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Elections 2020: How will a new president change the RIAS?

Rias crest crop

Polls have now opened in the race to replace Robin Webster as president of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS), with the three contenders vowing to speed up change at the historic institution

The new president will be installed at an annual general meeting of the RIAS on 30 June – four days after voting ends.

It will be the only second president since the 1980s to have been directly elected by the membership.

The candidates are Karen Pickering, chair of the board of directors at Page\Park, Christina Gaiger, architect at Helen Lucas Architects, and Gordon Smith, director of GSS Architect.

The three have made commitments on issues including climate change and sustainability, diversity, and equality, reforming procurement and promoting good architecture in Scotland.

But each has also vowed to continue overhauling the 104-year institution, which was accused of lacking proper governance following the resignation of long-time treasurer Neil Baxter in 2017.

Police Scotland and the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator both have ongoing investigations into financial irregularities at the RIAS. The results of an internal probe into the incorporation’s governance during the same period was handed to both bodies last year.

Changes at the RIAS since 2017 were prompted by lobby group A New Chapter. More than 100 Scottish architects demanded change amid claims RIAS was secretive and lacked accountability.

Since then the institution has published a strategy document for how it will ‘inspire’ improvement across a range of issues in Scottish architecture.

The Candidates

christina gaiger

Christina Gaiger has worked at Renzo Piano Building Workshop in Paris and Tsao&McKown in New York, but has worked for Helen Lucas Architects since 2014. She became a council member for the Edinburgh Architectural Association in April 2019, before becoming an Edinburgh chapter representative for the RIAS in September 2019.

karen pickering

Karen Pickering joined Page\Park in 1992 after graduating from the Glasgow School of Art and is currently chair of the board of directors, as well as leader of the practice’s Creative Workspace team.
She is also a board member for Women in Property Scotland and Employee Ownership Scotland, as well as an awards assessor for the Civic Trust and a business contributor to the Scottish Government Economy and Fair Work Committee.

gordon smith

Gordon Smith has been a sole practitioner for more than 35 years. He was the only candidate to run against Robin Webster in the previous RIAS election in 2018 and has been a nationally elected RIAS council member since 2016.
He was also president of the Aberdeen Society of Architects from 2009 to 2011 and remains treasurer to the organisation. Smith was also RIAS’s North Scotland representative to the RIBA Council between 2010 and 2016.


Candidates Q&A

Do you think Robin Webster has succeeded in reforming RIAS – and what are the issues facing the organisation?

Gordon Smith: It’s ongoing. As part of the debate within the RIAS, ‘How to tailor the aims and aspirations of all its members coupled with modernisation of internal governance’, we sought the views of all members, not just focus groups; to fully reflect aspirations of members in an inclusive, focused professional organisation. I think Robin would agree that it is easy to promise, but harder to deliver.

Progress has been slow, but it continues. We didn’t hide away from questions being asked, nor can we change history. Where mistakes were made, we held our hands up ensuring that mistakes of the past will not be repeated but where good was undertaken this is also acknowledged. We are a member organisation first. Decisions are collective, only through working together, listening to our members, and respecting differing views, can we achieve our Strategy: creating space for inspiring conversations. Focus on the way ahead.

Karen Pickering: Robin took on a difficult job when he became president. The New Chapter [campaign] exposed all that was wrong with the RIAS. The incorporation had been very inward-looking and covert. Robin and the RIAS Council have learned from that and are changing the way the Incorporation is run. However, I think there is still a long way to go. Robin has done a great job of steadying the ship but now the pace for the rate of change needs to speed up. The main issues for the RIAS are regaining the trust of architects. It needs to shed the image of being a gentlemen’s club. It has to become more relevant to everyday architects in practice and do more for us. I think a lot architects become members just to put the letters after their name. This has to change and the RIAS needs to engage more with architects and students and offer them more.

Christina Gaiger: It was a result of Robin Webster becoming president that I joined the RIAS and actively wanted to become more involved. I have worked closely with him over the last nine months on council, witnessed and contributed to the changes and plans which have been put in motion. This period will always be looked back on as a pivotal time for the RIAS. There is still work to be done and the reform is not complete. I want to build on the start that he has made, take the mantle and run with it, completing the governance structure changes to enable a more contemporary and dynamic organisation. One of the biggest issues we’re facing, alongside supporting the profession through the repercussions of the pandemic, is how the RIAS finds it’s voice for members; how it communicates, advocates and binds the profession together. 

What is the biggest issue facing architects in Scotland?

Karen Pickering: The greatest challenge the profession will face is recession. This will not just effect architects in Scotland but architects throughout the UK. There will be more competition for fewer projects, with the prospect of fees being lowered even further. The RIAS needs to support our architects by being in dialogue with the Scottish Government for support, so that fees do not drop below a reasonable level. The wellbeing of architects will also be a big issue, as the stress of keeping a business going in difficult times can take its toll. We need greater collaboration between the RIAS and the RIBA, as they need to unite to help our architects through this. As the country begins to emerge from lockdown it seems that much will change. With the greater recognition of the need to address the climate emergency, this crisis can become the catalyst to make things happen.

