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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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