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The RIBA desperately needs a credible figurehead

Catherine Slessor

The shortcomings of Alan Jones as RIBA president are the latest symbol of an institution that has failed to adequately represent, or lead, the profession for years, says Catherine Slessor

The enduring fashion for British royal mistresses spans the centuries. Edith the Fair was mistress to King Harold of Battle of Hastings fame, while Camilla Parker Bowles, now official consort of Prince Charles, began life as his mistress. Less regally, the trajectory of Boris Johnson perfectly epitomises how a spot of extramarital activity does not diminish a chap’s career prospects. Far from it – it regularly draws defensive encomiums from a certain class of saloon bar contrarian.

Telescoping down even further, Alan Jones, President of the RIBA, allegedly had an affair. So what. Everyone does it. A mere storm in a teacup. A kerfuffle. Move on. Nothing to see here.

Except, of course, there’s plenty to see here. With power, comes responsibility, and the quite reasonable expectation that powerful people, whether heading up the country or the RIBA, are consistently capable of exercising sound judgment. Boris Johnson’s cavalier ‘life is a cabaret, old chum’ schtick very nearly saw him dead of coronavirus, to say nothing of the carnage inflicted on his fellow citizens. And, as things stand, Alan Jones seems unlikely to be re-donning his presidential medallion any time soon. In the historic scheme of RIBA shenanigans, the Jones Affair, with its allegations involving a female architect 15 years his junior and possible misuse of RIBA resources, has the makings of an imbroglio, even seeping into the lurid purview of the Daily Mail.

As the RIBA’s 77th president, Jones clearly aimed to hit the ground running. He used his elevation to promote his just-published book on the importance of professional competence. On Twitter, he hectored architects to ‘do the right thing, right’. He affected purple T-shirts printed with slogans such as ‘Professionalism starts at the front door’ and ‘#ArchitectFirst’. A new dawn beckoned as he junked the Eames desk in his office for a ‘Big Table’ to be signed by visiting dignitaries, which to date have included Suggs of Madness.

Quizzed on his priorities, he would launch into an analogy about the industry being interconnected, like a giant plate of meatball spaghetti. At times, the overall tenor seemed more like Alan Partridge than Alan Jones.

With the very future of the profession at stake, this is hardly an opportune moment for Portland Place to be experiencing a little local difficulty

Few, however, could have predicted this latest turn of events. At a time when architects desperately need an articulate, credible figurehead to steer them through unprecedented challenges and galvanise new ways of thinking about practice and social responsibility both now and in the post-Covid era, the RIBA president is nowhere to be seen, his office temporarily vacated while various investigations take their course. With the very future of the profession at stake, this is hardly an opportune moment for Portland Place to be experiencing a little local difficulty.

‘A fish rots from the head down’ goes the old Mafia saying. For the past two years, the RIBA has been reframing its governance structure, replacing its unwieldy council with a new, slimline body of trustees. Yet its presidency remains basically the same: a two-year term, largely ceremonial, with no real teeth or powers, attracting a dismal succession of provincial non-entities who fancy a break from practice, elected by a tiny fraction of the membership. In what was his second attempt to become president, Jones prevailed by getting just over half the votes cast in a turnout of 19 per cent. Not exactly a resounding mandate.

Calls for change have been made before, most recently by Simon Allford, who urged the profession to storm the RIBA’s London headquarters and ‘take it back for architects and architecture’. But rather than just muddle through this mess, as the RIBA seems intent on doing, perhaps it might be the time to fundamentally re-evaluate the role, responsibilities and relevance of its president and how its members might become more engaged in choosing who represents them, and why. If not now, when?


Readers' comments (22)

  • The question is how the RIBA represents its members and evangelises for architecture. It has a membership that broadly falls into three groups: salaried architects, leaders of small practices and leaders of large practices. They all have different, and sometimes opposing, needs and the Institute's main aim should be finding ways of satisfying these wants.

    As it is the Institute does not offer that much, especially to architects from outside London and I don't see its membership getting engaged until it does.

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  • The qualities RIBA need for their President probably aren't very different from those that English football fans hope for from the England team manager:

    - a champion of the profession
    - a deep knowledge of professionals
    - a strategic thinker
    - good leadership qualities
    - a good communicator
    - scandal free.

