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120 years of the RIBA Journal

Hugh Pearman

Editor Hugh Pearman trawls the RIBAJ archives and finds a remarkable chronicle of our times


We date our birthday to 9 November, 1893. That day saw the issue of what the then RIBA president, John Macvicar Anderson, billed as ‘The New Journal’. Two previous RIBA publications, ‘Transactions’ and ‘Proceedings’ were merged to form the new magazine. 

There is plenty of older DNA in these pages – those earlier publications can be traced back to the Institute’s foundation in 1834 – but November 1893 is when the modern Journal began. Macvicar Anderson crisply announced it not as an interesting new venture, but as a cost saving. Merging the previous magazines, he said, was done ‘with the view of avoiding needless repetition, securing simplicity, and effecting a substantial economy’. To the tune of £500 a year, he calculated, a lot at the time.

He continued: ‘Each number will be published on the Thursday after the Monday on which our General Meetings are held, and will contain the paper read, the discussion thereon, sufficient illustrations to explain the subject, articles, reviews, and other contributions of professional interest.’ In practice this meant that publication was fortnightly during the RIBA’s ‘session’ which began always in Nov­ember, and monthly during the long summer recess. This frequency held good until the Second World War, when the wartime economy dictated a monthly cycle which continued.

Macvicar Anderson tackled subjects that still engage members today: a London-based Scot, he set up the first structure of regions (or ‘architectural provinces’ as he called them, one of which was the whole of Ireland as administered by the RIAI). These got RIBA council representation for the first time. He bemoaned Parliament’s intention to introduce a Registration Bill for architects (‘Once again have we lodged a Petition against a measure which I regard as pernicious, and injurious to the best interests of architecture. Why should we, members of a great profession, who desire to maintain our independence, be dragged into the vortex of legislation which we abhor?’)

He was a firm defender of fees, denying accusations of overcharging: ‘No-one but a rogue could be guilty of deliberately sacrificing the interests of his client for the sake of a petty augmentation of fees.’ And he had no less trenchant views on the frantically over-ornamented architecture of the time, especially in housing. ‘We should be able to congratulate ourselves – and perhaps at no distant date – on having reached the attainment of an architecture pure, simple, dignified, and beautiful.’


Groping towards the modern

For the first half of the next century, British architects struggled to define what that kind of architecture should be. In May 1928, the matter of ‘Modernism in Architecture’ engaged the finest of the RIBA’s old guard (with a young audience) in a debate. Beresford Pite opened proceedings vigorously in favour of the modern. Ever since Wren built St Paul’s in the ‘modern’ manner of his time, said Pite, ‘We have been entirely submerged by an effete and feeble striving after antiquity... We want waking up; we want stirring out of this absurd reactionary want of courage, this inability to design, which has tied us down to the past for many generations.’ And he called for the liberation of plate glass. In contrast, Sir Reginald Blomfield sneered at the statements of Le Corbusier and worship of the machine, declaring motor cars to be no better than cockroaches. Modernists, said Blomfield, had no concept of absolute beauty. Lethaby, by letter, drew the distinction between modernism as ‘reasonable building’ and modernism as a style (by the sound of it Art Deco): ‘Just another form of ‘crank’, cubism and jazzery jump’. And Sir Herbert Baker, while advocating caution, added: ‘I am very much in sympathy with these experiments... two or three years ago I saw what they were doing in Sweden, and I was enormously impressed.’



Baker was prescient. The RIBA’s own centennial building of 1934, 66 Portland Place, ignored Corbusian radicalism and was instead in the ‘Swedish Grace’ manner, on the cusp between tradition and modernity (with the odd touch of ‘jazzery jump’). Its dapper monocled architect Grey Wornum won the 1932 competition. Nonetheless – in the tradition of the Journal being a forum for open debate about the Institute – Wornum came in for a tough crit from the chairman of the assessors, Robert Atkinson: ‘The plan is somewhat complicated (a defect, I fear, of the programme). The RIBA was rather asking for a quart in a pint pot. The staircase in the middle presents difficulties. It is difficult to sail round complicated floor levels...nor are the lifts any better than they should be in their placing...the general offices are scattered and could be better...the first floor galleries are magnificent.’



