If you believe in collective action for the profession, then make sure you vote in the RIBA presidential election, writes Eleanor Jolliffe

Ellie cropped

It’s probably better not to vote in the RIBA presidential elections. The role is largely ceremonial and the RIBA feels a little toothless. Of course, the ‘House of Architecture’ project will mean that the next presidential term is likely to generate awareness of the work of the RIBA outside of architecture, but the profession’s figurehead doesn’t matter. Architects are riding high in the wider construction industry, broadly valued by the public and have no concerns about their fees or value in either construction or society…

While somewhat aggressively sarcastic I hope you will understand my point.

It is all too easy to be fatigued by the RIBA, fatigued by its perceived weaknesses and fatigued by its lack of action on points that feel important. It’s easy to declare that the charter is pointless, that the organisation doesn’t serve architects, and that it has already lost its relevance. However, I would caution that while all the above may have a ring of truth, fundamentally the RIBA does matter- and who leads it should be of concern to all architects, whether members or not.

The RIBA has significant international prestige, significant ‘brand presence’ in the UK, and does admirable (though poorly communicated and distributed) work on a variety of guidance documents and matters of importance to contemporary architectural practice. Most practices are delighted to win an RIBA award for their work. While possibly a little devoid of lobbying power or influence now, it has achieved competition reform, protection of title and prescribed educational standards over its history.

Do I agree with all the positions it takes now? No. Do I think it has the power now it did in the late 1800s? No. Do I think it is a complete ‘dead duck’? Also no.

In the UK we are seeing changes in the construction industry and legislative framework that could ‘kill or cure’ the more existential problems the architectural profession faces. In our current time of global political turbulence, and domestic economic uncertainty architects need a body that can effectively represent them. The RIBA cannot be that body as it currently stands.

Future of the Profession

The strength of the RIBA lies in its membership’s engagement. The reason it could achieve so much in its earlier decades of life was that its membership was a clear majority of architects. It could lobby on behalf of architects largely because the majority of architects were seen to support it. Its voice carried collective authority. That is no longer true.

The RIBA now could have the most impressive connections and lobbying power - but it would still be unlikely to be taken seriously because membership as a percentage of registered architects is falling, and the membership it does have is so disengaged that presidential election turnouts barely reach the mid teens. The RIBA has only ever been effective when the profession got behind it.

Of course we could continue to be disengaged, the RIBA could limp through another few decades and perhaps the new competency powers of the ARB would be enough to encourage high standards in British architectural practice. British architecture more broadly would suffer though. The RIBA has never just been about architects, it has encouraged architecture - and supported smaller practices with advice and publications that digest legislative changes and guide them in elements of best practice.

Without this where would we be? Smaller practices would no longer have a central trusted resource of broadly good quality advice, and the brand of British architecture would be dominated by those who could shout the loudest and spend the most money. Is this the model we wish to follow? Isn’t collective power better than individual competition when representing ourselves as a competent and multifaceted profession?

I remain an RIBA member (though I will note the practice I work for generously covers the dues). I will be voting over the coming week - for both President and Council. I would encourage you to vote too - because the RIBA can only get stronger if we participate and therefore give it back its authority. At worst you’ve wasted ten minutes, and we’ve all wasted ten minutes on far sillier things.

Also read: Funmbi Adeagbo: ‘Architects need to get their hands dirty. We need to be thinking more like builders’

Also read: Duncan Baker-Brown: ‘I think architecture is a lot of fun. We have got to remind ourselves of that’

Also read: Chris Williamson: ‘I think we can do a lot for young architects – they need all the help they can get’