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Architects should hold the RIBA’s secretariat to account

Paul Finch

A profession without an institute which is ‘of the members, by the members and for the members’ is a profession in trouble, says Paul Finch

Having only recently written about the way in which the Architects Registration Board has stripped architects (who fund it) of meaningful representation, it is disappointing to have to write about the RIBA in similar terms.

A prolonged period of institute self-examination has produced a governance structure whose key decision-making committee is headed by a non-architect, with other non-architects also involved.

Why on earth does the profession think it is wise to abandon its own responsibilities – and, in the case of the RIBA councils, its fiduciary responsibilities – to third parties?

In the case of the ARB, architects have had to grin and bear it while the Privy Council’s external worthies take over. In the case of Portland Place, there seems to have been a collective loss of nerve.

This looks like the triumph of the secretariat over the people who pay their salaries.

One expected this situation had come to a close when president Jane Duncan sacked CEO (or whatever fancy title he gave himself) Harry Rich, who imagined that he, not the elected president and council of a membership body, was always the most important person in the room.

Looking back over the past 40 years, it does not need the skills of a Hilary Mantel to detect the long-running rivalries between elected members and the people who are responsible for day-to-day running of the institute.

In the end, it is the elected who have the authority, as former president Owen Luder proved after a showdown with the then chief executive, who had refused to let him see papers regarding institutional finance on the grounds that they were ‘operational’. The president got his way.

RIBA secretariats need to remember that they are actually clerks to the council

All RIBA secretariats need to remember that, whatever personal job titles they may hold, they are actually clerks to the council. They are not in charge – even if, as is currently, unfortunately, the case – the president is absent.

I cannot be the only observer to have been surprised that a fundamental change to the governance structure of the institute should be announced with the president in absentia. Why not wait until his return? Remembering Mantel, I wasn’t so surprised, after all.

Some weeks before the lockdown, in my annual talk to Part 3 students at the Bartlett, I encouraged them to join the RIBA because the idea of professional independence, the promotion of knowledge and the culture of design are important in an uncertain world.

I still believe this to be the case, but a profession without an institute which is ‘of the members, by the members and for the members’ is a profession in trouble.

This is a sorry situation. So, if there are architects out there committed enough to challenge what is being done in their name, and at their expense, all power to their elbows.

Even in this time of crisis, architects need to get up off their knees in respect of their own institute and, eventually, the ARB.

Covid-19 calls for creative responses

Buildings will, inevitably, change as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. Unless we find a vaccine, cultural habits are likely to change to avoid unnecessary contact.

This has huge implications for the design of buildings. Trends will be towards sliding doors, non-metallic surfaces, unless they are metals that are anti-bacterial, as some are; a decline in the provision of intimate spaces in favour of more airy volumes; and a new emphasis on interior design where large numbers of people congregate.

The world of delivery will flourish, so architects need to think about things like drone deliveries to high-rise apartments. As ever, health challenges will require creative responses, and not just from doctors.


Readers' comments (6)

  • Lets just replace them with a proper union and leave this old relic to people who feel its important to pay to maintain a palace opposite the chinese embassy

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  • Well said, Paul,

    Overly bureaucratic organisations fuel bureaucracy and more often than not become self sustaining, introverted and out of touch with the members they are elected to serve.

    We have all recently witnessed this first hand over the last few years with our neighbours across the channel and their failure to change with the times.

    I have no idea why any institution chose to announce a major re-organisation during a world pandemic, with the likely outcome unknown, and when the President was absent .... surely a pause for thought and re evaluation at a later date would have been a wiser course of action ?

    The British do not do revolution well, so there will be no storming of the Bastille …….. and rightly so,

    But in a democracy when the elected fail to serve, then the members normally vote with their feet.

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  • Yes Paul, you explained it rather well and thank you for that.
    RIBA is a Membership Institute for the members. During my involvement with the RIBA during the last 40 years I experienced the operations of 5 RIBA CEO's ( I was very involved on many committees and RIBA Council parallel to busy practicing architecture).
    Unfortunately the secretariat have rather different targets and aspirations in the Architects Institution from its membership. And this happened every time as soon as they become confident in their surrounding relationships, they direct the Membership Institute towards their own aims. Then it comes a moment when the RIBA membership become aware of the conflict , and they are driven away (it happened 3 times).
    Sadly this circle of events does not produce results for the Institute and the RIBA membership. The British Architects need an Institute to work and support directly its members, especially in difficult times, and represent and campaign the profession's aims at Government level.

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  • Unfortunately you are right and this was clear to me years ago when I was active on committees at the time of Jane Duncan. Sadly unless the membership "storm the Bastille" this will be just another stage in the decline of the RIBA and architecture as a profession in this country. ARB have won - all is lost.

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  • Trevor Harris

    "A prolonged period of institute self-examination has produced a governance structure whose key decision-making committee is headed by a non-architect, with other non-architects also involved."

    The Royal Institute of British Architects? Hmm.Has anybody asked her Majesty (or other members of the Royal family) for their thoughts about this potentially alarming change in leadership of the Institute or is the "Royal" appendage needed for other reasons?

    The Institute needs to reassert its key role as a learned and respected professional body, dedicated to maintaining high moral, ethical, social and aesthetic standards amongst its members, standards that will hopefully improve the quality and substance of architectural thinking, supporting and nourishing human existence via just, inspiring and resilient built environments. I find it difficult to imagine that this challenging task could or should be delegated entirely to non-architects, not wishing to belittle the integrity, wisdom or general level of civility of people other than architects. The essential support and collaboration provided by skilled and highly competent secretariat of professional managers, economists, lawyers, communication and marketing expertise is of course needed at both strategic and operational levels, and is an absolute must in dealing with the ruthless challenges generated by greed, neo-liberalism and self-centred market forces. However, not withstanding the input needed from these supportive professionals, there is still an overwhelming need for leadership drawn from the profession, a person (or persons) who has the courage, skill, vision and charisma to help lift our collective unique profession skills and knowledge to gain more public attention.

    I wish all my colleagues in the UK good health, strength and solidarity in these unsettling times as now is not the time to divide into irreconcilable camps. This is exactly what the powers of mediocrity hope for.

    "An Architecture of the People, by the People and for the People" (Emile Tunon)

    Trevor Harris
    professor, architect
    Harris & Kjisik Architects
    Helsinki, Finland

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  • I left the RIBA because we were not allowed to see the year end accounts, or comment on them or accept/disprove them.
    The RIBA sinks into its own morass, and it is nothing to do with ARB.

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