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Summer roundup: It’s goodnight from her – the Two Alans will run the RIBA

Simon Aldous’s take on the big architectural stories you may have missed during the summer holidays: Alan Jones wins RIBA presidency • Architect quits BDP after maternity leave • Mac refurb used flammable materials • Student survey highlights rising costs • Wakefield Adjaye building set for demolition

Elsie Owusu’s bid for the RIBA presidency was unsuccessful. She had run on a campaign of promising to shake up the institute, which she accused of institutional racism, but next September when Ben Derbyshire’s two years in office finishes, the institute will not only be run by white middle-aged men, but specifically white middle-aged men called Alan. 

Alan Jones, who won 52 per cent of first preferences will join RIBA chief executive Alan Vallance at the helm. Vallance had come under fire during the campaign, when Owusu complained about his high salary – a remark that prompted the RIBA to issue her with a gagging order. Jones was quick to come to his namesake’s defence, saying Vallance’s salary was comparable with that of chief executives at other charities. 

The last days of voting were enlivened by the publication of a letter sent by architect and Eden Project co-founder Jonathan Ball to Owusu back in 2016. Owusu had previously claimed the letter contained a death threat. The section in question was Ball’s retelling of a Turkish folktale, whose message seemed to praise procrastination rather than anything more sinister. 

More noteworthy was Ball’s expression of solidarity with Owusu because both of them were members of oppressed ethnic minorities – in Ball’s case being Cornish. 

The lively campaign seems to have helped boost voter turnout – slightly. It rose from 15 per cent last time round to 19 per cent, its highest since 2006. The overwhelming majority of RIBA members, it would appear, don’t really care who the public face of their profession is.

RIBA poll takes its toll – what we learned from a turbulent election

Just how is BDP tackling its gender paygap?

Pepper barney index

Pepper barney index

Earlier this year, the UK’s 12 largest architectural practices had to reveal their gender pay gaps – the second largest discrepancy being at BDP, where women’s median hourly pay was 25.5 per cent lower than men’s.  

The practice’s chief executive John McManus said at the time ‘our gender pay gap needs to improve and we have already embarked upon a comprehensive action plan to that end’. But one former employee, Pepper Barney, is unimpressed by the firm’s efforts.  

‘Why do women leave architecture?’ she asked in an AJ column. ‘I’m pretty sure it’s got a lot to do with having babies.’ And certainly, how easy a practice makes it for a woman to stay there after starting a family will have a major impact on whether they progress in the firm, which clearly has a knock-on effect on gender pay gaps .  

Barney recently resigned from BDP after it rejected her flexible-working proposal for returning from maternity leave. She wanted to work a four-day week, compressed into three long days at the office with the remaining hours worked from home to avoid a day’s worth of commuting but also making herself available across the week.  

BDP did not seem to like the idea of her working from home. How would they know she wasn’t just watching Grand Designs? they asked her; a response she found ‘offensive and demeaning’ – she had deadlines to hit and would need to make sure she did so. They would agree to a four-day week but those four days had to be done in the office; an arrangement that would not have been financially viable for Barney.  

BDP’s response to her piece has been unenlightening. It says it is ‘very proud of our progressive and transparent flexible working policy’ while declining to comment on individual cases. But its large gender pay gap suggests that policy may not be working. 

Barney meanwhile is setting up her own company – quite a challenge when you have a six-month-old baby, but it would seem she has rather more confidence in her abilities and commitment to architecture than her former employer did.

Mac repairs used flammable panels

Mac fire

Mac fire

Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh building, as we learnt after most of it burnt down, was very vulnerable to fire – ‘a century-old tinderbox’ was how critic Robin Ward described it.  

So knowing this, and with the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire highlighting the dangers of flammable materials, one wonders whether a trace of doubt crossed the minds of the team working on the restoration of the Mac’s library as to their use of flammable insulation panels.  

In an interview with RIBA Journal last March – three months before this year’s fire – Page\Park’s head of conservation Iain King talked about using PIR insulation in the roof of Studio 58, a rooftop space above the library which was destroyed in the first fire.  

