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What has the RIBA done for you lately?

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Plenty, and not enough, writes Christine Murray

An internal intelligence document which emerged at last week’s RIBA Council meeting revealed that nearly half (47 per cent) of RIBA chartered practice members are dissatisfied with the institute’s support services, although 89 per cent of members say they are ‘likely to re-join’ anyway).

It’s an interesting conundrum, this unhappy membership that keeps coming back for more. Bryan Avery of Avery Associates describes it as a tax: ‘Every year, like so many others, I have dutifully paid the membership fee like a tithe, for no reason except to promote the good of the profession. And every year the institute finds a new way to obfuscate and cede our collective authority, status and prosperity to others.’

However, some of you have wholly more positive things to say about RIBA membership, especially those who have used their helplines or services. It’s a bit like a gym membership: the happiest customers are those who actually go. Chris Romer-Lee of Studio Octopi claims in the practice’s first years, it was a frequent user of RIBA Client Services, which brought the firm referrals and work. ‘The support offered, particularly in the early years, was second to none.’ Future RIBA president Stephen Hodder has said he believes members are not adequately aware of the RIBA’s range of services, although 70 per cent of RIBA chartered practices see the accreditation as good value.

It’s a bit like the Romans sketch from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, says Peter Morris of Peter Morris Architects. ‘All right, all right, but apart from better lectures and a bookshop and education and RIBA Journal and regional offices and public debate programmes and road shows and a sustainability hub and social networks and fundraising auctions and job adverts and advice on appointments… what has the RIBA ever done for us?’

Not enough, say members, to counter the poor public image of architects, the erosion of the architect’s authority, to alleviate the pressure on fees, or ensure that salaries keep pace with the rising cost of education. According to the survey, members want the RIBA to give greater priority to lobbying and promoting the value of architects to the public.

The truth is that the RIBA’s toolkits for members are adequate in helping the profession do its job. What is lacking, alongside this programme, is the sustained authoritative voice of the RIBA standing up for architecture.

The RIBA’s influence in government has waned, evidenced by Boris Johnson sending a proxy to receive his honorary membership last year. And the reduced coverage of the Stirling Prize over the years must be seen as a cultural defeat. The RIBA needs to tell the government and the public what architects do, and why they are important to society. This must fall to the institute, as it’s more than a president can accomplish in a two-year term.

The RIBA should not underestimate the profound psychological effect that a consistent and powerful marketing campaign would have in promoting the status of architects.

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