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Internal RIBA matters are trivial, architects need to play a key role in the wider world

Paul Finch

The RIBA is at its best when it is looking out rather than in, says Paul Finch

As I was suggesting a fortnight ago, 30-plus built environment organisations collaborating so they have an identical line on everything from ethics to government policy might be desirable, but it might not be achievable.

In the meantime, if it is to continue to attract young architects, the RIBA should look outward to the wider world – especially since there is little sign of the Architects Registration Board being abolished. The ARB fee is a substantial tax just to do what you have spent seven years qualifying to do, and paying RIBA subs as well is not necessarily attractive.

Criticism of the RIBA as the architects’ trade union would ring truer if it had managed to make the profession better-off, or more influential in recent decades. In reality it has had trouble holding its corner in a series of battles and opportunities, ranging from registration to PFI and Design and Build, and from the primacy of the JCT contract and architect as lead professional to fee bidding and treatment of architects as a minor branch of construction procurement.

Indeed, where it has put up a fight, as in the case of CDM leadership, the price paid for ‘victory’ could be a high one. It seems the principal designer is now being expected to take on CDM as a compulsory element of an appointment, but with no guarantee of additional fees. At worst it could mean huge additional duties and, indeed, liabilities. The attractions of abrogating responsibility and passing it all over to the contractor would start to look compelling.

Important though this is, it falls into the category of internal matters, where the institute should behave like a hard-nosed trade union and secure the best possible deal for its members. Of much greater importance are the underlying issues facing Britain. These are essentially about demographics: more people requiring housing, education, and health buildings, with those being born today having a good chance of reaching the age of 100.

We need fresh architectural thinking and analysis

This requires fresh architectural thinking and analysis about the nature of what is being designed – not something that can be done by accountants or project managers or builders without design help. It concerns many different building types and the nature of the cities we are now creating or transforming.

As it is, the big-picture stuff emerges from individual offices, as in the case of the recent warnings about ill-planned high-density environments from three big housing practices, or the work on airport and infrastructure strategy by Fosters. By the way, where is the passion that informed Richard Rogers’ Towards an Urban Renaissance report? It would surely be possible for the profession, collectively, to combine its expertise to produce manifestos for the future, whether or not commissioned by Whitehall.

Frankly, all internal ‘professional’ matters are trivial compared with the big issues, where architects historically have played a key role. If they are to continue to do so, those issues need to be addressed soon. Of course it always looks as though architects arguing for more and better housing, for example, are lining up work for themselves. But who is better placed to do it? Does anyone complain about doctors offering health advice?

The question is whether, as Paul Morrell might put it, the RIBA is concerned with the results of activity rather than just the activity itself. Beneficial outcomes are what the profession should be aspiring to bring about.


Readers' comments (2)

  • Ben Derbyshire

    Membership of the RIBA has been flat-lining for some years and currently stands at just under 27,000. Meanwhile some are predicting that the rapid increase in ARB registrations will result in only half of all registered Architects being RIBA members by 2020. A sure sign of institutional good health would be increasing numbers of architects paying subscriptions not simply for the kudos of the initials after their name and the use of the sign board, but because the institute offers great value to them in continuing professional development, in supporting them to market their skills and in support for their practice. We should therefore aim for a big increase in the number of chartered members, practices and RIBA accredited schools both in the UK and overseas.

    There seems to me to be a widespread desire to rebalance policy and resources. The institute does good outreach work to promote an improved context in which architects may practice. This should be matched with much more support for practitioners and practices to compete in their local markets, wherever these may be, including overseas.

    There is huge variety in the ways in which people trained as architects end up practicing and otherwise contributing to society and commerce. Some busy practitioners might find it hard to find the time or the entrepreneurship to achieve the transition to new forms of practice, but despite this there are certainly plenty of others who have. Amongst these are Keith Clarke, Steve McGuckin and Bob White, who have been effective businessmen as well as Asif Khan, Indy Johar, Studio Weave, Assemble and Thomas Heatherwick, who practice in different ways. These and other innovative practitioners like them should be given a voice to speak about their experience at the RIBA, in regional centres, online, overseas and elsewhere.
    We should give a voice to those who are already researching and practicing in new ways and we should begin a thorough collaboration and engagement, especially with the means of production. Our vision for the RIBA in five years' time should be built more on giving this wide ranging diaspora of disparate forms of practice the opportunity to speak with each other and their collaborators through the institute to a wider audience.

    Ben Derbyshire
    Managing Partner, HTA Design
    Chair, Housing Forum

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  • Well said Ben.
    The most important role of the RIBA is far from trivial. It is - or should be- the focus for the promotion of architects, their skills and value. RIBA have categorically failed in this single objective, despite the outcries from many architects for years.
    I take the view that the RIBA should do 'what it says on the tin' - and BE the Royal Institute of British ARCHITECTS....note that it does not say Architecture. Granted the 'Royal' and 'Insitute' bits are anachronistic throwbacks of debatable value in 21C - but tolerable if we focus on the 'Architect' bit. Which seems beyond their grasp unfortunately with catastrophic consequences.

    I see much of the dubiously named 'promotion of architecture'
    as frankly a displacement activity by RIBA rather than face the real challenge. There is no evidence I have seen that the incessant focus on 'promoting architecture' has had any effect on architects fortunes - except maybe negative.
    As I have said ad nauseum - you don't successfully promote a brand by sole focus on the category.
    The other point that does not get mentioned is just how many architects would pay individually if their practices refused to pay fees for them. I think it would be shockingly bad.

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