Christina Gaiger: I cannot talk about issues facing the profession without first acknowledging the coronavirus outbreak. There are architects up and down the country that are going through an incredibly difficult time. It will affect us all in different ways. For some, understandably, their primary focus will be job security and financial stability and the RIAS should do it’s best to support the profession through this time. Alongside this, architects are concerned that there has been a loss of focus on the larger overarching issue of the global climate emergency. It is key that architects are central to conversations about the post pandemic environment with a focus on carbon reduction. We should take this opportunity to stop and think about our next move, as opposed to rush to build again by any means. To innovate, collectively problem-solve, share knowledge and design responsibly.

Gordon Smith: It is vital the RIAS understand the key problems faced and how best represent and support members, never more so as 2020 ensues, a fast-moving situation with significant social and economic implications. We all share concerns about the position of the architectural profession in society and the value of organisations as RIAS. We must engage with our members and society in general. Consideration two distinct time frames:

  • Short-term issues arising to existing projects
  • Medium-term productivity drop-off and decreased workload

The biggest problem we face is climate change. We need to make a big change in the way we work, with RIAS leading on climate change, environment and sustainability committing to continuously improve the social/environmental impacts of design aligned with a green recovery. Secondly, procurement leading on processes and outcomes identifying potential new procurement routes where design quality of new buildings and their fitness for purpose is paramount.

Why are you the right person to take the job?

Christina  Gaiger: Running for president really wasn’t on my mind when I first joined the RIAS. Having backed reform through A New Chapter, I got involved to make a difference. I’m standing as a direct result of being inspired and empowered by those around me. As president, I would want to do exactly that for every architect in Scotland and beyond – inspire and empower. My thoughts and intentions have been clear and consistent from the beginning of my campaign. My passion is clear and I’m excited for what the RIAS could be; a vibrant, active and influential community of architects in Scotland.

Gordon Smith: The RIAS, the leading voice for excellence in the built environment in Scotland, in restoring that influence, respect and reputation creating opportunities for its members; it cannot be done alone, but by listening to members, striking a balance between practical realities underpinned by clear, focused actions we can achieve the aspirations of the membership and future strategic direction. 

Pledging to launch new initiatives building upon the momentum already developed by my predecessor’s I believe we now need continuity to consolidate where we are in that process. Having worked in local authority, large practice and as a sole practitioner, personal involvement with RIAS and RIBA at both local and national level; gives me the experience to work for every member throughout Scotland. My only promise is I will approach the task with enthusiasm, commitment, and integrity, working tirelessly for the membership, at a time when it is needed more than ever.

Karen Pickering: I lead a practice delivering UK wide projects and have a passion for architecture and also for the business of architecture. I have extensive practice experience and political skills which are needed when leading. As a director of an employee owned business I understand the governance and transparency that is required for running a successful organisation. I also understand that you need to consult with the wider membership to help make informed decisions and good communication is essential. 

I have a dynamic and enthusiastic attitude and I hope to energise the Incorporation and transform its traditional image. I am an outspoken architect and very visible in the construction industry and would aim to reach out to that network and get more people involved with the RIAS. I would hope that seeing me as president would encourage more architects to become members but also show that the RIAS is becoming more inclusive.

 What do RIAS members make of the election?

Paul Stallan, director at Stallan-Brand: ’The RIAS needs to play a greater part in motivating the profession in its efforts to make the world a better place – plain and simple. As a professional collective we need to better advocate the role that architecture plays within society in this time of crisis. To achieve this we need to reconstruct a shambolic procurement landscape to be quicker, fairer and led with design intent. Critically, the public sector needs to be much more collaborative and ingenious in its efforts to get things done whilst continuing to place ecology and health and well-being at the centre of all development initiative. Equally the profession should be lobbying the private sector and demanding that it is more aspirational, less cynical, less short-term focused and that not pursuing best in class is a false economy and down right shabby. Whilst we are on a roll we should ban volume housebuilding and close Donald Trump’s golf courses.’

Alan Dunlop, a visiting professor of architecture at Liverpool University and a fellow of the RIAS, said: ’They are all very worthy candidates with very worthy aspirations. I have not read nor heard anything from them that would drive much needed change. Unfortunately, the RIAS is still an almost irrelevant talking shop. Like the RIBA, the incorporation plays safe at almost every turn, fails to turn up for the big debates of our time and shows little capacity to influence either policy or strategic decision making at almost any level of government. We still have a national procurement system in Scotland that is Byzantine in its complexity; turns out repetitious and uninspiring public buildings, particularly hospitals and schools. I have seen little of the radical shake-up promised after the debacle surrounding the previous secretary’s “resignation” and I fear that much has been swept under the proverbial carpet. I wish the new appointee well and I trust that he or she has a strong constitution.’

