A group of nearly 100 Scottish architects has called for a major shake-up of the RIAS, claiming the organisation is poorly run, secretive and lacks proper financial accountability
The demands are set out in a stinging letter to Scotland’s professional architects body signed by leading figures including Malcolm Fraser, Charlie Hussey, Chris Platt, Helen Lucas, Jude Barber and Paul Stallan, writing under the banner ‘A New Chapter’.
The letter, sent to RIAS president Stewart Henderson and seen by the AJ, has 92 signatories from both existing members and concerned parties, and is understood to be the third sent by group to the incorporation in recent weeks.
In the document, the group hits out at the ‘self-satisfied torpor and bunkered closed-up-ness that afflicts the RIAS’ and calls for a new ‘culture of openness and inclusivity’.
The letter also asks the RIAS to disclose how much its senior staff are paid in ‘recent wage rises, bonus payments and other financial benefits’ and to explain how the incorporation’s council exercises its responsibility to set staff pay.
In addition, the group wants the RIAS to make public a copy of the independent salaries benchmarking review, the full findings of the recent probity review and the results of the independent Governance Review into existing management practices.
The document also states: ‘As government regulation and best practice makes transparency and accountability essential across the Charities Sector, the RIAS appears to have become increasingly secretive and autocratic. We have a president who is not elected by any of us, the general membership – someone who has not even served on council and who, along with our Secretary [Neil Baxter], appears to dictate proceedings.’
The letter adds: ‘We want an organisation to better champion the profession and provide more meaningful support in the many crises which have afflicted us for too long; from the institutionalised contempt for our professional skills represented by the ongoing PFI scandals and the procurement cesspool we have to wade through; to the housing crisis we should be engaged in averting, and to those of inclusivity, sustainability and wellbeing that we should be leading.’
In September the RIAS came under fire for erecting an ‘embarrassing’ foam-clad pop-up installation showcasing Scottish architects’ work in Glasgow Central Station.
A spokesperson for the RIAS said that the president had responded to the group’s two previous letters and would be issuing a full reply to the latest claims later today (10 November).
Alan Dunlop, architect and professor at the University of Liverpool
As a fellow of the RIAS and someone regarded as having access to a number of media contacts, I’ve been approached in the past for advice and been given information about the inner workings of the RIAS, where apparently various alarming things appear to have been going on for a while, particularly regarding finances and accountability.
No one, however, was willing to go on record and, as the RIAS is governed by a confidentiality clause for its council members, nothing further could be done. I don’t know if these approaches have had truth to them but if this open letter opens up the organisation to scrutiny and we find everything has been carried out with diligence and is all above board, I think that will be a very good thing and in my view about time.
Jude Barber, director and architect at Collective Architecture, RIAS Member
There has never been a more urgent time for architects to unite in pursuit of relevance and excellence. In order to do so, we require a membership body that is collegiate, inclusive and dynamic. A New Chapter formed in response to a series of straightforward, unanswered questions posed to our membership body over the past few months concerning governance and strategy. While many members work tirelessly at chapter level and on council there are unquestionably deep-rooted cultural problems running through the RIAS. ’A New Chapter’ seeks to engender greater transparency, accountability, relevance and inclusivity within Scottish architecture.
Those that have united as ’A New Chapter’ have been fortunate to take part in some early, impassioned and ambitious conversations to explore what a membership organisation in the 21st Century might look like, who it should represent, what it might do and how it should behave. These discussions sit in stark contrast to the closed doors, secrecy and patriarchy within Rutland Square. It has been a pleasure to work together such an immediate and collegiate way over the past few weeks and look forward to continued discussion, new opportunities and the positive impact of ’A New Chapter’.
Malcolm Fraser, architect, RIAS Member
Architecture in Scotland is beset with huge challenges and needs a new focus on our professionalism and responsibilities to society to face them. But the masonic secrecy and inbred gloom at the heart of the RIAS holds us back. This is a membership organisation – ours, paid for by us – but we are not allowed to know how it’s run, our representatives are told they cannot know the results of the Reviews paid for by our subs, into the matters of financial mismanagement and failures of governance that so concern us, or even divulge that a Special General Meeting was convened to tell them they can know nothing nor say anything, and we are threatened with legal and disciplinary action if we raise our voices.
We need to reinvigorate the profession in Scotland; but first we need to open-up and clean out our professional body.
Helen Lucas, director of Helen Lucas Architects
This is long overdue, The RIAS has been a singularly unattractive institution which I have been a member of out of necessity rather than desire. The fog is lifting on how this institute is run, as someone said ’we have lifted a stone and found something we didn’t want to underneath’.
‘The fog is lifting on how this institute is run’
Now is the time for change, for accountability to members and for inclusivity and democracy within the institute.
Andy Summers, design tutor at Edinburgh College of Art and co-producer of the Architecture Fringe (member of the RIAS 2004-2017)
The mosaic of architectural culture in Scotland relies on plurality and diversity. From community and civic organisations, forums and fringes, to practices, public bodies, academia and government. Central to this, as a profession, is the RIAS.
A RIAS that is representative of and responsive to its membership, a membership that it owes its existence to, is critical to engender a dynamic and relevant organisation. In early 21st Century Scotland do we still need a professional membership body? I think we do. That existence, that need, does not, however, then negate the requirement to be be open, transparent, reflective and accountable.
The response by the RIAS to the very reasonable questions that have recently been put to the Incorporation by a number of current members, retired members, ex-members and concerned individuals via letter has been acutely insightful. An organisation such as the RIAS needs to inspire the trust and support of its members, as well as induce the respect of the wider profession. It’s current conduct and manner in response to these letters does not do this. The questions put need to be answered.
Suzanne Ewing, Head of School, ESALA
The initiative and momentum gathered around ‘A New Chapter’ is a welcome and timely catalyst to make necessary infrastructural shifts in the Scottish architectural establishment. There is a common aim of refocusing thinking and practice, energies and skills, towards working with other professionals, institutions, agencies and wider society, in effectively, inclusively and transparently addressing the significant issues of our contemporary world- both local and interconnected. This very much resonates with the aims, ethos, education and research work of the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, one of the five distinctive and excellent schools of architecture in Scotland.
Matt Loader, director at Loader Monteith
I am interested in RIAS being the very best organisation it can possibly be, and being a huge credit to our profession. The latter part has to be that statement has to be at the heart of any public statement.
While of course we are now reacting to things which RIAS has done (or not done), the intention to affect positive change is the total sum of we are looking for as a group - we would hope all architects in Scotland recognise the need for a proactive strategy and direction in helping to take the profession into an uncertain future - and this is, at present, almost completely absent. All RIAS members all pay a significant sum for our membership and we want to ensure that the incorporation offers its membership excellent value for money.
I, along with others, am culpable that RIAS is in the position it is now - we should have done more, earlier. However, our attempts to engage RIAS to date are exactly what engagement with the membership and profession looks like, and their response to our polite and positive questions should have been to listen and respond. Its response - to obfuscate and threaten is not becoming of a professional organisation, and runs exactly contrary to our expectations and aspirations.
‘The truth is simply that we do not feel represented by our professional organisation’
It is, therefore, with a tremendously heavy heart for most of us that this has been made public - but the truth is simply that we do not feel represented by our professional organisation. It is not listening to our calls for transparency and our offer to help change it into the dynamic, wonderful organisation we all desperately want it to be.
Anne Duff, retired RIAS member
Scottish Architects have united to repair defects discovered in the governance of their professional body the RIAS. Unqualified persons have been appointed and established moral principles have been overturned.