As nominations close for Alan Jones’ replacement, Eleanor Jolliffe asks who would make a good successor

Eleanor Jolliffe

I am a chartered member of the RIBA, though a rather disengaged one – which, judging from electoral turnout last time, makes me rather typical.

This year’s presidential election kicks off today and I wanted to take a moment before the rhetoric begins to reflect on what the institute is and what sort of president should lead it into its next, potentially very challenging, few years.

I have always thought that the RIBA’s charter was something that was worth supporting: “… the general advancement of civil architecture, and for promoting and facilitating the acquirement of the knowledge of the various arts and sciences connected therewith…”. In pursuit of this charter I have seen a lot of valuable, if not always well communicated, work going on at Portland Place.

However, some of the stories about the institute I have seen in the press (architectural and national) over the last few years have not been the sort of headlines that an institute striving to be a beacon of professionalism should be making, and that’s a shame.

The value of the RIBA is often communicated in terms of how it can assist an individual in their architectural practice. However for me its chartered role in promoting and facilitating architecture more broadly is potentially of more value. The RIBA has the brand power and reach few individual practices do.

The last few elections have highlighted themes of reforming RIBA governance, reducing its physical footprint, remaking it as an institute fit for architecture in the 21st century etc. This year I am hoping for something different, something a little more nuanced as much of the work the past few presidents have promised is already underway.

An RIBA document published last year called Planning for Change outlines the vision and mission objectives for a five-year investment project, financed by the partial sale of RIBA enterprises. This document has been endorsed by the council, and the trustees approved the investment plan in 2018. Its objectives include enhancing member involvement, growing, rejuvenating, improving diversity and social mobility, increasing capacity to influence policy makers, education reform (once Brexit terms are agreed), simplified governance, decentralising resources, reduced organisational footprint at Portland Place, rejuvenated cultural offer etc.

I am certain there are details to be worked out and a thoughtful president could have a significant and important role in this. It is a five-year plan and problems such as growing diversity and social mobility can’t be solved overnight. However, the RIBA doesn’t necessarily need a new roadmap for change. It seems to have one already, and appears to be en-route.

Another significant recent change – from March this year – is the new, significantly slimmer, RIBA governance structure. There now exists a 12-person board holding the fiduciary responsibility for the institute. The president is on this board but is not (currently) its chair. The president remains the chair of the RIBA council whose role is no longer to oversee the RIBA’s operational details but to “guide the strategic direction of the board”. Presidential candidates with grand ambitions should be wary of the limitations of their future role within this governance structure.

I am also struck by the fact that the RIBA membership (80% male, 52% over the age of 51, and just over 84% white) is not statistically representative of the architectural profession (72% male, 38% over the age of 51, and 79% white).

The RIBA is more financially stable than it has been in a while but just 66% of Arb-registered architects choose to become chartered. A president who can communicate the value of the institute and enthuse the rising generation of architects could help safeguard its future relevance within the profession.

When I read election manifestos this summer I would love to see evidence of people who have done their homework and understand the institute far better than I do. I would love to see evidence of gifted and passionate communicators who can collaborate well; people with realistic and achievable aims guided by good evidence. Yes, this sounds boring but if they’re the communicator we need in these challenging times it won’t be.

I’ll also be looking for a hint of steel – in order to serve the RIBA charter the president may have to irritate the membership, and I don’t think they should be scared to do that. After all the RIBA is not a members’ club, it’s an institute for the advancement of architecture.