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The RIBA needs to rebalance itself in favour of architects

Will Hurst

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.


Readers' comments (3)

  • Come and see what we have achieved in Manchester with this approach.
    Our members wanted to put Architect at the centre of our mission: "To champion and nurture the present and future architects of Manchester".
    Our engagement went up by 30% in 2015 and half of our active council are under 35. This is not speculation - but solid results. jane Duncan hailed our MA model as something that should be rolled out in every region.
    Clearly this message has got through. We have the proof. When is the AJ going to cover our story? For the record, we are probably the most active and cohesive group outside of 66PP itself....
    Talk to us.

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  • We could also say without a hint of irony that maybe the AJ should practice what it preaches. We have been showing how a grass-roots led membership drive amongst architects (we don't care whether our architects and students are RIBA or not) can work to create cohesion, drive knowledge and excellence in architecture...maybe it is because we aren't round the corner. Come on AJ - you cannot write articles like this, then ignore it when change is happening up the road!!!

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  • Ben Derbyshire

    Well said, Will Hurst! And thank you for acknowledging what John Assael and I have been saying since we were elected as National Councillors 18 months ago now.

    To rejuvenate the membership we must meet young architects' concerns about the covenant between society and the profession; an ethical code that enables the public and the our clients to trust us and our judgements, and that entitles us to be heard above others who do not claim to profess such standards. And we must help the profession to establish a body of knowledge that the public and our clients might consider worth listening to, and just as importantly, paying for.

    So the challenge is to invest in IT, recognise that much of what we do now will be (and in many instances already is) made available by others for free, and concentrate on combinations of collaborating competences at a high level that require human interaction, judgement based on experience, and face to face interaction through creative processes, such as the charrette.

    There is no time like the present to begin this process and now, more than ever, as we are confronting a possible ten years of government that believes in diminishing influence and is withdrawing from regulation to deliver a fairer, more equitable and sustainable environment, there are opportunities for the built environment professions to offer a meaningful alternative to those sectors of society and commerce that demand it.

    Indeed it's at the heart of the arguments I have been making about the Institute's strategy that it should take advantage of the potential for the research going on in the profession to be channelled, co-ordinated, brokered, celebrated and published by the Institute with the result that we have an outward facing and impressive edifice of innovative thinking by architects to celebrate as a profession. While the Government is in retreat from effective environmental policy, the professions should be on the front foot. I find this is an exciting idea and we should seize on it!

    Ben Derbyshire,
    Managing Partner, HTA Design LLP
    Chair, The Housing Forum

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