    RIBA probably wouldn't mind if he/she wore a waistcoat.

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  • Given that the AJ is happy to publish Catherine Slessor's ad hominen attack on Alan Jones, I feel it must be completely fine to say that her article is badly-written, badly argued, badly edited rumour-mongering that does no justice to the AJ, created from within a metropolitan bubble that doesn't know its way beyond the M25 except to visit it's weekend hideaway on the coast. If her MBE was really granted for "services to architectural journalism", then the palace has a keen sense of humour. By all means publish a piece about the shortcomings of the presidency as valid role for the Institute in the 21st century, or the electoral system used to elect the president, but don't conflate those institutional shortcomings with alleged shortcomings of an individual before the due process of investigation has been completed.

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  • "dismal succession of provincial non-entities who fancy a break from practice" Does that include Jane Duncan, Ben Derbyshire, Steve Hodder, Ruth Reed and Sunand Prasad? I think they may take issue with that.

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  • The RIBA Council is not being replaced - where did this rumour come from?

    This is written by someone who obviously never leaves London, (except possibly to infest the rest of the country with empty second homes) who believes that anything outside that polluted antheap is irrelevant. It is a long time since I heard the word 'mistress' outside a history book, and it is an insulting term to any modern woman, and so what if she is younger than him?

    A silly, badly written article.

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  • Whatever the fate of Alan Jones, I can ensure the wellbeing of the Eames desk, assuming that it hasn't really been 'junked'.
    It's a question of appreciating the real quality of something that seems to have been the victim of (with hindsight) ill considered populist gesture politics.
    I feel that the fees that I paid for RIBA membership over the years entitle me to personally 'curate' this item if the RIBA really doesn't know what it's at.

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  • At the very least the Riba should be run by FRIBA Architects( i.e well proven practitioners)or it will never have engagement from members. Someone who has not been an Architect cannot make decisions informed by being an Architect. End of...

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  • Catherine Slessor mentions that the woman Alan Jones is alleged to have had an affair with was 15 years his junior. Does the age of the woman matter any more than her ethnicity? Would if be more acceptable to all if she was more or less the same age as Alan Jones himself?

    As Slessor herself says with regard to affairs: "Everyone does it". (Do they really?). It would seem to be a form of ageism if an age difference of 15 years were to be considered unacceptable but having the same age not so. What is the age-difference cut-off point for having an "acceptable" affair? 10 years? 5 years??

    If 15 years were to be considered an "unacceptable" age difference for a practice leader to have had an affair with an office junior (possibly later leading to marriage), one wonders how many architectural practices might not meet such a criteria of acceptability.

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  • Alan Montgomery Jones is 56 years old and the formula for socially-acceptable relationship age gaps is half age plus 7 years. The latter in AMJ’s case means that he can date women who are 35 and older. So, a 41-year old is well within his range of socially-acceptable sexual partners. What is not acceptable is that he allegedly wined, dined and seduced her using members’ subscription funds. He should have used the RIBA Learjet for that, while travelling on RIBA business.

    As the RIBA ceased to be of any relevance years ago, perhaps it should be repurposed as a playboy mansion for ageing Lotharios. If we turn 66 Portland Place into a gaming house, using Aspinall’s as a business model, considering it’s prime location and the fact that the ‘house’ always wins, we should receive a fantastic return for our annual subs. I agree that mistress is an anachronistic and unsavoury term, the sobriquet hostess should be used for the new venture. More Champagne anyone?

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  • Rather than being the "socially acceptable" rule for affairs, the "half age plus seven" is actually used as a guide for men to imagine the ideal age for their female partner......it's not clear if women generally agree with this rule.

    Picking up on the idea of re-purposing Portland Place as playboy mansion for members, there should be no reason why the building couldn't be fully inclusive by having a range of amenities to suit the proclivities of all sexes, sexual leanings, races and ages.

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  • Daniel Lacey

    I think his bigger crime here is the slogan "professionalism starts at the front door".

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  • He’s a back door man...has he formerly left the building yet? If not, could he have the grace to resign, so that we can get on on with replacing him?

