How can the institute boost the fortunes of architects as well as supporting architecture?
This week at Ecobuild, almost two years into my term as a nationally elected RIBA councillor, I join a debate chaired by Stephen Hodder on whether the profession is equipped for the future. I shall argue that I am more than ever convinced that the institute and RIBA Enterprises have a job to do to reverse the profession’s decline, and that if they are to succeed, they must first of all appeal to the young.
But what should the priorities be and how can the RIBA actually help? I was reminded over supper with fellow councilor Elsie Owusu last week that there are two schools of thought on this. There are those who believe architects are misunderstood, and that therefore the job is to educate our clients and society. This thinking has driven much of the so-called ‘outreach’ work undertaken by the institute in recent years. Then there are those who believe that architects need to do more to understand our clients and consumers of the built environment, and that the acquisition of a body of knowledge about this would be more valuable, according the profession more status and, in due course, improved fortunes.
In my view, the RIBA does need to continue improving both the context for architectural practice (the ‘outreach’ work) but at the same time concentrate on supporting its members to help them understand, equip themselves, and to practise in innovative ways. I believe the institute has focused too much of its resources on the former and not enough on the latter. So for me, the priorities now are:
1. Retake control of the Institute
The executive team had taken too much authority upon itself and was voicing too much of the insitute’s communications. Recent moves have enabled a process some of us have labelled ‘architects leading’, and this should now be followed through.
2. Improve the value of the membership package
This should cost less, especially for young members, and offer more. I believe the priority for membership development has been overlooked in recent years and should now be at the top of the agenda. RIBA Enterprises should focus on and favour RIBA members.
3. Reform education
As Elsie Owusu has pointed out, no organisation can claim there is nothing more to be done to improve diversity. A major element of effective change would be ‘earn as you learn’ schemes to prevent the opportunity of architecture becoming exclusive to those who can currently afford it.
4. Introduce an ethical code
More than ever, young people want and expect to be able to deliver social purpose as well as to prosper. We owe it to them to clarify the confusion that exists in this area by joining with other institutes to define what we mean by ‘ethical professionalism’.
5. Focus on research and a body of knowledge
The research going on in the profession should be channelled, co-ordinated, brokered, celebrated and published by the institute, resulting in an outward-facing and impressive edifice of innovative thinking by architects to celebrate as a profession and help us sell the service of architecture. More of a role for RIBA Enterprises.
6. Champion innovative and diverse practice
Successful practitioners thrive because they have learned to take on new skills and competencies, gained a mastery of the data in their disciplines, have diversified and established new working relationships with IT. There are synergies with RIBA Enterprises to be exploited here.
7. Integrate RIBA Enterprises
Indeed, so long as RIBA Enterprises is seen as a ‘lifeboat’, existing to see the institute through turbulent times, there will always be a temptation for those at the helm to fall asleep on their watch. The international, multidisciplinary perspective of RIBA/E suggests much greater integration.
8. Move back to the house
I do worry that that the grandiose property projects taken on by the institute now leave us with a house with which we are unsure what to do and can’t afford to do up! We should move back in, kick out the wedding parties and turn it into an international centre for architecture.
9. Back the development agenda
Arts administrator John Tusa has pointed out that no development department can succeed in supplementing income unless the whole organisation buys into the development agenda. This should be less about glamour and starchitecture; more about innovative practice and adding value to society.
10. Revamp structure and communication
I’m all for improving the institute’s shop window, and I think the current website is terrible. But before we get to the massively expensive ‘digital transformation’, we first need to restructure according to new priorities so we are clear what we are putting on show.
There is no time to waste!
Ben Derbyshire writing for the Architects Journal on 09.03.16