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

Simon allford devin blair copyright
  • 36 Comments

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.’

  • 36 Comments

Readers' comments (36)

  • As a developer who lives outside London I have visited Portland Place on one occasion for a meeting and its a soulless place which seemed to have little going on within it and the vast space seemed staggeringly underused. There was little in the way of inspiring architecture to see, in the end me and my cohorts headed down the road for lunch to continue our meeting. I was underwhelmed to say the least.

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  • I've spent 11 years getting to this point - having passed by Part 3 last year. Following that, I haven't registered with ARB and not even considered RIBA membership. (Not claiming to be an architect before anyone questions that - not my title or anything.)

    This is another clear, concise and obvious critique of RIBA, reflecting why it struggling and the profession spends most of it's time attending 'profession in crisis' events.

    It needs to be more than London-centric, even though London is where it's primary base is and where many of the most influential members might be located (probably the international base for best architecture) and yet most of the interesting things within RIBA take place outside the capital.

    The organisational structure cannot be defended. The council is slow and productive change is non-existent. It's elected leader has no power while others work in the shadows.

    Not sure how 300 people could be usefully working there, but it's not their fault and NOBODY should be let go at this point at all. Wonder how many are furloughed despite many architects themselves fighting to keep working and keep building for society.

    RIBA seemingly does nothing to influence government, nothing to help architects or help achieve good architecture. The code of conduct for RIBA and ARB is not as good and robust and other professionals and we remain entirely at the mercy of each other in a race to the bottom in fees / quality / design and becoming increasingly irrelevant in modern society.

    This perhaps isn't the optimal time to take down RIBA, but as far as I can see (as a young potential professional) its long overdue!

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  • the RIBA are a useless royal throwback. as functional as the monarchy that supports them. What do they do now? why do they need an embassy as large as the whole of china?
    when was the last time they had any kind of relevant or interesting lecture, exhibition or debate? and now they are giving low paid architects money away to the very wealthiest CEOs and lawyers? its unbeleivable. how about protecting the term architect (try searching on linkedin) or how abotu sticking up for pay and working conditions of architects (worse tehan anyone else in the construction industry). this institute is a joke which only serves itself. just leave, they literally do nothing for you

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  • why has the RIBA been entirely absent in the climate change debate? Why have they said nothing about London's air pollution killing people who live here? Why arent they issuing guidance about designing for social isolation? why have they encouraged buildings reliant on air conditioning systems that spread viruses for years? Where was the quality control to stop something like Grenfell?

    Is there anything they have done in the last decade or so that is actually relevant or useful?

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  • Brilliantly put Simon!

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  • Chris Roche

    Having spent 25 years actively trying to improve the RIBA and represent members views on Council I finally gave up and withdrew my fees and my support. It wasn’t that the RIBA covered up my complaint to the Charity Commission about systemic corruption that, no the final straw came after lobbying and campaigning to set up an International Conference which instead of delivering a global opportunity for the membership became a PR opportunity for large corporate practice. RIBA has been dead for a long time - it’s now time to bury it.

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  • At the RIBA SGM 2nd Oct 2019, held to approve the changes to the byelaws which clear the way for a corporate take-over of our Institute, transforming it from a democratic, membership organisation, I spoke to oppose thistranformation, as did Tzena James. We argued that this would inevitably undermine democratic control and open the Institute to corporate takeover and in particular that the position of chair of the Board was not reserved for an architect, a situation unimaginable for any other UK professional organisation. We were told that as the changes had already been approved by Council (which had meekly voted for its own disempowerment) and that the SGM was effectively a rubber stamp.

    A vote was taken and from memory there were only 4 votes against.

    However, rumour has it that coaches were provided for the architect staff-members from Ben Derbyshire’s and John Assael’s offices to pack the meeting, which was held during normal working hours and would therefore be most inconvenient for the average RIBA member. however committed.

    Is it any surprise that over 80% of architects question the relevance of the Institute to their professional lives? I fully support the protest that Simon Alford has launched.

    Kate Macintosh

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  • Simon Allford in on point. We should seize control of the useless, bureacratic RIBA run by irrelevant lawyers or a womanizer president. These people are an embarrassment to the standards and reputation of our profession, especially in the difficult times we are facing with the ongoing crisis. We are in need of a bold change. Let's act now.

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  • Looking at all these comments, there are some uncomfortable parallels between the ongoing evolution of the RIBA and George Orwell's 'Animal Farm'.

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  • Indeed, or Joseph Heller's Catch 22; 'SNAFU'.

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