I’ve been covering RIBA presidents since 1972 and know that Portland Place can be discreet if it wants to be, writes Paul Finch
RIBA presidents, like the rest of us, are a mixed bunch. My first encounter with one took place in early 1972 when, as a junior reporter, I entered the hallowed halls of 68 Portland Place to attend a press conference called by the president, Alex (later Sir Alex) Gordon. We didn’t know what it would be about, but there had been much controversy over the vexed question of the institute’s membership charges.
A group of sparky young troublemakers – including Sam Webb, George Oldham and Kate Macintosh – had been lobbying for lower rates for salaried architects. RIBA Council was split on the subject: some supported the nascent Salaried Architects Group, while others thought an architect was an architect and that was that. Colonel Seifert, the premier commercial architect of the age but also an RIBA councillor, suggested that the membership fee should be increased, thereby finding out who was really interested in architecture as opposed to trade unions!
The press conference was short and to the point: the president announced that he would be asking all councillors to stand down, then to stand for re-election stating their position on fees to give members a clear choice when they voted. Having seen the machinations of student politics at close hand, this struck me as a strategy full of holes – as proved to be the case when only about half the councillors agreed to resign.
It became almost a cliché that presidents would have affairs with staff – but we were more interested in the pitfalls of collateral warranties
This surreal introduction to RIBAWorld stood me in good stead to cover the ructions and controversies, mostly of little interest except to journalists and those closely involved, over the next few decades. ‘Scandals’ come and go. As far as personal relationships are concerned, it became almost a cliché that presidents would have affairs with staff, in a couple of cases ending up happily married to said personnel. Nobody paid much attention since we were more interested in the pitfalls of collateral warranties and the nightmare of compulsory competitive tendering.
Certainly no institute officials went rushing off to the Charity Commission, nor did they make public comments,when someone went to bed with the ‘wrong person’, so we will have to wait and see whether what is happening in respect of the current president is a storm in a teacup or something more significant. Let’s hope not.
Portland Place can be discreet if it wants to be. For example, it managed to hide the fact that its director of public affairs, was jailed for allegedly assaulting a police officer during a Thatcher-era miners’ strike. The party line was that the chap was on a sabbatical. We journos fell for it.
Public figures do not necessarily suffer as a result of naughty behaviour. Take Transport for London’s former chief, Peter Hendy. On 22 August 2013, in one of those brutal but quite funny headlines and straplines that were its speciality, The Sun declared on its front page: Exclusive: Love cheat exposed/£660k-a-year Sir and £140-an-hour hooker/BORIS’S BONKING BUS BOSS BEDDED BROKE BRASS. You didn’t need to read much further to get the general idea of what had been going on.
It doesn’t seem to have affected Hendy’s subsequent career and I commend the story to Alan Jones if he needs some light reading to take his mind off his little local difficulty. The season can only get sillier.