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‘First we storm the building, then we take back the asylum’: Allford slams ‘irrelevant’ RIBA

Simon allford devin blair copyright

AHMM’s Simon Allford has made a stinging attack on the RIBA, urging the profession to storm its London HQ and ‘take it back for architects and architecture’

The Allford Hall Monaghan Morris co-founder and former RIBA vice-president of education hit out after learning of the latest governance shake-up at what he called ‘the sadly ever-less relevant’ institute.

Last week banker Murray Orr and Google AI principal designer Matt Jones were named as members of a new, nine-strong board of trustees, which will oversee the running of the RIBA. It will be chaired by lawyer and University of the Arts London vice-chancellor Nigel Carrington.

The other new appointments to the board include Jo Bacon, managing partner of Allies and Morrison and chair of the RIBA Awards Group, and Nicky Watson, director at JDDK Architects and current RIBA vice-president for education, as well as Royal Academy of Arts director of academic affairs MaryAnne Stevens.

The appointments followed a change in the RIBA’s constitution aimed at ‘streamlining its governance structure’. The new board will assume fiduciary duties, meaning the 50-strong council will no longer deal with operational detail.

However, the switch was derided by Allford, who told the AJ: ‘It seems the lunatics (the council) have now left the asylum and a new motley crew has been invited in by the ringmasters (the executive) to run the empty shell.

It is rarely full of anyone related to architecture – though it is big on corporate events. And now even the staff have gone

‘The president is [missing], though it matters not, as she, or in this case he, makes no difference. The building is now completely empty, which also matters little as, sadly, it is rarely full of anyone related to architecture – though it is big on corporate events. Even the staff have gone.’

Saying ‘enough is enough’, Allford called on the profession to act.

He added: ‘First we storm the building, taking it back for architects and architecture. Then we get rid of the ringmaster and his new crew, while simultaneously shrinking the payroll back to what is needed to run bars, restaurants, debates, lectures, exhibitions of the best drawing collection in the world and the celebration of excellence in education and awards.

‘Imagine 66 Portland Place as a fun palace for architects, and anyone who is interested in architecture: what it was, what it is and what it might become – with Architecture, with a capital A, as the engaging backdrop to the theatre of everyday life that we are all missing so badly.’

Allford was supported by former RIBA president and current Perkins & Will principal Jack Pringle. He said: ‘It has been one new low after another.

‘Mismanagement, leading to a financial crisis, selling off the family silver, closing the great Florence Hall Conran restaurant, where we could entertain clients or politicians so RIBA could build a staff canteen up the road, and bringing in an overarching trustee body where the chair does not have to be an architect. “Jack, it will never happen” [I was told].

‘Now, the coup de grace. We can’t even find an architect to head up the new trust body and we appoint a lawyer.’

He added: ’We are a learned institute of architects that educates and supports architects. We should be headed by one of us. Can anyone see the Law Society selecting an architect to head up their main trustee body?’

Pringle concluded: ‘Some serious architects need to get elected to council, execute a palace coup, have another SGM and straighten some things out.’

RIBA chief executive Alan Vallance had previously hailed this month’s appointment of trustees as a ‘historic moment’, which marked ‘the culmination of almost three years of detailed member consultation and development’.

Our new governance structure will enable us to be even more efficient, effective, and focused on better outcomes

He said: ‘Our new governance structure will enable us to be even more efficient, effective, and focused on better outcomes for our members.’

Another former RIBA president, George Ferguson, welcomed the creation of the board as ‘a good move with a bit of added Google whizzery’. He told the AJ: ’I’m sure there will be kick-back from some members, but RIBA Council has never been the right place to deal with financial matters. It should be the place to defend the RIBA’s spirit and purpose of raising standards in architecture and place-making.’

Ferguson, a former mayor of Bristol, went on: ‘I’m impressed with the choice of Carrington, who has had a great outward-looking track record at the University of the Arts. The president, in ordinary times, should be vice-chair and the principal link with council.

’Our wonderful drawings collection will have a great friend in MaryAnne Stevens. Murray Orr has an impressive financial CV and has, incidentally, been a generous benefactor to his old university of Bristol.’

He concluded: ‘It is vital that the new board maintains the RIBA on a sound footing and reaches out to architects, educators, students and clients. The RIBA should be outward-looking and at the heart of the debate about the making of good places and defending a fragile world.’

Details of the new board were released just days after the RIBA reported a ‘serious incident’ to the Charity Commission, involving its president, Alan Jones, who has temporarily stood down.

An inquiry launched on behalf of the institute is examining whether Jones abused his position as its president or used RIBA funds to further an alleged extramarital affair. 

RIBA response

Kerr Robertson, RIBA honorary secretary
The RIBA has been transformed. After almost three years of groundwork, last week the RIBA Council appointed a new board of trustees - some of the most influential and experienced minds in business, law, architecture, digital transformation and culture.

