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.