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  • When our President makes the Daily Mail for something other than architecture, he needs to go. He would have had credit for resigning on day one, and would now be forgotten. The reason so few vote in RIBA elections is presumably because they don't see it making any difference to their professional lives. Time for root and branch reform of what has become a bloated bureaucracy to many eyes.

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  • As a non-architect but avid AJ reader I find the debate over the future of the RIBA wearily fascinating.

    The challenge all membership organisations face is reconciling their purpose and messages with the interest of their members. Years ago I used to deal a lot with Core Cities – the representative body of the English regional capitals. Very strong on the message that London shouldn’t get everything and nor should investment be wasted on smaller towns and rural areas lacking critical mass. Absolutely paralysed as soon as it was consulted on whether X should happen in Manchester or Leeds or Newcastle (which sometimes meant it ended up in London).

    ‘Architecture’ is an incredibly diverse industry. There is unity that architects should generally be used to design buildings, and that people shouldn’t be able to pretend to be qualified when they’re not. But there are schisms everywhere – architect B being hired post-contract to eviscerate architect A’s planning scheme; architect P happily cranking out windowless PDR schemes while architect Q denounces those schemes on Twitter; architect X buying public-sector jobs while architect Y bewails a race-to-the-bottom on fees.

    There is a sense that architecture as a profession is under the cosh in contemporary society and has to stick together – “evangelise for architecture” as one earlier comment neatly puts it – which is fair enough. But to achieve greater purpose and influence I wonder if there’s an argument for the RIBA being a bit less all-things-to-all-architects and sticking its neck out a bit further on some of the issues around which the most skilled (as opposed to simply qualified) architects seem to find consensus.

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  • On one hand the article aknowledges Alan Jone's unsuitability and epic fails, however then the author attempts to camouflage this as being due to the general declining standards within the RIBA, to which Jones fell a victim? Is this another subtle attempt to take the blame off him? Regardless of the state that the RIBA is in, the president is given a chance to make things right. In my opinion, the declining standards here have all to do with Jones himself, as he was largely unsuitable for the role. You could tell that this was a poor round of candidates, especially when his best opponent was Elsie Owusu. Also, isn't it just sweet irony that he co-authored a book on professionalism? I am glad it was mentioned on here, so that people know they shouldn't be buying it. Not every book is worth reading.

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  • ‘#ArchitectFirst’? What is this slogan supposed to mean? Architecture is the only major UK profession in which the output, as opposed to merely the title (‘architect’) is not regulated! Whilst the title ‘architect’ is jealously guarded at all times what is the point, exactly, of this ongoing jealous guarding (not that it shouldn’t exist - in a less pious form, perhaps, than its current ‘hiding behind’ form has, for a long time, been) if ‘any old Tom, Dick, or Harry, off the street’ may ‘draw up’ plans’, submit these for planning and building regs, and then proceed to ‘build off said plans’, either in person or via ‘any old building contractor’, with not a sight of any ‘architect’ being involved at any point from A to Z (or, if you will, from ‘Strategic Definition’ to ‘Use’)?

    Over two thirds of ‘new-builds’ in Britain have never seen the hand of ‘an architect’ - as opposed to a ‘plansmith’! - at the helm at any stage of the procurement process whilst new ‘works to existing buildings’ fare even worse with not even RICS building surveyors being involved in many such undertakings! Britain is the only nation in the world which obsesses at length over the word ‘architect’ (the number of ‘legal cases’ per annum about this single word clearly demonstrates this enduring obsession at constant work) whilst on the other, far more important, hand, completely ignoring the stark fact that ‘building works’ in the UK need not be designed, detailed, or contractually administered, by ‘a suitably qualified and experienced design professional’! This is a far more serious issue then going on and on only about ‘he/she is not an architect!’ instead of being, as everyone preferentially should be, absolutely obsessed with the fact that if talented heart surgeons were revealed to be marginalised to the extent that only about a third of heart operations were carried out by said specialists whilst two thirds of such operations were carried out by ‘local pork butchers in their high-street premises’ there would be a national outcry of enormous proportions and all the local ‘operating pork butchers’ would find themselves in jail faster than a speed-reader could enunciate ‘myocardial infarction!
    So if ‘medical procedures’ are absolutely legally enshrined in this nation (as they should, of course, always be) as ‘only ever being permitted, in all possible circumstances, to be carried out by long-trained and long-experienced ‘registered doctors’ of whatever specialism (one might readily substitute ‘lawyers’, ‘barristers’, ‘judges’, and ‘accountants’ for ‘doctor’ here of course!) why isn’t the process of ‘architectural design’ and the physical realisation of said process (which phenomenon, when boiled down to its basic essence, is, in fact, actually a form of ‘primary health care’!) protected by the same, ever-vigilant, massively robust, legal watchdogs who protect and defend doctors, lawyers, barristers, judges, and accountants, from ‘all non-qualified pretenders to the thrones of medicine, law, and accountancy’?

