israeli architects that defied every Article and Accord of the UIA, ( the architect's equivalent of the UN) will leave a stain on the RIBA that will forever haunt its portals. If that issue made Hodder feel sick, can you imagine how nauseating and depressing it was for those RIBA members who tried to bring such an important issue for upholding the UIA's ethics, for their institute to act on, that would have made a human, moral and ethical stand for justice for the Palestinians, who have been and continue to be dispossessed of their land and homes so that Israeli architects can build unrelentingly for one privileged section of a population, defying UN Resolutions, the Geneva Conventions, UIA Resolutions and the simplest principles of humanity.
    It is obvious that Hodder, advised by Harry Rich, and a panoply of outside lobbyists, were given total preference, while those who brought the Motion, and who could have given serious expert advice, including the voice of Palestinians, were completely ignored and sidelined. This attitude was replicated all the way to the UIA Assembly at Durban in 2014, where the Resolution was kicked into the long grass and then disgracefully reversed at a subsequent RIBA Council.
    Meanwhile, the illegal and violent settlement agenda, the apartheid practices of housing and building, the urbicide in Gaza and the destruction and stealing of Palestinian homes and land continues with greater ferocity to build housing for Israelis, which no RIBA set-up of supposed 'ethics committees' can have any effect or benefit.
    This outrage cannot be assuaged until the RIBA re-instates the earlier Resolution and ensure that the action to suspend the Israeli Association of United Architects be debated and acted upon at a future UIA Council or Assembly.

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  • The Palestinian issue may have made Stephen Hodder ill, and he is a weak man to have admitted that, but the failure of the RIBA to slap the wrist to the Israeli architects' Association has no doubt allowed the building of illegal "settlements" and the demolition of Palestinians' homes to increase.

    That is what should be making him ill.

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  • Tim Bailey

    The key analysis of the Hodder Presidency should include that the brick batts were thrown at not by Stephen Hodder and while damaging in the short term have been turned to significant advantage for the long term. Seeds sown over the last two years I predict will have lasting and important effect both at RIBA and in the profession. I've seen the total commitment and hard work and Stephen needs to be repeatedly congratulated for steering a tricky ship so well.

    Tim Bailey
    xsite architecture LLP
    RIBA Council

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

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