The incoming RIBA president believes a stronger institute is the key to reviving architects’ waning influence. Will Hurst spoke to Ben Derbyshire about his plans. Photography by Anthony Coleman
Ben Derbyshire campaigned for the RIBA presidency on a platform of change. As he takes the reins this month from Jane Duncan, the question now is how much of that change will be brought by him and how much by events beyond his control.
The chair of AJ100 practice HTA Design finds himself heading an institute in flux, given various ongoing reforms and a governance review. More widely in the profession there is soul-searching and a feeling that ‘something must be done’ in response to the shocking Grenfell Tower tragedy of 14 June, and a separate but possibly related sense that the marginalisation of architects has reached crisis point.
Derbyshire, an avuncular figure with the air of a smartly turned out college professor, comes well-equipped for the role. He’d had little to do with the institute prior to his election to RIBA Council in 2014, but had recognised that, for all its faults, the RIBA was what he calls ‘the only show in town’. His campaign for the presidency last year was astute in its recognition that reversing the waning influence of architects involved reversing the fortunes of Portland Place and reconnecting the RIBA with its members. Derbyshire also boasts a far deeper understanding of the big issue of the moment – housing – than any of his recent predecessors, having joined HTA in 1976 and played key roles in organisations such as the Housing Forum and the London Society.
Meeting the AJ at HTA Design’s new stripped-down office north of Tower Bridge in Aldgate, Derbyshire is clear that the Grenfell fire has exposed something rotten.
‘On that Wednesday morning when we all woke up to scenes that most of us had not envisaged in our worst nightmares, we all realised that something was fundamentally wrong,’ he says.
But, given the sources of HTA’s income in the housing industry, not to mention the fact that Camden Council evacuated five HTA-refurbished tower blocks in the wake of the fire, can he really speak objectively about these vital matters of safety?
‘I’m completely clear about the roles,’ he says. ‘You are talking to me now and I am representing the RIBA, not HTA.’
Derbyshire points out, with considerable justification, that almost everyone else involved in examining the causes of Grenfell is involved with the industry, with the ‘context, the industrial complex and the policy framework that’s given rise to this’ as he puts it.
‘I do have a thorough understanding [of housing challenges] and, with the RIBA, we’ve been pointing out problems with the complexity of the regulatory framework, difficulties in the lack of quality inspection control on sites. We’ve also been pointing out the problems with piecemeal procurement and the problems of housing management.’
Over decades, our influence as a profession and the amount that we’re valued has been seriously undermined
In the area of procurement, and building on work instigated by former RIBA president Stephen Hodder, Derbyshire is planning a joint initiative with the Chartered Institute of Building (CIoB) to improve the quality of schemes built under Design and Build, many of them in housing.
‘I want to initiate a collaboration with the builders in order to establish a protocol for what can be an effective way of delivering in the D&B context,’ he says. ‘It’s really important to remember that a great many highly prestigious buildings are delivered this way, particularly in the commercial sector.’
But couldn’t he be bolder here with contractors and the government, and call out a system that does not naturally seem to lead to good architecture? Isn’t quality delivered despite D&B, rather than because of it?
‘It’s much better to come up with a shared response to a problem which is perceived as having difficulties on both sides,’ he counters. ‘Sometimes D&B works and sometimes it doesn’t.’
Another of Derbyshire’s initiatives, which he has worked on with New London Architecture chairman Peter Murray, is the idea of a major housing expo in the capital, primarily aimed at the general public and modelled on the Bauausstellung concept from Germany.
This, he believes, would demonstrate the expertise of the best housing consultants in the country and help sell the idea to the public and to key decision-makers of a denser London able to intelligently accommodate rapid growth. Derbyshire is obviously excited about the plan and hopes it might be possible to hold the Expo in Brexit year, 2019, on publicly owned land. He adds that he has held positive early discussions about the event with the mayor of London’s team.
‘In a city that needs to provide what you might call desirable density, we have to demonstrate what that looks like and what it feels like to be in,’ he says.
Derbyshire’s plan – to promote architects’ abilities in crucial sectors and better connect them to the builders, the public and the government through collaboration – is surely right, but again there are potential pitfalls. Urban densification, for example, currently involves council estate regeneration, another subject waiting in the new RIBA president’s in-tray that in many people’s eyes has become toxic.
Such schemes are usually demolition and rebuild jobs propped up by the financial proceeds of new private housing. The major criticism they face is that existing residents on low incomes are displaced or ‘decanted’ from their inner-city neighbourhoods, often because they can’t find comparable properties in their price range once the work has taken place.
Academics and London mayor Sadiq Khan himself have expressed deep concern over this, and HTA itself has faced protests from groups such as Architects for Social Housing (ASH), prompted by its work on the Aylesbury Estate in south London, which was subject to such allegations. So where does Derbyshire stand on this issue?
He certainly acknowledges that rocketing house prices have made it near-impossible for anyone other than the most wealthy to afford housing in London and points to the #CantPayWontStay campaign he ran about this at the London Society.
‘The only way of addressing it is by increasing housing supply,’ he adds.
The only way of addressing rocketing house prices is by increasing housing supply
But he’s reluctant to accept that estate regeneration schemes designed by his firm or its peers have had these specific negative consequences in terms of the displacement of the poor and the city’s overall social fabric.
‘Housing is political and I represent an organisation whose members span the entire political spectrum,’ he says. ‘People are entitled to different points of view and I think we should engage with those points of view and debate them.’
Indeed, when Patrik Schumacher sparked a media storm last year by advocating the sweeping away of social housing in London, Derbyshire immediately tweeted that the RIBA should host a debate involving the Zaha Hadid Architects’ boss and ASH.
Nevertheless, he’s on uncomfortable ground here and it remains difficult to gauge how much of Derbyshire’s reticence to air his own views is down to his desire to be apolitical as president and how much is due to sensitivities regarding HTA’s position.
What’s clearer is that Derbyshire has some solid ideas and a profile that should give the RIBA greater punch with Whitehall and industry bodies than it has enjoyed for some time. He’s obviously itching to get stuck into issues ranging from how architects can make the best of Brexit to addressing the profession’s chronic lack of diversity to that overarching question of marginalisation.
‘That’s the reason I’m sitting here,’ he says passionately. ‘Over decades, what’s been happening is that our influence as a profession and the amount that we’re valued as a profession… has been seriously undermined.
‘Coming towards the end of my career and wondering how I might put my shoulder to the wheel, I wanted to reverse that trend. That’s why I’m at the RIBA. I’m determined to help the organisation do something effective in that regard.’
Fact file: Ben Derbyshire
- Chair of HTA Design
- Elected RIBA president last year with 54 per cent of the votes on a turnout of 15 per cent against rivals Andrew Salter and Alan Jones
- Major priorities as RIBA president are ‘driving quality and performance in the built environment’, engaging with the membership and promoting a global role for British architects
- Trained first at Birmingham then at Cambridge School of Architecture, from where he joined HTA in 1976 as its fifth member
- Son of the late Andrew Derbyshire, the prominent architect and former RMJM boss
- Has been on a tour of the country canvassing the opinions of RIBA members through a series of FutuRIBA seminars
- Married with two grown-up children and three stepchildren
- Active on Twitter as @Ben_Derbyshire