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Alan Jones: the RIBA’s promo president

Alan jones with furniture
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He’s got the T-shirt line, a book to promote and a penchant for hashtags. But does the RIBA president really have a plan that will put #architectsfirst? Ella Jessel interviews Alan Jones 

Alan Jones’s office is buzzing like a political campaign headquarters. There are boxes of promotional leaflets for his new book, which is, coincidentally or not, to be launched at his inauguration ceremony later that week. The event will also feature a screening of a film about the popular Londonderry/Derry ‘boy-done-good’. His Twitter feed is in overdrive, a whirlwind of book-signings and selfies of him modelling his new T-shirt line, emblazoned with his campaign pledge: ‘Architects first’. 

The 78th RIBA president has spent an entire year waiting in the wings, and is now keen to make some noise about his arrival. He has already handed out his first business card – to an architecture student he overheard talking about core drilling. Jones clearly has what it takes to spread the word. Yet just what exactly is he selling? 

Asked directly what his priorities are, he launches into an analogy about how the industry is a giant plate of spaghetti

He was elected in 2017 with 52 per cent of the vote on a 19 per cent turnout, so effectively won with the backing of just 10 per cent of RIBA members. It was a turbulent election, in which the 185-year-old institute was accused of discrimination and secrecy by rival candidate Elsie Owusu. The RIBA strongly denies the allegations but nevertheless faces calls to become more relevant and some members have asked whether Jones, widely seen as the ‘continuity candidate’ compared with Owusu’s agitator-for-change stance, is the president to oversee such a shake-up.

When I visit his office, Jones is in the middle of a ruthless furniture cull. ‘Nothing will look as it is now,’ he says, gesturing around at the walls. Time’s up for an inoffensive clock and he wants new lighting. To the chagrin of former president Stephen Hodder, he is also replacing the Charles Eames ‘president’s desk’ with a new ‘collaboration table’, the surface to be adorned with visitors’ signatures.  

Jones, 55, is the RIBA’s first Northern Irish president. His background, which he describes as ‘gritty’, is important to him, he explains, as he folds his tall frame on to a doomed grey sofa. We meet during extraordinary political turmoil in Westminster. The unpredictability of the ‘current affairs soap opera’ brings back memories of the conflict back home, Jones says. 

‘All of us are sitting in London thinking, what is going to happen? Well, welcome to how Northern Ireland was in the 80s and 90s.’

A school careers test decided Jones’s path in life, coming back with the definitive compatibility score of ‘9/10 architect’. Jones trained at Queen’s University in Belfast, where he is now a professor, before moving to London, joining Hopkins as an associate, then on to David Morley Architects. Later, he returned to Northern Ireland with his wife and two sons to set up his own practice, Alan Jones Architects. He has been involved with the RIBA since 1986 and was vice-president for education and an RIBA board member from 2015-2018. 

Alan jones tshirt

Alan jones tshirt

Source: Twitter

A fresh new figurehead, then, of what architect and academic Fionn Stevenson once described as a ‘posh ornament somewhere in a posh part of London’. He will be in charge for the next two years. Jones is undoubtedly respected as an architect. Former colleagues remember him as hard-working and determined (‘like a dog with a bone’). His puppyish exuberance, however, has already raised eyebrows. He has reportedly left Post-it Notes around RIBA HQ asking people to turn the lights off.  

Despite losing out to Ben Derbyshire in the race for the RIBA top job in 2016, he determinedly ran again. ‘Even then I was saying the profession and the RIBA were on the cusp. It could slide into obscurity, or it could go on what I call the upward spiral,’ says Jones, who is wearing his trademark two-tone Wayfarer glasses but has today swapped his purple jacket for a more business-like black T-shirt and suit.  

‘Architects before architecture’ is what I want to represent. Is the institute about architecture or is it actually about architects?