The new structure has been designed to improve the influence of architects on their Institute - elected Council members will no longer have to deal with operational detail and focus instead on the real issues that matter to their profession.

We are in good financial health and set up to be more efficient and effective, and better placed to support our members now and in the future.

In response to Simon’s suggestions for our London HQ – there is no need to storm the building! When the lockdown is lifted, the doors will be open again and everyone is welcome to enjoy the vast range of cultural experiences on offer.’


Readers' comments (36)

  • Well said Simon, and timely,

    It seems to me that Architects with influence, long ago left the shores of the RIBA, and it has become more and more bureaucratic since.

    In fact the Royal Academy over the last few years seems to have had more to say about architecture than the RIBA and probably rightly so.

    Why does any Institute like the RIBA need 300 people to run it ? …….. therein lies the first job, Simon.

    As the world changes for the better around us all, and radically, now is the moment when we all need to change.

    Cometh the hour cometh the man ……..

    Robin Snell

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  • I agree.

    When one receives more communication from the RIBA regarding specialised car lease deals for architects than on the RIBA's endeavours to further the public/client understanding of the value of our roles, something is wrong.

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  • The RIBA, what can I say. I've been a member since 1985. Visited the HQ twice, from the Scottish Highlands. Felt totally ignored. Never received any correspondence from them other that the RIBAJ. Many years ago we tried to join an Information Library service. Got a phone call to say 'we don't deal with Scotland, you are too far away'. What does it do for its MEMBERS outwith London, From my experience, nothing at all. Clients do recognise RIBA after your name. that is the only benefit. Otherwise, for me, totally irrelevant. It needs a complete overhaul.

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  • What I have felt for the last fifty years. If Simon were president of the RIBA I might even join it.

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  • If the RIBA provided the same level of member support and member services as the RICS the profession may be in better shape and have an improved perception in the eyes of the public and the businesses who commission us. What Simon Allford suggests is long overdue (providing of course that any 'stormers' are at least 2 metres apart).

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  • I agree with Simon. I rarely visit RIBA HQ as it is so disappointing. I do not feel as if it is anything to do with architects - in fact, it was full of radiographers when I visited once with a guest and I felt decidedly unwelcome. I couldn't even get a coffee in the building which is supposed to house my own professional institute. It was embarrassing.

    Now we have yet another raft of irrelevant bureaucratic wonks messing around with it, who are not even architects and I doubt have had anything to do with the sharp end of the profession, or construction. How can this possibly improve efficiency? While we're on the topic, what do the increasingly irrelevant and grossly overstuffed Council actually do? What on earth do 300 staff find to do all day? What is the board actually for? Why did the RIBA need yet another massively expensive building when it's already got a perfectly good one (oh, of course! The corporate events!)

    The first communication I had from the RIBA about this crisis was a reminder of my duties under the professional code. I do not wish to be preached at during a very difficult time for businesses, when it is quite likely many members will be in a terrible financial mess.

    Time to remember, RIBA, who pays for you and who you are supposed to support. You can make quite a statement by putting RIBA HQ aside for its members and guests, and events to promote architects and architecture. We must have a decent members' only area, so we little guys from the provinces feel our membership fees are of some value, and that we are actually welcome.

    In the coming recession I have far more urgent places to put my £436 membership fee.

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  • Gordon  Gibb

    While I agree with the indignation of someone who sees a layer of administrators separating the exponents from the decisions as unwelcome, I disagree with much of the detail.

    Personally I have no interest or a bar or a restaurant away down in London, indeed I didn't know that the RIBA had one. What is surprising is that I did not know this. By comparison what is obvious is that most architects in the UK wouldn't care. Also, I don't really care too much about a library of old pictures in London. Am I a philistine, or is it that we are missing the point as a profession if we are still loving the pictures?

    What I have seen RIBA Council presiding over has been all that they should have been preventing, from Latham to the collapse of the promotion of professionalism, and onwards to more recent tragic events and the attitudes that a recent inquiry appears to expose. Architects are now in a sharp, critical spotlight. It is time for us to get our act in order. The RIBA needs to be competent. Its governance needs to be robust and straightforward. Yes RIBA Council should be a sounding board, but in truth they have always been just that. All that has happened is that the decision makers are out in the open.

    We don't need a restaurant and we don't need a club in London. All the lessons being learned about remote working need to be embraced by the RIBA right now, in order that it can better serve its members. We need the RIBA to be with us, supporting us, where we are working.

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  • Pretty good architectural bookshop; what's the journal like these days?
    I can remember it varying year-to-year from being very informative to (for a while) being truly dire.
    Never tried to eat or drink there, and as a very occasional visitor from the sticks (usually to catch an exhibition) the size of the annual fee - and some of what it funded - became unsupportable.