    This is THE overriding, crucial, question when it comes to any meta-analysis of ‘UK professionalism’ (in the ‘regulated’ sense of that word) which UK-only question is, moreover, an absolutely unknown one (because it is an entirely unnecessary one) in any other part of the developed world and also in much of the developing world as well!
    It is in the above sphere more than any other area that the RIBA has, ever since its inception in 1837, grievously and singularly failed to both properly represent its members and to consistently lobby for (as other professional associations relating to other professions have always robustly done!) the profession it is supposed to represent and protect (or else why does it exist at all?), but doesn’t, in fact, and never has, represented or protected!

    Imagine a BMA which consistently said: “We are intensely relaxed about the fact that only one third of medical operations are carried out by our members whist two thirds are carried out by ‘any old local pork butcher’ operating out of ‘any old high-street corner shop’.” or a Law Society (of England and Wales) stating that “We are quite happy with the situation which appertains whereby two thirds of ‘solicitorial procedures’ are carried out by non-solicitors.”
    Inconceivable… Completely inconceivable!

    From 1837 to now - to this very minute! - every single president of the RIBA has failed in that office because no president has ever turned the RIBA into an architectural version of the BMA or the Law Society (which is what it always should have been from the outset!), has never adequately upheld the profession, and has never constantly lobbied Westminster - or has never even occasionally lobbied Westminster! - for ‘European conformity’ when it comes to ‘the prosecution of architecture’ whist blithely accepting this basic pan-European concept (until Brexit at least, and, perhaps, even after Brexit) in most other regulated areas of UK life!

    A visiting friend from Spain was absolutely staggered to hear that had his recently completed ‘addition of another storey’ scheme of works to his old stone dwelling house, which lies along the route of the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain, been instead commissioned in England he should not have been obliged to factor ‘architect’s fees’ into his overall budget as a legal, right from the very start, requirement! His astonishment regarding this gross disparity between Britain and most of the rest of the world, which he talked about, whilst slowly shaking his head in disbelief, over every single breakfast table during the time he stayed with us, has, I understand, yet to dissipate!

    The above sorry tale ‘says it all’ about the absolutely dire state of the profession nationwide (i.e. not just in London) vis-a-vis its European counterparts, and indeed vis-a-vis its U.S., Canadian, Australian, etc., counterparts, whilst also double-underlining the root-and-branch failure of the RIBA and its many impotent, unconcerned, figureheads from its establishment in 1837 to the present, and from its first President, Thomas Philip Earl de Grey, to its present-day 77th presidential incumbent!

    And the above, in a single nutshell, is that! That is the Alpha and Omega of ‘The (architect’s) enduring problem that has never been, is never, solved.’!

    So; whilst the above absolute architectural nonsense is suffered to continue to prevail in these islands it is quite futile to argue about ‘Metropolitan elitism’ or “a dismal succession of provincial non-entities” queuing up to become ‘President of the RIBA’, which latter expression of contempt is, of course, not only an absolutely outrageous and completely unacceptable statement to have even been considered for making it into (AJ) print but which is also a major ‘Freudian slip’ insofar as it demonstrates in only a few words what a good deal of ‘the major problem which is the RIBA’ actually has been over the years!