‘The upward spiral’ is one of Jones’s favourite catchphrases.  He has a collection of these, many of which are converted into hashtags and used liberally on his Twitter feed @AlanJones2008. Examples include #bettertogether, #thehumbleexpert and #architectsfirst (sometimes coupled with #itsaboutyounotme).

The profession ‘sliding into obscurity’ sounds serious. So I ask him how architects can reverse this marginalisation. Jones says the answer lies in increasing professionalism: ‘This is where I have a plug for my book. Copies arrive tomorrow, it’s called Defining Contemporary Professionalism.’ Realising this is his full answer, and not having yet read it, I ask him to sum up its argument. ‘The four spheres it covers are education, practice, regulation and the construction industry … it’s how the many facets of … professionalism’. He tails off and digs out a promotional leaflet. ‘The answer to that question is this,’ pointing at the blurb. ‘I wrote that.’

Jones reckons his 256-page book, co-edited with Rob Hyde, will help communicate some sort of message beyond the profession. ‘It’s not just me; there are 60 people writing it. I sat with the new chair of ARB and she said it was so timely,’ he says. ‘To me, obviously, I would say it’s essential reading.’ 

What about the ‘Architects first’ pledge: what does that mean? Jones says it’s about making architects the top priority. The RIBA’s charter recognises both architects and architecture. But the debate about whether the institute should become more members-focused and go down a trade union route or keep its attention fixed on a wider, more cultural side of architecture has rumbled on for decades.

In fact, Jones plans to ignore the warnings from recent political history and put the ‘architect vs architecture’ question to the people (well, the RIBA Council) in a referendum vote. ‘Someone said don’t mention the “R” [for referendum] word. But “architects before architecture” is what I want to represent. Is the institute about architecture? Or is it actually about architects?’

Jones is unequivocal on protection of title and has even had a series of T-shirts made ‘in my purple’ that read ‘ARB, RIBA hard-earned letters’. He plans to wear one of these tees, inspired by the campaigning fashion designer Katharine Hamnett, when he goes to meet the ARB. He wants to use a ‘small pot of money’ he manages to investigate with them the impact of his bugbear term, ‘architectural’. 

Other pillars of Jones’s agenda are hard to eke out. The architect is a slippery interview subject and, perhaps unconsciously, somewhat evasive. He is surprisingly reticent, too, about grabbing his opportunity to tell architects what the issues are and how he intends to fix them. Asked directly what his priorities are, he skates over fees and procurement, before launching into an analogy about how the industry is a giant plate of spaghetti. 

‘Everything is highly connected,’ he says, explaining that when you pull one strand of spaghetti, the meatball moves to the other side. ‘Another standard interview question I’m asked is: “What are you going to achieve in your time” and you sort of go, hold on, there are so many fronts here.’ 

How about architects and the climate emergency? ‘I think we need to skill up,’ he says, explaining he wants to make the RIBA a ‘honeypot for high-level climate change CPD’. There is a ‘dearth’ of talent in architecture schools for teaching students about sustainable design, Jones says. He backs revising tax on retrofit, on which the AJ recently launched its new campaign.

I ask about the Architects Declare initiative, led by 17 winners of the RIBA Stirling Prize and endorsed by another 600 practices which have made a series of pledges to tackle the climate crisis. He hasn’t, he says, ‘read all the points in detail’.

Some of the group’s members have faced criticism for steaming ahead with mega-infrastructure projects. Should architects be turning down airport commissions? ‘Would I design an airport?’ he muses, before taking a long pause. ‘I would at least go and have a chat with them. You hear stories about in the near future aeroplanes going electric. I would go and chat to them and find out the current trajectory of air travel.’

Asked about the challenges facing women in architecture today, he says:  ‘I think you could argue that just being an architect is a problem’

Jones is equally non-committal about the new prime minister, though he points out this is because the RIBA is a charity and is not supposed to comment on ‘political’ matters. Might Boris Johnson be good for the built environment? ‘Putting my hopeful foot forward, I would say as mayor of London he could see the benefit of good-quality urban realm; he could see the benefit of bicycles and public transport in terms of how city works; he got it.’

