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Richard Murphy: ‘RIBA’s cultural offer is pathetic’

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This year’s Doolan Prize-winner Richard Murphy has slammed the RIBA’s cultural offer as ’pathetic’, saying its cultural activities have ‘completely withered away’ 

The leading architect made his impassioned speech to the RIBA Council meeting yesterday [6 December], and was met with applause from fellow members in the chamber. 

‘I was horrified when I re-joined the RIBA council to see how the cultural activities of the RIBA have completely withered away,’ said Murphy.

He said that the lack of a cultural programme from the institute had ’caused a vacuum and so other people have moved onto our lawn’, and that organisations like the Architecture Foundation ’attract lots of wonderful young architects’ who go there instead. He added: ‘They don’t come to the RIBA, how tragic is that?’

Murphy also said that bodies like the Royal Academy, with its exhibition room dedicated to architecture, and the Design Museum are ‘moving into our area’.

He said: ’It’s great that all this stuff is happening in London. Of course it’s fantastic; but I do feel terribly sad because, when I lived in London 30 years ago, the RIBA was the place to go to be stimulated, to be informed, to find out what was going on.’

The architect went on to recount how, during this time, the institute had a much bigger cultural offering, including a ‘brilliant weekly lecture’ by University of Liverpool professor David Dunster, and an ‘amazing Renzo Piano exhibition’.

’In those days, I thought the RIBA was the absolute epicentre,’ said Murphy.

He concluded: ‘We have to decide: are we going to re-activate cultural things in this building, seriously? Or just forget about it and let the Design Museum and all the other people do it instead? I feel very sad if it’s that second option.

We need to talk to our competitors and bring them in

‘But if we’re going to go to the first option, we’re going to have to do it really seriously, there’s going to have to be money found, we’re going to have to get rid of the dentists and we’re going to have to do the thing probably in this building so that once again it becomes a hub, and we need to talk to our competitors and bring them in.’

Responding to Murphy’s speech, RIBA president Ben Derbyshire said: ‘Thank you for your passion Richard, which I share.’

He later added: ’I definitely couldn’t have put it better myself. It seems to me that that is the place that we need to get to […] As fast as [is] humanly possible, I completely agree with you.’

The council also discussed the current state of the RIBA’s British Architectural Trust Board (BATB), and its relationship with the RIBA. 

Veteran journalist and former managing director of the Barbican Arts Centre, John Tusa, resigned as chair of the cultural sub-committee BATB in January this year. In a letter leaked to the AJ in March, Tusa launched a no-holds-barred attack on the institute, claiming ‘fear ruled the roost’ at the organisation and that it was in a ‘perilous’ financial situation

RIBA Council national member Geoff Alsop said: ‘There seem to be tensions emanating from the British Architectural Trust Board and the RIBA in relation to the autonomy that the board has.

’I’m just wondering whether the new arrangements or the current arrangements are in fact going to resolve those. And if not, we are going to end up with a similar sort of problems?’

Responding, Derbyshire said that the issues facing the BATB would be ’covered by the constitutional review’, which is being carried out by former president Jane Duncan, adding: ’It’s definitely something we do need to resolve’. 

London member Indy Johar of Architecture 00 said: ’If we want to deliver the cultural offer we aspire to, and I think many people here aspire to, we’re going to have to look at our business plan and the way its structured quite fundamentally.

‘If we use our building as real estate, it pretty much prices architectural events out of the system and that’s been a fundamental flaw in the RIBA business plan – because we’ve been selling real estate as opposed to selling architecture.’ 

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Readers' comments (2)

  • In my experience the RIBA does not have the confidence or the desire to collaborate with others: it demands complete and utter control over any and every initiative in which it is involved. I cannot see this attitude changing in the foreseeable future but, if it doesn't, the Institute will continue to lose the goodwill of those who might otherwise consider working with it.

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  • They could bin the word 'Royal' - which I'm convinced is part of the problem. The association with that gang of parasites and philistines makes the RIBA look like fossils.

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