PIR or polyisocyanurate panels are made of plastic foam held between two sheets of aluminium foil. And while it is compliant with the Building Regulations, experts are now questioning why it would have been chosen over non-flammable equivalents in such a high-risk building. 

As fire expert Stephen Mackenzie said it was ‘preposterous to have insulated any aspect of the building with combustible PIR’. He also pointed out that the 2014 fire was exacerbated by the use of similar expanding foam in a student project that caught alight.

Only the rich need apply to study architecture

Aj rich student

Aj rich student

While the AJ’s regular surveys on the comparative experiences of, for example, women and non-white architects in the profession can make sobering reading, they do at least over the years suggest gradual improvements in representation and equality. The student survey is another story altogether.  

This year’s survey showed that the average cost of an architectural education is increasing, coming up just shy of £24,000 a year –in other words, £120,000 for the full five years. Also increasing are student debt levels and, shockingly, mental illness – 33 per cent of respondents said they had received treatment for mental health-related issues, rising from 26 per cent two years ago (when the issue was first asked about) which was startling enough at the time.  

It seems hard to believe that the two phenomena – rising costs and mental health – are not related. Two years ago the government dropped the system of maintenance grants for students from low-income families. Since the maximum level of student loans does not cover all living costs, students must either seek financial assistance from their families or take on some kind of part-time work, which with a demanding course such as architecture, is clearly going to lead to higher stress levels or worse. 

For some, the parental assistance will be continuing to live at home to avoid paying rent, which clearly restricts the choice of architecture school and can lead to long commutes. What is the upshot? That architecture becomes a career option restricted to those from wealthier families.  

And if they’re really wealthy then they can pay someone else to help them complete their coursework. One of the most astonishing comments from a survey respondent was that ‘it has become common practice in top architecture schools for final year students to pay for help’.  

Is this what it’s come to for less financially privileged students? Fund your own education by getting paid to help a richer student get their degree.

Student survey reaction: ‘Is architecture a middle-class profession? Hell yes’

Also this summer:

Florian beigel by philip christou

Florian beigel by philip christou

• The Cass school of architecture at London Metropolitan University’s Cass school of architecture has been hit by the deaths of both its head of school Signy Svalastoga and former architecture professor Florian Beigel. Svalastoga, a former architect at Zaha Hadid Architects, was 61 and had been head of the Cass since 2008. Beigel, who was 76, retired from regular teaching last year after more than 45 years at the Cass, and was also known for founding the inspirational design research studio, Architecture Research Unit (ARU), in the early 1970s. 

• August also saw the death of CGI pioneer Alan Hayes Davidson at the age of 58. The founder of leading architectural visualiser Hayes Davidson was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2012. 

• Grimshaw is working on proposals for a £100 million Eden Centre in Morecambe, Lancashire. It is planned for the site of the town’s former Dome entertainment centre and Bubbles swimming pool. Eden Project International said that while the Cornwall Eden is about the connection with plants, the Morecambe version would be about the connection with Morecambe’s bay. The practice is already working on possible Edens in Australia, New Zealand and China. Grimshaw’s original Eden Project opened in 2001 and was nominated for the Stirling Prize. 

• In further seaside news, David Chipperfield has designed a 100-room seafront hostel for Margate in Kent, to go next to his Turner Contemporary art gallery, which has helped reverse the town’s decline since it opened in 2011. The hostel, which Chipperfield has designed for free, would provide ‘affordable’ accommodation for gallery visitors, allowing them to spend longer in Margate. It would also include social spaces and a café/brasserie, and would accommodate events related to the gallery’s exhibitions programme.

• Shard designer Renzo Piano has offered to help design a replacement for the Genoa bridge that collapsed in August, killing 43 people. The architect, who was born in Genoa, says he would not charge for his services. Speaking to The Observer, he said: ‘It must be a place where people can recognise the tragedy in some way, while also providing a great entrance to the city. All this must be done without any sign of rhetoric – that would be the worst trap.’  

Simon Aldous’ Weekend Roundup is emailed exclusively to AJ subscribers every Saturday morning. To have the newsletter emailed to you every Saturday morning, click here to find out more about our subscription packages

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