From ‘gagging’ rows to fraud squad investigations, it has been one of the most turbulent RIBA presidential races in memory. Ella Jessel looks back at the campaign and asks what challenges await the new president-elect Alan Jones
At the peak of this year’s RIBA presidential race, as the UK sweltered in the July heatwave, exasperated former council member Russell Curtis tweeted that the entire campaign risked ‘descending into lunacy’.
The biannual election to decide who will be next in line for the top job at 66 Portland Place – this time a three-horse race between Alan Jones, Elsie Owusu and Phil Allsopp – is usually a perfunctory affair.
But while Jones’s win was something of a reversion to type, with the Northern Irish architect widely viewed as the ‘continuity candidate’, the run-up to the vote count was nothing short of a spectacle.
Highlights from what was undeniably the Elsie Owusu Show included the candidate accusing the RIBA of being ‘institutionally racist’ in an article in The Times, claiming a fellow council member had sent her a ‘death threat’ (concealed within an obscure folk tale) and reporting the organisation to the fraud squad over allegations of a ‘missing £1.1 million’.
A crucial, headline-grabbing moment took place at a hustings in Leeds, which started badly when the press were initially blocked from attending the event, before being hastily invited. RIBA chief executive Alan Vallance claimed on Twitter that apparently ‘nobody had ever asked to go’ before.
But Vallance may have regretted this new-found hospitality, after Owusu used the platform to take a swipe at his annual earnings – thought to be around £200,000 – and, with the air of a seasoned politician, questioned why he was taking home more than the prime minister.
Things only escalated when, in a bid to regain control over campaign trail proceedings, the RIBA issued Owusu with a ‘gagging order’ to stop her making ‘damaging public statements’ about the professional body where she is a council member and trustee.
‘New RIBA president elected amid row over silencing of black architect’ was the subsequent headline splashed across page three of The Guardian.
It was Jones, who had thrown his hat into the ring for a second time after losing to Ben Derbyshire in 2016, who eventually won – comfortably with 2,704 votes (51.7 per cent). Next year he will become the 77th RIBA president, spending 12 months as president-elect before taking over from Derbyshire in September 2019.
Owusu, second-placed with 1,673 votes (32 per cent), was forced to settle for another stint on council. She has vowed to stand again in 2020. Meanwhile Arizona-based Allsopp – who will perhaps be best remembered most for a campaign video where he appeared with a swollen eye after being ‘headbutted’ by his own Jack Russell – came third with 857 votes (16.4 per cent).
Allsopp, who was brought up in Brighton, had come over to the UK for the hustings and pledged to sail over on the QE2 should he win the election. But perhaps, as NLA chair Peter Murray remarked, Allsopp was ‘before his time’ with the RIBA not yet ready for an ‘overseas president’.
Running on a campaign to ‘put architects first’, Jones, a Belfast-based architect and academic with a strong interest in improving access to the profession, said that if elected, he would seek to hold a referendum on the future of the RIBA.
Jones said that, if elected, he would seek to hold a referendum on the future of the RIBA
Welcoming his election, Wendy Perring, design director of PAD Studio, says: ‘Alan appears to stand for education, social mobility and small practices, which I feel provides the RIBA an opportunity to re-engage with these crucial but often marginalised parts of our industry.’
As for what that can be reported of Jones himself, we know he wants to shake-up procurement, tackle the ‘scourge’ of unpaid internships and that his motto is ‘you’re only as good as the last thing you do’.
But deeper insight into the new president-elect and how he plans to effect change must wait. The AJ has been told an interview with the winning candidate will have to be deferred until July 2019, with the RIBA preferring to focus on ‘Ben initiatives’.
As the dust settles, Owusu’s critics have argued that, while generating plenty of silly-season material, her tactics only succeeded in clearing the route to victory for her rival.
Owusu made the mistake of attacking the very institution she was hoping to lead, says Murray. ‘This clearly did not endear her to voters and would have created serious problems once she got into office. Portland Place isn’t Westminster.’
