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‘A watershed moment’: Robin Webster named new RIAS president

Robin webster
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Robin Webster, who has vowed to reform the troubled Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS), has been elected as its new president

The architect and co-founder of Glasgow’s Cameronwebster Architects saw off rival Gordon G Smith after standing on a ticket to shake up the scandal-hit 102-year-old organisation.

In the past 12 months, the RIAS has been rocked by problems with internal governance, the unexpected departure of its secretary and treasurer Neil Baxter and investigations by both the charity regulator and the police.

Webster is joined by five new national councillors, three of whom – Malcolm Fraser, Gordon Duffy and Helen Lucas – have also committed themselves to pushing through major institutional change.

The trio are members of A New Chapter, a collective of more than 150 architects who have declared they want the organisation to become better-run, less secretive and more financially accountable. Karen Anderson and self-taught architect Ben Scrimgeour complete the list of newcomers.

Speaking after his election win, Webster said: ’I want to thank everyone who voted for me, and especially my supporters, who have challenged the status quo and argued for reform within the Incorporation. I expect that from now on we will operate a transparent organisation, fully compliant with the requirements of the by-laws and meet all good governance protocols.’

However, he added: ’That said, the problems that face the built environment and the quality of architecture in Scotland will not go away just by reorganising our committees and procedures. It is essential that we address how we enable talent and create opportunity, how our work is valued, and how we work ethically to achieve the best possible results.

’We have much to learn from other countries and hope to challenge the Scottish Government and local authorities regarding the quality of public architecture and construction.’

The new national councillors also released a joint statement, promising their support for Webster: ‘Having actively campaigned for change to the RIAS, we will work with Robin as he drives improvements forward.

’We have viewed with concern the failings within the organisation and are aware that the charity regulator’s inquiry is “still ongoing”. We will, therefore, be pushing for the RIAS to be open, in order to demonstrate that we have learned from such mistakes in building a new, relevant, vibrant, approachable and accountable professional body.’

This election result is historic. It marks a new start for the RIAS

The election results were welcomed by RIAS trustee and chair of the incorporation ’s practice committee Kerr Robertson, who has been instrumental in the current shake-up of the organisation and its governance. He said: ‘This election result is historic. It marks a new start for the RIAS – a new era which will hopefully be more transparent, inclusive and accountable.

‘It is a watershed moment.’

It was the first time since the 1980s that the members of the RIAS were allowed to vote for their president. For the past three decades nominations for the organisation’s top role were invited from RIAS fellows and then voted on solely by its council members.

Webster will take over as president from Stewart Henderson at the Incorporation’s AGM on 11 October 2018 and serve for 19 months.

Robin Webster: ‘The RIAS had become one man’s fiefdom’

What is your perception of the RIAS and how it has been run in recent years?

It seemed to have become one man’s fiefdom, with a lot of superficial public relations fluff. Its governance has been a mess, and what real work it has achieved has been poorly communicated. There are some great people there, and practice services have been much appreciated, but a very self-satisfied draft strategy document issued last year gave rise to much discontent.

A New Chapter formed by many architects both within and without the incorporation has raised issues that, with the help of many members, have now begun to be addressed by the different chapters and council. I am encouraged by a sense of engagement, but there is still much to do.

What one thing would you hope to achieve in your first 12 months in the role?
A more collegiate Incorporation, with a better balance of gender and age, keen to contribute and take us forward.

How can the profession’s marginalisation be reversed?
We can push at an open door regarding the need for the architect’s impartial professional role to ensure well-crafted buildings – both safe and better value. The government needs to hear about this and how the talent in our profession can be better sourced.

What immediate action would you take to tackle the gender pay gap?
Ask all offices to examine and reassess their pay structure and report back on how they will improve it.

How do you get those with influence to listen to the RIAS?
By encouraging better communication, organised networking, and publishing articles by knowledgeable and experienced architects with clear and ethical views.

Which building by another architect do you wish you could have designed?
Maison de Verre by Pierre Chareau.

Where is your favourite place?
My flat in Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson’s Walmer Crescent, Glasgow.

The Mac – rebuild as was, retain and add, or restart?
Rebuild as it was to Mackintosh’s drawings and details, and take over the rest of the urban block down to Sauchiehall Street to give the Glasgow School of Art more presence there and enliven the failing street.

What was the last book you read?
AA Files X: full of stimulating stuff, like conversations between Cedric Price and Frank Newby.

Who is your hero?
Kazuyo Sejima for her spare and elegant buildings.

Who do you turn to for advice?
My partner Stuart Cameron, my children and my wife.

What is your biggest extravagance?
Wasting time.

What do you collect?
Drawings and ideas.

How would you celebrate if you won?
Take a deep breath, and ask my supporters to join me for a drink in the Laurieston pub.

What is your motto?
Deus Textor Vitae Nostrae (family motto).

Factfile

After qualifying as an architect in 1967, Webster partnered with Robin Spence to form their own firm. During their partnership from 1972-1984, the practice won awards for its design of the Belsize Park Gardens residential project in Camden, and closer to home designed a new block for Ross Hall Hospital in Glasgow. In 1984 Webster’s success was recognised when he was appointed professor of architecture at Robert Gordon University’s Scott Sutherland School in Aberdeen. During his time at Robert Gordon, the practice continued to thrive, winning a number of international competitions.

Webster set up Cameronwebster Architects in 2005 with his daughter Miranda and his son-in-law Stuart Cameron. In 2017 he became a commissioner of the Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland and sat on the Govan and Craigton Community Planning Board. He served as chairman of the North Highlands Renewal Built Environment Advisory Panel, a trustee of the Glasgow City Heritage Trust, continues as trustee of the Scottish Stained-Glass Symposium, and is a former chairman of the Alexander Greek Thomson Society. Webster was handed an OBE in 1999.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Congratulations Robin. Now is the time for those still on Council who have obstructed reform to depart.

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  • Yes, a very big congratulations to Robin and all the new Nationally Elected members, particularly Malcolm, Helen and Gordon who have worked so hard for reform over the last year.

    Despite those who were not keen for change, and their criticism of aNC raising questions as harmful to the RIAS, the statistics very much prove otherwise.

    In the National Elections last year were had barely 1% of the membership bothering to cast a vote - this year it was nearly 24%. This was much higher than the very public RIBA election earlier this year which was more in the region of 18%. Both organisations can hopefully build on that, but what a great turnaround for the RIAS.

    More than that, I attended a GIA workshop earlier this week, part of a massive programme to inform and engage members with strategy. It was a packed meeting with a great range of people, young and old. There were people from practice and education as well as non architect, developers and technologists, keen to have their voice heard as well. It is the same in the East will Julie Wilson setting the pace with members engaging in a series of sell-out workshops.

    How fantastic is all of this compared to a year ago when the RIAS 5 year strategy came across a slightly embarrassing 'below the counter' rubber stamp job, with pretty much zero engagement of our members.

    I was sorry to see Stephen Miles didn't make it on to Council as he so did much to help support reform and like the fantastic Rosalie Menon, was not afraid to speak out. Hopefully they will remain engaged and we will see them back on Council in due course.

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