Listed HQ should be zero carbon ‘centre of debate’ for architects, public and policymakers, says new president

RIBA 66 Portland Place

Source: Philip Vile

66 Portland Place was designed by George Grey Wornum and opened in 1934

The RIBA is to launch a design competition for the redevelopment of its grade II* art deco headquarters in central London.

The 87-year-old building at 66 Portland Place is “tired” and inaccessible and needs to be brought up to modern standards, new president Simon Allford told his first meeting of the governing council yesterday.

Allford, who succeeded Alan Jones a month ago, outlined a vision that included creating three new galleries aimed at public, profession and policymakers, as well as upgraded office space.

Simon Allford ©Tom Mesquitta

Source: Tom Mesquitta

Simon Allford

The building must also be made accessible to people with disabilities and brought in line with zero carbon targets, said the AHMM director who pledged in his election campaign to make Portland Place a “House of Architecture”.

“It must be exemplary. This is a classic retrofit project,” he said, noting that most council members were wearing coats because the windows of the Florence Hall had been flung open to allow covid-compliant cross-ventilation.

“The brief is not formed yet and we would like to bring in a design team to stress test it. Whatever we do to the building it has got to be flexible for another 90 years.

“Who better to work for us than an architecture practice or combination of practices that we have chosen through an architectural competition run by the RIBA?”

The redevelopment would be part of a wider rationalisation of the institute’s property portfolio which will include ditching neighbouring 76 Portland Place. This was acquired from the Institute of Physics in 2014 to provide more suitable office space for the RIBA’s staff. It also contained incubator space for micro-practices.

Theis & Khan won the competition to design the £2.89m fit-out which was completed in 2015.

RIBA Theis & Khan

Theis & Khan’s RIBA extension at 76 Portland Place will not reopen

But it has remained closed since the start of the pandemic and is now “surplus to requirements”, said chief executive Alan Vallance. He said 89% of staff want to continue working from home half the week.

He said the RIBA has begun a major staff restructure and last week began a consultation on job losses.

But the institute wants to recruit a “world-class” director of programming to oversee the three new gallery spaces - as well as hybrid events around the country.

One of these galleries would be aimed at architects while the second would be a place where schoolchildren could be inspired to become architects and then learn how to find a work experience placement, said Allford.

“The third would be the ‘public affairs’ or ‘key issues we face today’ gallery,” he added. “If the government is wondering about reforming the planning system we should be putting together exhibitions and informative seminars on the planning system.”

The programming must make Portland Place a hub for debate, he said.

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Jack Pringle, who chairs the new RIBA board, said: “66 is the best institute building in the world. We have been gifted something amazing by our antecedents and it’s now time to refurbish it, to open it to the public, to provide disabled access.”

Allford felt there was a strong case for making the alterations despite the building’s grade II* listing because “so many things are wrong”.