Asked about the industry’s reaction to the Grenfell Tower fire and the subsequent review of building regulations, Jones argues that architects must ‘speak up’ and not be put in boxes … The government should be pushing for the same architects to be involved in projects to the end.’ As for fire safety, Jones says it is not just about meeting minimum standards. ‘It could be absolutely fine to have combustible materials below a certain height restriction but I would still say I wouldn’t use them if I were you.’

As for the broader debate over timber and its inclusion in the combustible cladding ban, Jones says a solution needs to be found. ‘We need to find ways of making timber work. They make it work in other countries; maybe there’s a nervousness because it’s new.’

On materials and design-related issues, Jones is clearly on comfortable ground. What about broader diversity, which dominated his election campaign in light of Owusu’s headline-grabbing criticism of the RIBA as an ‘old white boys club’? At the time, Jones told the AJ the comments were ‘corrosive’ and ‘not helpful’. What did he mean by that? ‘If we’re looking at a distribution graph, that sort of ‘old white’ [profile] is moving down the timeline. The average age of the profession, the profile of the profession [is moving down]’, he says.  

Alan jones smiling

Alan jones smiling

Source: Anthony Coleman

Is it just a matter of waiting then? No, Jones insists, it’s about creating equality of opportunity, all of which is laid out in his ‘social mobility action plan’. But he stops short of revealing any of its action points. Is there a role, as president, for him to speak out about these issues? Jones says there is, but that he is keen to talk about ‘solutions rather than problems’ and taking part in ‘solution-based journalism’, which perhaps he thinks this interview is not. 

Jones’s answers are similarly vague when asked about the challenges facing women in architecture today. ‘The current VP [RIBA vice-president] for education is Nicky Watson and she talks very eloquently about what the problems are and how she’s worked around them … So it’s about appreciating what the issues are and then trying to help women,’ he says, adding, ‘I think you could argue that just being an architect is a problem.’

I suggest there are perhaps a specific set of issues that women face, and Jones agrees the onus of childcare often ‘ends up being on women [rather] than on men’, though he thinks the situation is improving. He circles back to the RIBA’s social mobility plan. ‘That plan has identified hurdles throughout the career of an architect, it is about showing what we can do to address the solutions.’ These exchanges raise a potential problem with Jones’s architect first approach – does it leave any room for the views of architects who might have a different set of problems?

After an hour’s interview, his manifesto is still a bit of a mystery. He seems a natural chatterer. Has he held back for fear of being too outspoken? Or is his manifesto little more than a collection of disparate hashtags and slogans? Jones is clearly enthusiastic about improving architects’ lot and his office will no doubt become a hotbed of topical discourse. But, as the architecture critic Jay Merrick commented last year, the ‘safety-first defensiveness’ of RIBA presidents – evident over these past 60 minutes – must change if the institute has any hope of having its message hit home. 

  • 3 Comments

Readers' comments (3)

  • Chris Roche

    I have read between the lines of this disappointing interview in the hope of finding what this President stands for. However this interview, not unlike Jones' speech to an invited professional audience in Manchester last year speaks volumes about, not just Jones' lack of vision, but also of the lack of direction of RIBA, if not the wider profession. Society is facing a multitude of critical issues at present - environment, internationalism; homelessness; safety; equality of opportunity, etc. Maybe if he were to focus on his one truth in the interview, he may find a solution worth talking about - ‘I think you could argue that just being an architect is a problem.’

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  • Underwhelming on the climate emergency. Being seduced by the idea of electric planes, or indeed the majority of technological solutions to help maintain the status quo, seems naive. Runaway climate collapse will be with us a lot sooner than even hybrid air travel.

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  • Oh dear, this sounds like Donald Trump has taken over...is he going to make the RIBA great again?! Can they use our subscription to get some baseball caps printed up to this effect?!

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