The recent controversies rocking RIBA has prompted Eleanor Jolliffe to take a long, hard look at what the instititution is for and whether it is fit for purpose

Eleanor Jolliffe

The RIBA is an organisation I joined on qualifying because it felt like the right thing to do. Whilst I was not 100% sure of the benefits I knew that RIBA stood for something good and was linked with a high standard of professionalism. That the ‘good’ was woolly in my own mind I put down to personal laziness and a disinclination to keep researching things after seemingly endless Part 3 coursework.

I know and respect several of the current and past members of the RIBA Council and every time I have ever spoken with a representative of the RIBA they have been unfailingly helpful, professional, enthusiastic and well intentioned although often frustrated by the slow-moving nature of the institute as a whole. That the whole thing felt like a bunch of middle aged men pontificating without action I put down to my unwillingness to attend events; and to the thought that coordinating architects is probably about as straightforward as herding cats. Someone I respect who is in a position to know these things had told me that the two buildings full of people on Portland Place were doing some important work but needed to significantly improve on their communication skills. I didn’t, and still don’t, have a reason to doubt that.

I read bits of the RIBA website and the aims and values of the Institute - inclusive, ethical, environmentally aware and collaborative - exactly the sort of thing I think is important and worthwhile. In the back of my mind I made a note that one day maybe I should try and engage a bit better with the RIBA. Whilst it has been pushed down to the bottom of the to-do list my intent was there and I voted in the recent elections as you shouldn’t moan about disengagement if you aren’t prepared to make an effort yourself.

Then the last few months happened, and the harmless if ineffective RIBA of my limited experience was accused of being racist and issuing death threats, dashing off cease and desist letters and is now being investigated by the fraud squad. Was this the RIBA’s ‘#metoo’ moment or a personality clash exaggerated beyond all expectations of reasonableness?

So far it seems that, except for an arguably over-reactive response to comments on Alan Vallance’s pay, none of the claims of wrong-doing have been sufficiently supported. Therefore, are all these claims a billowing cloud of smoke without a fire? However, if there is no fire at all why do some of the claims seem so sadly inevitable?

Thus galvanised into action by all this negativity I read the RIBA’s annual reports and strategic aims documents and byelaws and progress reports. I was determined to finally answer my own question - RIBA: what and how?

These documents are easy to find and download. With the exception of the byelaws they are easy to read and beautifully presented, and yet so frustratingly vague that I am no further forward than I was at the beginning. My lasting impression from the documents was Allan Vallance’s wonderfully optimistic sentence from the progress report of 2016; ‘In that context [IT problems, financial pressures and Brexit vote] I believe that delivering 57% of our 2016 Plan was a great effort and I am very proud of [the RIBA staff’s] achievement.’

I am no further forward on the organisational structure as in who has the power to make and implement decisions, the actual tangible outcomes of stated aims, whether the president has the power to implement their manifesto, whether a two year presidential term is long enough and whether the government reads, takes note or reacts to the well-considered responses to policies and investigations that RIBA publish. I could go on.

This presidential election has been messy and, rightly or wrongly, has left a legacy of unease. Whether this can easily be overcome by Alan Jones or whether this will overshadow his term remains to be seen. Nonetheless, it seems apparent that the RIBA needs be clearer about what it does, who it is for, and what it aspires to be. For instance, I for one would be very grateful for an ‘Idiot’s guide to the RIBA’ should anyone from the RIBA happen to be reading this.

I am not anti RIBA. I strongly support their aims to drive excellence in architecture, improve practices to combat modern slavery and human trafficking, their support for better buildings and stronger communities. However, I have been personally disappointed at their lack of leadership or substantive action over issues including education and mental health, especially given the level of support for these issues within the RIBA Council, and have been flummoxed by the inability to engage the membership.

I knew when I joined that the RIBA was not a nimble body but with the challenges the profession is likely to face next year and beyond we need more. We need an institute with a demonstrable ability to adapt quickly, to communicate its efforts and to effectively represent its members to the government and to society more broadly. The RIBA today does not seem to be doing that job, but there is so much potential within its many walls and so much enthusiasm for change from its president and president-elect that I won’t be rescinding my membership - yet.