Before it has even begun, the contest for RIBA president is already getting interesting, relatively speaking. Could this finally be the year when more people run for the office of president than vote for it? asks Russell Curtis
Russell curtis, rcka
Most people are indifferent to the RIBA’s inner workings, but the past decade has seen a back-and-forth shift of power between an elected council and the executive. Under Sunand Prasad’s efficiency drive, responsibility for the day-to-day running of the institute was delegated to a smaller board.
Subsequent presidents devoted time to reversing these changes, with an expensive and protracted governance review bridging Stephen Hodder and Jane Duncan’s terms. This concluded with a reversal of fortune as the council clawed back its position as the institute’s ultimate decision-making body. Then, under Ben Derbyshire, and now Alan Jones, yet another restructuring has resulted in the balance of power shifting, once again, in favour of the executive.
Many of us hoped that these administrative shenanigans had finally come to an end, but now a new crop of presidential candidates has declared its intentions to tinker with the format yet again.
This incessant navel-gazing is both frustrating and futile. Few outside the profession (and few within it, judging by the paltry voter turnout) have the slightest interest in the mechanics of the institute. As set out by its royal charter, the RIBA’s primary purpose is not to channel work to its membership, nor to police the profession for misdeeds. Instead it serves members best by promoting the importance of architecture within the public sphere. One thing is clear, however: the endless introspection helps no-one.
As the visible face of the RIBA, the position of president is not administrative, but ceremonial. Yet it does (or, at least, it should) carry with it a modicum of authority and influence which, outside home makeover TV shows, is unusual. It’s surely time for the president to use this platform for advocacy; to speak to the profound issues facing society and to address those with which architects at least enjoy a little agency.
Forget trying to reconcile public expectations of the RIBA with the demands of members
It’s also time to forget trying to reconcile public expectations of the RIBA with the demands of members, too many of whom have only a limited grasp of what good buildings look like anyway. There’s little to be gained from trying to placate online whinging from those who think the institute does nothing for them. They’re right: that’s not its job.
Such a stance might well result in a drop-off in membership as the schism between their own parochial interests, and those of society, widen. Conversely, those who do care about the quality, accessibility and diversity of the built environment – but who have been disenfranchised by the RIBA’s diminishing influence, increasing commercialisation and clumsy mis-steps – might well be inspired to join up.
The new president should ignore complaints that the RIBA is ‘London-centric’. This is nonsense. The HQ happens to be in London, but there’s little else about it to justify this criticism. While it’s true that a large proportion of members hail from the capital, for most young architects in London the RIBA remains an anachronistic irrelevance. Spoilt for choice by a rich calendar of cultural events a short bike ride away, there’s little reason to pony up the equivalent of a fortnight’s rent on a plush magazine and the upkeep of intimidating and isolated headquarters.
As for the mechanics of the institute itself: well, coronavirus has shown how council meetings can be held virtually, so the need for 60 people to assemble four times a year—at significant cost to the membership—no longer applies. Better to rent the whole place out and use the income to lease small exhibition spaces in Bermondsey, Bristol and Birmingham, while consolidating operations on Tyneside. A more dispersed, accessible and relevant organisation might emerge.
So, a gentle plea to the prospective candidates: use your two years wisely. Forget about trying to reform the RIBA and instead use the position to push for change outside it. Get angry about Grenfell. Do more to address our chronic lack of diversity. Rail against the decreasing influence of architects in the delivery of buildings. Challenge poor procurement and suicidal fees. Address the climate crisis. Promote good practice. Praise brilliant buildings and celebrate great places. Be outspoken—show what we can do!
And most of all, stop pontificating about whether 66 Portland Place should be more like the Garrick or the Athenaeum. Spoiler alert: nobody cares.
Russell Curtis is founding director of RCKa