According to Curtis, who is founding director of RCKa, the election was interesting but ‘not in a good way’. He believes the contest veered from ‘mildly exasperating to downright depressing’.
He adds: ‘It didn’t reflect well on the profession, and the divisive language, selective deployment of facts and disregard for accepted protocol was an unfortunate analogue of the wider political landscape.’
But the debate sparked by what architect Angela Dapper calls ‘one of the most controversial elections ever’ has highlighted some of the challenges that lie in store for Jones once Derbyshire hands on the baton.
One of the most controversial elections ever has highlighted some of the challenges that lie in store for Jones
Even those not backing Owusu have raised concerns over how the RIBA handled the string of controversies. While Dapper welcomes Jones’s win, she says the accusations of discrimination against the institute had made for ‘uncomfortable reading’.
She adds: ‘While I don’t agree that a presidential campaign is the right forum for courting controversy, it is right that these allegations are properly raised and aired.
‘Most disappointing was that the RIBA has been uncomfortably silent in reacting and in providing a response and reassurances to its members.’
Eyebrows were also raised that, despite coverage in the trade and national press, the RIBA’s 15 minutes of fame failed to translate into increased participation, with the turnout of 18.97 per cent a marginal increase on 2016 when just 15.2 per cent voted. As the new president-elect himself frequently tweeted throughout his campaign: #apathyistheenemy.
Sheffield School of Architecture professor Fionn Stevenson says that, despite excellent work taking place at the RIBA, many architects still perceive it as an ‘expensive ornament’ which resides in ‘a posh part of London somewhere in a posh building’.
Considering this need to improve its visibility, running an election in the middle of the summer holidays was ‘pure daft’, she argues, adding: ‘RIBA HQ did not encourage media coverage of the campaign particularly well, and seemed very defensive, for example not initially allowing journalists into hustings meetings.’
Owusu’s supporters, meanwhile, rued her loss as a missed opportunity for genuine change. While Jones is widely considered a ‘safe pair of hands’, some have questioned whether he is really the best-placed candidate to shake-up the institute.
Past president Owen Luder, a friend of Owusu, points out that despite years of promises to open up, the RIBA still operates behind a ‘veil of secrecy’ and Owusu was the only candidate prepared to speak up about financial mismanagement at the institute.
Despite years of promises to open up, the RIBA still operates behind a ‘veil of secrecy’
‘An organisation that operates on a principle of secrecy [with a] lack of transparency preventing open discussion and debate, will automatically generate apathy,’ he says.
Another of Owusu’s backers, property developer Stuart Lipton, says the RIBA has long been a ‘closed shop’, and its members, and clients, want to see a great institution turning outwards, not inwards.
‘I was disappointed that Owusu was seen as disruptive,’ he says. ‘She was trying to take the RIBA into its rightful leadership role and disclose information that affected the financial affairs of the RIBA so it was open and transparent.
‘She might have brought change. She was not for the conventional.’
Asked if Jones could have a similar impact, Lipton says: ‘Will Alan Jones pull a rabbit out of the hat and make it different? The new president can bring change, but wow, he’ll have to be bold.’
Comment: Ben Derbyshire, RIBA president
I would like to thank RIBA members who took part in the election and congratulate all candidates who ran for president and council. This year, we broadcast election hustings live on our website and had vibrant debate on social media. I look forward to building on these opportunities to reach more members in years to come.
In the last few weeks of the election process, there were a number of inaccurate and damaging statements published about the RIBA. Completely unfounded allegations were made about our financial position and reports were published that did not fairly reflect the RIBA’s absolute commitment and actions to increase diversity and inclusion in both the architecture profession and the institute itself.
During the election period, it was essential that the RIBA maintained the integrity of the democratic process. Now that the election is over, RIBA Council members will reflect on the process and agree our response.
I welcome the feedback I receive from members in person and online. I’m committed to working together to bring about positive change, to ensure the RIBA remains relevant and fit for the future. I am already working with president-elect Alan Jones and look forward to welcoming newly elected RIBA trustees as we continue to drive the institute’s ambitious programme on behalf of all members.