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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)

  • Whilst Alan Jones has been an eejutt, this commentator sums up what is wrong with architecture from the london glitterati-
    a dismal succession of provincial non-entities, what a condescending attitude which makes me dismiss her entire response.

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  • Isn't the real issue here that the RIBA has been remarkable in its absence during the last 3 months of lockdown. No leadership, no national impact and no direction to its members Debate, analysis and critique of this sorry state of affairs is needed.

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