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Rich's exit paves way for RIBA rethink, say architects


Following the departure of the institute’s chief executive Harry Rich, architects including current councillors have called for a shake-up at the RIBA

Rich, who had held the RIBA’s chief executive position since 2009, resigned from the organisation last Friday.

His resignation follows a series of high profile exits from the RIBA including director Richard Brindley, chief operating officer Andy Munro, and the institute’s head of communications Gill Webber.

Rich’s sudden departure has led architects to call for change at the institution and a shake-up of its managing structure and governance.

Past RIBA councillor Yasmin Shariff said Rich’s departure was a ‘wake-up call’. ‘There cannot be a better time for change nor a better climate for change’, she said.

‘Although sudden, Harry’s departure is new opportunity to change RIBA’s culture for the better: to make a Big Tent and invite architects, especially young and people and students of all backgrounds to “come home” to Portland Place. This lovely building could be exciting and vibrant place’, added current RIBA councillor Elsie Owusu.

Past president Angela Brady called for a ‘strong executive team’ to be recruited to replace Rich and the other staff who had recently left.

‘The RIBA now needs to rebuild a strong exec team but it first needs to find the right CEO who is passionate about the RIBA, knowledgeable about architecture, understands relationships, and is a good communicator with the president and public and can engage productively with the full range of RIBA members. It’s a real welcome opportunity for Change,’ she said.

While architect Darren Bray added that younger architects needed to be brought into the running of the RIBA.

Bray commented: ‘The RIBA is now ripe for a fresh young approach, someone who can take the helm, engage with all of the membership and encourage more of us to mould the institution.’

His comments were echoed by Project Orange director James Soane, who said the RIBA’s ‘culture and structure of governance has become redundant’.

‘Radical ideas need to be tabled, discussed and debated which capture the members imagination and gives them confidence in the mission and values of the organisation. This will inevitably result in a new structure, a fresh mandate and a 21st century RIBA,’ he added.

Further comments

Yasmin Shariff, past RIBA councillor

’This is a Rich wake up call.

’There cannot be a better time for change nor a better climate for change. The RIBA has been deprofessionalised due to inane internal RIBA-ARB politics and the demise of public sector architects departments. Architects in our neoliberal culture serve the forces of greed and capitalism instead of being servants of the state. Architects have been alienated and their power to shape peoples’ lives particularly the old and vulnerable has been taken away. Obesity, security, terrorism, alienation, loneliness, death due to cold and damp are all symptoms of poor design.

’A new CEO could enable architects to play a vital role in society. She needs to be politically astute and able to enable the RIBA members to contribute meaningfully to making our world a better place. The RIBA awards show a range of amazing work. Imagine what could be possible if we had a strong institute.’

Darren Bray, associate director, PAD Studio

’Regardless of Harry Rich’s departure. I do think that the RIBA are beginning to make a move in the right direction, with regards to opening up the institution. So that the profession and RIBA is viewed as an open transparent inclusive, diverse industry. 

’There are a whole host of people working tirelessly behind the scenes at RIBA HQ to engage with a wider section of the architectural profession. What I can say is that since Jane Duncan’s introduction the RIBA is now moving to embrace the next younger generation. Look at the role model project, mentoring scheme and the recently appointed ambassadors. 

’The RIBA needs a younger more diverse face and this is beginning to happen under Jane’s leadership. Because the institution has been perceived to have had a very out of date face and attitude, for quite some time now. 

’I believe the RIBA is now ripe for a fresh young approach, some one who can take the helm, engage with all of the membership and encourage more of us to mold the institution. Because the RIBA will only develop, change and innovate with input from us the members. But the members need to feel encouraged to do so and that they will be listened. 

’The RIBA like any large institution can only be as good as the people it represents, this is were the challenge lies. But I think that Jane Duncan is championing participation and engagement to mould the future of the RIBA. So the new chief executive needs to make this priority number one! 

‘It would be great to see the Chief Executive role given to a young candidate and preferably a woman!’

Elsie Owusu, RIBA councillor

’In the short time I knew Harry Rich, I found him to be a talented, charming but divisive figure. Although very capable and great a champion of diversity, I fear he alienated many and, on his watch, RIBA’s relationship with the press was poor. He seemed to like architecture but didn’t seem overly fond of architects. 