Ruta Turcinaviciute, a Part 2 architectural assistant at 3DReid, said: ’RIAS as an organisation has been in desperate need of a well-communicated and measured change for some time now. With the new strategy for the way forward recently published, I was eagerly waiting for a young new force to come into play in the upcoming RIAS Presidential Elections. As a recent graduate and associate member, I was keen to see someone who could finally represent my interests and those of the future of the profession. I realised how important it was for the new presidential candidate to demonstrate the engagement with the grassroots of the profession and reconnect RIAS to its membership. I will vote for a candidate who takes a bottom-up approach to the organisation and calls for diversity and integrated sustainability outlook which is necessary in these challenging times for the profession. After all, RIAS are a membership organisation and we need someone to start listening.


Readers' comments (12)

  • About time the RIAS had another female President, go Christina you have the perspective to cut to the chase and continue the reform required.

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  • Really surprised by Alan Dunlop's comment that change at RIAS has been minimal. That's not how it appears to me. It's important the new president has energy and ideas to keep pushing the reforms forward and make architecture more relevant.

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  • Reading through this, the RIAS and RIBA both seem to have been suffering from the same malaise for quite a while - and from the point of view of people outside the profession (and particularly those with real political and financial authority, if not particularly architecturally aware) there's surely the risk (to put it crudely) that both outfits are seen as 'gutless wonders'.

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  • Rab, surprised, really?

    Perhaps you could outline briefly any change, driven by the RIAS that has had any effect whatsoever on the work, perception and real worth of the many architects, students struggling at present and architecture in Scotland.

    Moreover, in the last two/ three years there have been major architecture, education, building procurement and fee related issues and stories here, including hospital procurement, failings in new hospital building, Non Profit Distribution, school building collapses, student numbers and fees, Glasgow School of Art, The Burrell, the Royal High School, St Peters, Glasgow Winter Gardens and many more yet we have not heard a peep from the RIAS regarding any of them, they have been missing in action because their opinions on matters architectural, practice, contractual, education, student hardship, does not register beyond the walls of Rutland Square. I suspect for fear of upsetting the government and the vested interests of those in the incorporation.

    I'd be grateful if you would let me know otherwise

    RIAS is still housed in a building that is not fit for purpose and is inaccessible for people in wheelchairs and with other special needs.

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  • Although Rab, Robert , not gutless wonders for it does look like the days of the gentleman’s club are at last over the incorporation has still, in my view, to come clean about the resignation of the previous secretary and investigated.

    Information regarding financial accountability and past governance is still to addressed and be made accessible and available to all the members who are involved in the RIAS and who, like me, pay substantial subscription fees and any criticism not passed off, as it was, as “fake news” https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/astragal-rias-criticisms-are-fake-news-claims-president/10027298.article

    It is a positive move that elections for RIAS President and Council are now open to all RIAS members but the incorporation now needs significant restructuring, until that happens the new president, however worthy will still be re organising deck chairs.

    Looking at other similar, more effective organisations that represent professionals, operating structures and governance have moved away from what is still an old RIAS model to clearly separate the senior members representative from and executive.

    The RIAS should be run like other similar organisations such as the BMA (British Medical Association), the ICAS (Institute of Chartered Accountants in Scotland) or the IET (Institute of Engineering and Technology) in that it should have a Chief Executive and a properly functioning board drawn from qualified trustees, which are elected by the various local chapters.

    The president would act as a chair of the new board and that’s the way it should move forward.

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  • Reform of an organisation that has sustained huge damage is a slow, patient task, and it is of enormous credit to Robin, our loyal staff and the efforts of our chief reform campaigner that we still have an organisation to reform. And having properly and unanimously referred ourselves to the police it is not for us to "come clean" about previous events before they report. Meanwhile I have just cast my vote for a whip-smart, level-headed, campaigning 33-year-old woman for President and my wee hert near leapt oot ma chest...

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  • Apologies, that comment was from Malcolm Fraser, on the wrong account! As this...

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  • Your hert may well have lept oot yer chest, although what on earth that has tae dae wi the price a fish, a've nae idea.

    As you well know, the incentive for the police to pursue referrals must meet higher levels of what would be considered as in the "public interest". However, it is certainly in my interest as an architect in Scotland and fellow of the incorporation of long standing for the incorporation to come clean.

    It may well take time to reform an organisation, such as the RIAS, but start with that and we'll see how things go.

    Nae apologies either as this comment was from Alan Dunlop's account

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  • Your frustration about the past is evident, Alan, but one of the main recent achievements has been to embrace the enthusiasm of a younger generation that previously felt excluded. If that enthusiasm and energy can be represented in the leadership too it would be the clearest mandate to carry on the changes begun by Robin Webster and colleagues.

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  • You'd be wrong to think this is all about the past and I'm certainly not frustrated. I wish the candidates well. But enough from me, for the moment anyway.

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