The desire to tear down the old must be tempered by an understanding of why things are the way they are, writes Eleanor Jolliffe


Eleanor Jolliffe

In the years between the First and Second World Wars, the architectural profession in the UK was experiencing growing pains. The era of the private architect with the aristocratic patron was over.

The standard career trajectory for a young architect from apprenticeship to partnership or practice ownership was beginning to fail in earnest, and the era of the salaried architect in large public or private practice was beginning to form.

Architecture, like many professions and trades, was consolidating and specialising. Projects were increasing in scale and complexity and a different type and style of practice was becoming increasingly urgent.

There was unease however between the private architects and those who were salaried. Tensions flared between RIBA and activist type groups such as The Association of Architectural Surveyors and Technical Assistants (AASTA) with unprofessionally hostile and personal comments made in official RIBA minutes and the press more broadly.

AASTA campaigned for standards of salary and working conditions and in response the RIBA set up a committee and eventually published salary scales to mirror its fee scales. However, the committee went on to recommend that design of important municipal buildings should be given to a private practitioner over a salaried official architect as “the former was more likely to be able to offer fresh design perspectives and contribute to advancing architecture, rather than be encumbered with the bureaucracy of the role”.

These inflammatory comments were further exacerbated by H S Goodhart-Rendel, who used his RIBA presidential address to liken the design abilities of official architects to machine-dispensed chocolate – “repetitive and slightly stale”. Goodhart-Rendel was on the wrong side of history, as in 1938, approximately 31% of RIBA membership were employed in the public sector.

Scars from these years still haunt the modern profession and have ushered in patterns of behaviour and thought which continue to inflict new damage on the profession on all fronts

Just eight years later, in 1946, the RIBA members went on to elect their first president in public practice, Lancelot Keay. In his inaugural address he acknowledged the challenges the profession was facing – the shortage of trained and experienced staff; the unparalleled upheaval in the building industry and the difficulties to be faced in the way of full employment, materials shortages and rising construction costs… sound at all familiar?

He oversaw the RIBA through crucial years in which the profession charted its way in a Britain re-evaluating its place in the world, postwar, post empire and all but bankrupt. The utopian thought of the postwar years would see some of the boldest architectural thinking and planning for decades, but the ideological purity with which it was enforced would see some of the greatest and most impactful failures in architecture and planning for centuries.

Scars from these years still haunt the modern profession and have ushered in patterns of behaviour and thought which continue to inflict new damage on the profession on all fronts.

There are parallels between the postwar years and now. We have staff shortages, high employment, rising costs, uncertain economic futures and we are also charting a new position internationally for the UK. Perhaps most unexpected though is the parallel I find myself drawing with the recent RIBA presidential election.

Muyiwa Oki was elected from a grassroots campaign led largely by young, disillusioned architectural students and young architects. Their reforming zeal has seen language brought into the discussions around the architectural profession that is rarely used: “architectural worker”, “architect bosses”, “union”.

The profession below the age of 30 looks different to that over 30. It is more diverse, more burdened by debt, it expects more. Perhaps not unlike AASTA all those years ago.

Will the ideological purity of these movements help or hurt us though? Oki is a year younger than I am; this is my generation, but I don’t recognise myself in all the pictures that are painted by the groups that nominated and supported him.

Some of their opinions and experiences ring true, but I am uneasy about the at-times casual dismissal of decades, if not centuries of professional practice and experience.

I hope that the wave of ideology that he has ridden in on will be constructive, not as destructive as the ideology of the postwar years

I recognise the instinct to believe that in order to reform it is necessary to destroy what is not working, but I would be a danger to those around me if I believed that my currently-held opinions are the only true and correct course to success.

I don’t know Oki at all, I have heard him speak once. He seemed nice, articulate, passionate, if a little ambitious in election proposals that promised results far beyond the remit of RIBA, let alone its largely ceremonial presidential role. However, I wish him well.

If nothing else he has already demonstrated an ability to invigorate enough of the profession to vote in a RIBA election. I hope that the wave of ideology that he has ridden in on will be constructive, not as destructive as the ideology of the postwar years.

As architects, we all know how easy it is to demolish something, but we also know that building something is much harder. Perhaps if we treated reform of the RIBA more like a refurbishment – where we questioned each decision, each modification, each structural addition or omission; removing what was ill advised or in fact damaging, leaving what serves or what is harmless, we may make more constructive progress.

Masterpieces of restoration take time. Scarpa took 14 years to restore Castelveccio and that is “just” one castle. But then, where is the glamour or the notable progress for a two-year presidency, in progression that slow, that considered? Politics at any level does not reward good ideas; just flashy ones.