Chris Williamson on how concern for young architects and a desire to engage the membership has motivated him to run

Chris Williamson cropped

Chris Williamson

BD asked me why I would like to run as RIBA president, and now the nomination forms have been submitted, I can finally start explaining. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to gather the 60 “assentors” needed to support a nomination without word getting out. And perhaps limiting debate to a month doesn’t generate sufficient interest to encourage architects to vote, but those are the rules.

Maybe the whole idea of campaigning on a platform is somewhat out of date when the RIBA president doesn’t have the authority to dictate policy – quite rightly in a two-year term. Still, the president needs to work closely with the board, council and most importantly, members. So, the more time taken to understand each other and establish mutual respect, the better.

I am honoured to have a diverse group of “assentors”, including students, Stirling Prize winners, young, international and regional architects. When it comes to voting, I would rather encourage 20,000 to vote and I lose by 1,000 than have only 7,500 take part. Whoever becomes president should speak for a vibrant, engaged professional community.

I am concerned that the RIBA is losing its relevance to young architects and without reform, its influence will continue to dwindle. There is so much potential, so much talent, and so much interest in architecture and the environment currently – our voice should be louder.

The RIBA is under-appreciated in the UK, yet in my experience as their international vice president, very well thought of overseas. So many other institutes around the world would like to work with us, whether that’s developing life-long learning programmes or collaborating to tackle global challenges, like climate change and urbanisation. In the UK we have great knowledge, experience and also cultural capital, and there is huge potential for us to work more closely with other institutes and organisations.

It’s about the future of the RIBA and how it can support the young architects, students and apprentices I’ve been working with

There are significant challenges to discuss and address globally and locally. Most architects are concerned about pay, whether salary or fees, and this is likely to increase. If we think the profession is under threat by less qualified designers on Fiverr or Upwork, wait until AI really gets going. We need to be more empathetic, listen to our clients better – for many, the future will also mean acquiring new business skills.

My understanding and impetus has been reinforced through running Ilkon, a community arts centre I set up in my home town of Ilkeston, Derbyshire. It exists to champion creative talent in the East Midlands, where there is so much exciting work being done. We have forged great links with art, film and architecture students at Derby, De Montfort, Trent and Nottingham Universities. I employ a young artist in residence to run the day-to-day programme and the enthusiasm generated is fantastic – I truly believe Ilkeston could be a cultural hub for the East Midlands.

To help encourage this, we did a project with 90 architecture students and the local council on how we might turn this single attraction into a cultural destination, taking advantage of the huge catchment area of the Nottingham-Sheffield-Leeds train line. The ideas the students have generated have been inspiring. We all learn from each other and we’re now setting up workshops with businesses, the community and local architects to develop them further.

It reminded me of the importance of showcasing ideas. When Andrew Weston and I were trying to get Weston Williamson established, we invented our own projects to try to demonstrate our design work. One scheme was chosen for the Royal Academy summer exhibition and led to a commission for a research laboratory. We learned from inspirational architects like Ron Herron, Peter Cook, Ian Ritchie that this was a valid route, and we were encouraged by Jose and Michael Manser.

There is incredible talent in the young architects I work with. We need to ensure we continue to champion, publicise and exhibit it. Not just built work, which can be hard to get off the ground, but the ideas, which are the lifeblood of our profession.

Looking back, there were key opportunities, like the 1985 RIBA 40 under 40. This launched or established the careers of Allsop and Lyall, Stanton Williams, Chipperfield, Powis and Levete, Allies and Morrison, and many others. We all benefitted from a RIBA policy of encouraging clients to put at least one young architect onto each shortlist.

So, to answer the question – there are many reasons why I have submitted my nomination. It’s about the future of the RIBA and how it can support the young architects, students and apprentices I’ve been working with; to create the conditions for them to thrive in their careers – as it helped ours. With all the challenges ahead, their need is even greater.

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