Ours is an organisation out of step with its members and the profession it represents, writes Eleanor Jolliffe. The theory is fine but in practice it is so frustrating
I was recently in the V&A museum and, in a fit of pure nostalgia, decided to make the trek up to the fourth floor to visit the V&A/RIBA architecture room – something I don’t think I have done since I visited with my parents, coming up to London for the day especially, when I was considering applying to architecture school in the late 2000s.
I have vivid memories of being completely overawed by the drawers of drawings and the beautiful models and my dad breezily declaring that with a bit of practice there was no reason why I couldn’t do that too.
If you have not been lately I would not recommend it – keep it golden in your memories. The displays are tired and dated and the drawers of drawings have gone.
I had never previously noticed but the display text is also bizarre, including such, I hope unintentionally, hilarious statements as “Nearly everybody lives and works in buildings”; “Public buildings are our gathering places and forums” and “The construction of buildings greatly affects their shape and size”.
I don’t know if the RIBA has any ongoing relationship with the V&A over the curation of this room but some fundraising for a refresh is surely in order
I think, were I a 16-year-old visiting today, I would have chosen a different university course. I don’t know if the RIBA has any ongoing relationship with the V&A over the curation of this room but some fundraising for a refresh is surely in order.
This got me wondering about the RIBA’s broader cultural offer. Most of the recent presidents have campaigned and won on some variant of “house of architecture” or making the RIBA and its collections more accessible to its members. In the month of June there is a continuation in the excellent online talks series Building Stories; a half-day “future leaders” seminar; some model-making workshops that look designed to engage the wider public; a film screening of Black Panther; a lunchtime talk on building regulations updates for 2022 and a lecture from Nigel Coates about his life in architecture, as well as a number of online workshops about practice in the East Midlands.
There is also Radical Rooms, the current exhibition which The Guardian has described as “one that transforms the rather meagre and mediocre gallery in which RIBA sees fit to promote the art of architecture”. In theory the brief has been met, the RIBA is engaging culturally, but dig a little deeper and it feels hollow.
Most RIBA members work full time, and let’s assume optimistically short hours of 9-5. Should a member living in London wish to go and view the exhibition they could, at the weekend or after work on a Tuesday. Should they then want to browse what always used to be a spectacular bookshop, though, they would need to take annual leave.
It is now only open Monday to Friday 10am-5pm. Similarly the library – in which I have spent many wonderful hours browsing – is an annual-leave-only activity as it now opens Wednesday to Friday 10am-5pm. The Bauhaus bar and cafe is open only on weekdays from 8.30am to 2.30pm and RIBA North remains closed “for now”.
I understand that the RIBA is making redundancies, and that difficult decisions need to be made. But I would rather see these public-facing activities closed for more of the week and open at weekends, when both members and the public could access them.
Recently I was also told that there is no meeting room facility for RIBA staff to book at present. Apparently the Great Portland Street Peyton and Byrne is doing well out of this. We are all making adjustments post-covid but this feels beyond bizarre.
The peculiar logic continues in a new rule that RIBA members will now only be able to vote in RIBA elections if they were members at least 10 days before the initial notice of the election. The RIBA has stated this rule change was not introduced to impact any individual or campaign but the timing of the announcement was poorly judged at best, and an apparent block of a new, arguably controversial, candidate at worst.
This is not what a thriving and public facing membership organisation looks like
As ever when I think about the RIBA I despair. In theory I love everything it stands for, I remain a chartered member and will it to succeed; I have attended its lectures and seminars; I have applied for its committees; I have just submitted a manuscript for a book I am co-authoring for RIBA publishing and I would go and buy a book in its bookshop and spend a morning reading in its library if it was only open when I was able to get there.
I want to be a RIBA cheerleader, but it’s just too hard. This is not what a thriving and public facing membership organisation looks like.
Every time I find an excellent idea, resource or initiative there is a piece of bizarre or illogical decision-making that suggests an organisation out of step with its members and the profession it represents. The worst of it is that I still can’t work out why.
Every person I have ever met at the RIBA or on one of their committees is brilliant, well meaning and hard working. How the whole always seems to come out as less than the sum of its parts is an anathema to me.
Perhaps voting for Muyiwa Oki may be the change we need… but the RIBA president has no discretionary budget so whether they actually can effect change is another matter – and another column!