The RIBA urgently needs to repair the disconnect between its executive and members
What is the RIBA for? It’s a question that has reared its head once again following the departure of chief executive Harry Rich and a number of other senior staff at the Institute.
The RIBA charter says it is there for the ‘advancement of architecture’ but what does this mean? Despite the fact that the RIBA is a membership organisation, one could interpret its mission as promoting architecture first and architects (its members) second.
To many of his critics, this is the direction in which Rich took the organisation over his six years at the helm. They argue that what the RIBA should instead focus on is promoting its architect members, thereby achieving its core aim of advancing architecture.
The number of architects on the ARB register continues to rocket while chartered RIBA membership declines
The RIBA is not a trade union but there is now an unanswerable case for rebalancing the organisation towards the interests of members. For one thing, there has long been an unhealthy divide between senior management at 66 Portland Place and those members who get involved in RIBA affairs. In 2014, this led incoming RIBA council members John Assael and Ben Derbyshire to call for a shake-up and last autumn a letter from Derbyshire to his fellow councillors emerged suggesting that architects be put in the driving seat.
‘Architects feel the RIBA needs to offer them better value for their subscription, more clarity and definition in the ethics of professionalism, more support and more of a voice in the various challenges that lie ahead,’ he wrote. ‘In the words of one, we need to do more to repair the “growing disconnect between the membership and their aspirations and the RIBA”.’
Further evidence of deteriorating relationships at the institute emerged in December when a number of leading housing architects, including David Levitt, Andrew Matthews, Stephen Proctor, Derbyshire and Assael, kicked off over the RIBA’s decision to relaunch its HomeWise campaign against what it called ‘rabbit-hutch’ new builds, with their open letter imploring the RIBA’s communication team to avoid such ‘reckless’ and ‘derogatory’ language.
Council members have also been alarmed by the paranoia shown by the RIBA’s communication team towards the architectural media, including the AJ. This reached absurd heights just over a year ago when members of the press were barred from a key part of RIBA Council and then briefed by staff during a tightly controlled press conference held without the knowledge of councillors.
The reason why this high-level disconnect is such a threat to the RIBA is that it is surely being mirrored at grass roots level. The fact is that the number of architects on the ARB register continues to rocket while chartered RIBA membership declines in proportion.
Growing numbers are clearly deciding that they can simply do without those regal four letters after their name. Fixing that, as well as choosing the right replacement for Rich, is a task indeed.