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  • AI Google, bankers, layers, what "historic moment" for the RIBA...

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  • Philip Allsopp

    Reshaping the RIBA

    As the current President of RIBA-USA and a Chartered Member of the RIBA (earned after the marathon of architecture school in the UK and passing Part III), it has been very distressing for me and hundreds of other British-educated architects to have our regional initiatives in education, exhibitions, public policy and research persistently sidelined and ignored, viewed it seems as more of an annoyance to be tolerated than worthwhile ideas to be embraced along with the work of members operating in other regions of the world. The RIBA should be as virtual, useful and pervasive as many of the tools we use today to communicate readily with each other - not just as a club geared toward the needs of those who happen to live close by in London. Our membership is global and the RIBA ought to be reflecting and supporting that reality.

    Its always easy being a critic but I have to say that it has become increasingly frustrating to see our hard-earned Chartered Membership dues get spent on initiatives of dubious value to the profession, while the Institute appears content to stand idly by while the role, credibility and standing of its members in the eyes of the public and policy-makers, are persistently eroded and marginalized by a host of under qualified interlopers claiming to possess more relevant expertise - which, as we know, they mostly do not.

    We know that the role of human habitat in the production of greenhouse gases, human health and wellbeing, and economic resilience is profound. So too is the role played by architects in the shaping of it; the engineering, production and precision assembly of the places and environments human beings inhabit for home, work, education, worship and play. After the necessarily long and multi-disciplined marathon of architectural education leading to RIBA Part III, it is beyond frustrating to see the RIBA, through its business and governance priorities, appear content to see society at large think that the role we play in the affairs of mankind is little more than an expensive, discretionary drafting service or as grey-clad extras in glorified fixer-upper DIY TV shows.

    We are all facing a world that will likely be utterly transformed by the confluence of this latest pandemic and the fragile nature of global economies operating on vast mountains of complex debt and easily-broken supply chains of goods, services and materials of all kinds. On the other side of this pandemic (and there will be more like it waiting in the wings) it’s likely that some reset buttons will be pushed. Getting “back to normal” might not be one of them, implying as it does returning to the hyper-consumptive, just-in-time, profits-at-all-costs world that was brought to its knees by of all things, a virus. The role the RIBA should already be playing in advising elected representatives, and allied professions considering the kind of economy, way of living, type of commerce, global trade vs local production and so on, post pandemic, is without doubt a significant one. This role for the Institute, tapping into its membership base for expertise, isn’t just about upping the fees architects earn. It’s about the public duty of trust that every architect carries who passes RIBA Part III. If we remain a marginalized player entering a post pandemic world, how on earth are architects to properly and comprehensively discharge their public duties of trust and be properly compensated for the value they deliver? These duties pertain to human habitat and the places and environments that play such a profound role in the health and wellbeing of people and their ability to experience fulfilled, productive lives. These considerations, cascading out into scopes of work, continuing education, codes of professional conduct, advanced technology, accreditation and licensing etc., should be central to what the RIBA does. It should be among a small group of institutes that function as THE go-to professional bodies for advice and counsel on the remaking and re-shaping of society as we face massive challenges, many of-which, from pandemics, economic high rises built on decks of credit cards, and accelerating climate change, are of our species’ own making.

    It’s very clear new leadership at the RIBA is long overdue and this includes leadership in governance too. Not every architect pursues a career designing buildings, core to our value, though, this most definitely is. Some, as I have, go into business, investment banking, manufacturing, engineering, public health, computational design, or other fields. But all of them, I’d venture to say, harbor a dedication to their original field - architecture - and are capable of delivering enduring value to the governance and business operations of the RIBA. There is a great deal more value to the RIBA in Its 40,000+ “Chartered Membership” than just annual revenues. It’s time to tap into this broad membership base of expertise and experience, and bring it’s value to bear on the mission, governance and operations of The RIBA

    Reshaping the RIBA and its global role is, more than ever, a critical need. It has to be done by architects - not just for architects but for the public duty of care each of us carries. We cannot help to steer the ship if we are not on the bridge sharing the navigation of our species’ ways of living and the places we inhabit with other allied professionals and elected representatives.

    It’s long past time for the RIBA to move the profession into a position where it is able to do more and to earn the trust of those we serve - not just the clients who pay us. The Institue should embody and reflect the wide variety of roles its Chartered Members play, and champion very directly the profound (and measurable) economic, social and ecological value they are able to deliver to society. Both the opportunity and the need exist right now to reshape the RIBA top to bottom so that the value of architects and the educational marathon each of us had to undergo can be delivered to society to the fullest extent possible.

    The health and wellbeing of billions of lives depend on it.

    Phil Allsopp, D.Arch, M.S.(public health), RIBA FRSA, CSBA
    President, RIBA-USA, inc.
    Chair, Phoenix and Southwestern USA Chapter
    +1 480-276-7707

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