’Although sudden, Harry’s departure is new opportunity to change RIBA’s culture for the better: to make a Big Tent and invite architects, especially young and people and students of all backgrounds to “come home” to Portland Place. This lovely building could be exciting and vibrant place, as the current Presidents’ Medal exhibition shows. The Brutalist Playground brought hundreds of families and children through the doors. 

’RIBA, with support from ARB, Architecture Foundation and others, can escape its sometimes sclerotic and binary thinking, providing welcome leadership and encouraging innovation in a diverse, modern and global profession. I believe we, as British architects, can live up to the respect and admiration we inspire internationally, and make real change through architecture and design. 

’I hope and believe the new Interim Director Alan Vallance can help RIBA boost finances and give better value for membership subscriptions. I’m heartened by the fact that Alan comes from the Law Society which has done good work in challenging racism and promoting diversity. He seems to understand how emulating the legal profession’s embrace of the digital world and, especially, how pay platforms can give real support in financial management to young, micro/ start-up practices and those working with new or overseas clients. 

‘The AJ’s campaign has helped women in architecture to make huge strides in combatting sexism in the profession. On the “London Bus Principle”, Jane Duncan’s success as President shows that women can and do lead the profession well. 23 years after the death of Stephen Lawrence, I hope the RIBA racism inquiry, which Harry Rich helped to set up can not only meet the challenge of discrimination, but also celebrate the many opportunities offered by our diverse society.’


Readers' comments (3)

  • It often seems to this non-architect that the Utopian ideal of 'architects as servants of the state' is an unreal aspiration for the big (and small) business of architecture in a long-established mixed economy where government ameliorates capitalism in the service of social ambitions, while pragmatically harnessing the benefits of the market.

    More realism about engaging in the 'Lion's den' with major client and public sector groups, rather than damning 'greed' and 'capitalism' would put the profession on a sounder basis for achieving what it rightly wants to achieve.

    After 35 years of observing and engaging, it still seems to me that the RIBA still doesn't engage in a convincing way with clients. I keep meeting clients - let's pick housebuilders for example - who aren't fluent in architecture and architects, but who have an intense and pragmatic grasp of their products and the market, but couldn't name you ten great residential architects. These crucial relationships could be so much better than they are.

    The root of good architecture is great places. I'd also argue the RIBA needs to recapture territory ceded to a dysfunctional and emasculated planning process which needs the design skills of architects to restore vision and placemaking to its central role. That's a proper role for 'the state' and for architects/planners.

    And the RIBA needs more input from a wider range of people. Frank Duffy's presidency was a good attempt to achieve this.

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  • Ben Derbyshire

    Architects Leading

    I'm not precious about the words but however articulated, following the departure of Harry Rich, the strategy ought to allow members to take the lead - in the Institute, in society and in the competition for new members as part of the Institute's vital task in rejuvenating its ageing and static membership. To put it another way, rather than the Institute Leading Architecture, Architects should take the lead in the Institute.

    How might this be manifest?

    Council should respect the leadership of the President with the quid pro quo that the President works with the authority now vested in Council as Trustees. Council should clearly endorse a consensus about the strategy which in my view should include:

    A focus on better value for members’ subscriptions
    A shift of priority to supporting practices in their local markets.
    An outreach strategy that promotes diverse and innovative practice more than the stars.
    A new status for members working groups – the engine room of the Institute.
    A focus on members’ contribution to research and innovation.
    A plan for the development team built on cross cutting collaborative research amongst practitioners.
    Debate and discourse in the Institute amongst leading and new practitioners about new forms of practice.
    A register of practitoners to speak for the Institute on different topics and themes.
    A promotion about architects leading in public life and commerce.
    A cross industry collaboration to re-define and help remove the confusion surrounding professional ethics.

    Many of these themes are embedded in the soon to be published Leading Architecture 2 strategy for 2016-20. But now is the time to appoint a new, youthful and hopefully diverse executive team to turn the words into actions.

    Ben Derbyshire, Managing Partner, HTA Design LLP
    Chair, The Housing Forum.

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  • Ben's first comments are spot on. Members promoting architecture locally will be much more effective than the huge sums spent on centralised lobbying.

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