    The majority of the profession is still made up of practices nationwide (i.e. not just from within the M25!) which are both small and, by definition, “provincial”… Nearly sixty percent of the profession is represented by practices which employ no more than five people whist the ‘big players’, principally in London, represent, at most, only about four percent of the whole. This ‘sixty percent’, in concert with their, again largely provincial, but slightly larger - but not by that much - comrades, almost universally see 66 Portland Place as being nothing more than a self-satisfied London-centric (as, given the above “dismal succession of provincial non-entities” pronouncement, the AJ clearly also is!) ‘Dining club’ which is in every way unrepresentative of their “merest provincial” architectural interests and concerns. Asked why they continue then to pay their annual RIBA fees the (provincial) answer nearly always is: ‘I haven’t got a clue really…’ ‘Maybe only because of the force of long habit since the RIBA certainly doesn’t, in any way, represent me!’

    Significant in this connection is the fact that it was not until 1892 that the ‘RIBA’ changed its moniker from ‘the Royal Institute of British Architects in London’, to the ‘Royal Institute of British Architects’: What’s in a name, eh? ...

    When the current state (and status) and the future prospects of ‘the profession’ is the question to hand the above, entirely negative, view of the RIBA is always what ‘any and all’ provincial architects this writer has ever spoken to about this subject say about the RIBA! And frankly nothing the RIBA or the AJ can say about the matter can gainsay what the majority of the profession think, and have for a long time thought, about the RIBA…

    Wake up Portland Place!

    Incidentally in the days of ‘Local Authority architects’ (which body once made up 80% of the profession) any ‘extra-marital affair’ (or even an affair between two singletons) involving ’a female architect 15 years his (but probably not ‘her’!) junior’ would have immediately generated a charge of ‘Gross Misconduct’: sexual harassment!

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  • Steve McAdam

    We've all long known that many a journalist see facts as getting in the way of a good story, though that used to be more the province of the tabloids. This article might as well be in the Daily Mail, or the deceased News of the World for that matter, where all sorts of schlock statements, in this case about presidential material and affairs, pass for news. I don't know Jones, but I pity and feel for any person so ruthlessly pilloried to sell column inches on the base of guilt that is not yet proven. The article also turns the tragedy of the RIBA into a pantomime and fudges the real need for reform by focusing on spiteful and arrogant assertions regarding any other than the London elite, which the author so clearly considers herself to be part of. In the end we can only say we don't really know what has happened in this affair, alleged or otherwise, but we can judge and damn an awful piece of 'journalism'.

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  • How is it possible that the journalist has supposedly been awarded an MBE for 'services to architectural journalism'? Who nominated the journalist for this, and upon what basis? The article is a shameful deformation of character without evidential basis. In these extreme challenging times the journalist seems not
    to have learned anything about the value of humanity and respect.

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  • Steve and Gerard the comments seem to me to be about Jones more than the article itself. The article to my mind is asking, "What has the RIBA done for us lately and especially in this crisis", a legitimate question?

    I feel for the new RIBA members, young Architects, small practices, actually all practices the reality of Covid 19 is stark... the RIBAs response, even to devotees, must be recognized as unknown, even to members outside of hasty list of Articles they retrospectively stitched together with time gaps and listed to show they have not been unresponsive.

    Maybe partially because of internal problems but largely because of a wider institutional failure over the last decade, when seemingly to me, market forces changed the institute's focus from members to wider business concerns; Not unexpected given the ratio of membership dues to business income but not the focus members would like to see and not what most view of the RIBA's own mission statement and the founders intentions and certainly not why I'm a member.

    They should split the two business from membership and stop pretending it is otherwise.

    It appears to this member that the organization is actually trading off of the legitimacy of Architects reputations rather than providing a valuable service, as would be expected of most membership similar organizations, such a the College of Surgeons or the RICS.

    Perhaps an Architect on the board could comment more succinctly and with more information to set the public record straight?

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  • Striking to see all these male wannabe commentators queuing up to slag off the author. You'd have thought several years since the #metoo movement reminded us of just how many men are the perpetrators of sexual impropriety in the workplace (including within architecture) male keyboard warriors might be a little more self-reflective. Sadly not.

    Get a grip, fellas. You're embarrassing yourselves and the profession.

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