In the run-up to the second world war, the Journal was filled with articles about the design of air raid shelters. At this point, Frank Lloyd Wright arrived. In May 1939 the RIBAJ reported: ‘Last Tuesday Mr Frank Lloyd Wright attracted one of the biggest audiences that there has ever been in the Institute meeting room to hear the first of his lectures... a large part of the audience consciously or unconsciously were in search of leadership and there can be few who do not feel the stimulating influence of Mr Lloyd Wright’s “new Declaration of Independence” as he called his message; a liberation from the classic tradition and a return to the fundamental sense of arch­itecture as organic, living and indigenous – grand words which Mr Wright did not leave vague and undefined.’ 



Post-war reconstruction took its course – the Journal following such housing schemes as Powell & Moya’s Churchill Gardens or Sheffield’s Park Hill complex, in great detail. Then Peter Reyner Banham burst upon the scene, elbowing aside his academic elders Nikolaus Pev­sner and John Summerson. In a lecture of May 1961, ‘The history of the immediate future’, Banham predicted the decline of architecture as a profession. ‘Any electronicist or political economist can give you a succinct run-down on the sins and follies of architects – and 50 per cent of what he says will be right, so painfully right that his views will be instantly dismissed as ignorant lay prejudice... So, architecture is no longer central to the business of building but has become a marginal or luxury activity in this field.’ Banham laid into architectural theory as well. The answer, he suggested, lay neither in building technology nor in aesthetics, but in human sciences: the biological.



Big showy aesthetically-driven architecture nonetheless continued to fascinate. Hence a lengthy article in February 1967 about the travails of the Sydney Opera House – in particular the controversial departure of its architect, Jorn Utzon. ‘What went wrong?’ asked the Journal. Writer John Carter suggested a nervous breakdown. ‘Was his resignation an act of release from something that had become intolerable?...when difficulties accumulate, conscience can exert a disabling pressure, from which release, [say ] psychiatrists, may take the form of physical illness, or a kind of self-sabotage.’



One of the Journal’s most effective postwar editors, socially engaged campaigner Malcolm MacEwen, rose to become the RIBA’s director of public affairs and then acted as consultant. His 1974 report ‘The Crisis in Architecture’ had huge coverage, being reviewed in all the major media of the time. His successor as Journal editor, Roger Barnard, cleared 30 pages for it, declaring (again, in the tradition of acting as an independent sounding board for readers) that architecture had become ‘a deeply troubled profession. It is an honest, intelligent and powerfully argued tract which should be read by every member who believes that the public interest cannot be indefinitely sacrificed to ­political muscle, commercial greed, and the profession’s reluctance to rock its own boat,’ Barnard declared. MacEwen picked up the public’s increasing disenchantment with modern architecture – especially council housing estates – and declared that the Institute had become too much a defender of its members’ interests. He even redesigned 66 Portland Place as a public architecture centre. ‘The charter principles of the RIBA demand “the advancement of civil architecture”, not the advancement of the interests of architects,’ observed John McKean, reviewing the book. It had quite an effect: after this the RIBA opened up much more to the public, and espoused the principles of bottom-up community architecture. 



When Charles took his almighty carbuncular swing at architects, they themselves were already a decade into self-imposed reassessment. 1984 was the 150th anniversary of the RIBA, celebrated by a now-legendary Festival of Architecture, masterminded by RIBA President Michael Manser, all round the country. Public engagement had never been better. But none of that mattered: Charles had the advantage of surprise. He certainly caught the RIBA Journal on the hop. His famous speech at Hampton Court on 30 May 1984 – highlight of the 150th celebrations – came too late for the June issue; editor Peter Murray had instead run a prepared piece on the Prince’s views on disabled access, which was to be a key part of his speech. In the light of events, readers were baffled.

Following up in the July issue, Murray ­remarked: ‘On two points everyone I have spoken to are agreed: firstly, it was a good thing that the heir to the throne is so passionately interested in architecture and, secondly, that the Royal Gala at Hampton Court, organised for the presentation of the Gold Medal for Architecture to Charles Correa, was the wrong place for him to voice his criticisms. Correa’s triumph was overshadowed by the debate surrounding the Prince.’ It was not until 2012 and his retrospective exhibition at the RIBA that Correa – surely the perfect example of an architect with a strong social agenda, masterfully blending modernity and tradition – finally got the exposure Charles prevented in 1984.


1980s & 1990s

Murray moved on the following year and after him, the Journal went through its own crisis. The editorial chair became a notorious revolving door. In just three years, between 1985 and 1988, there were four changes of editor: Jonathan Glancey, Jose Manser, David Pearce and Richard Wilcock. This reflected the Institute’s own uncertainty and infighting in the early years of the Charles influence, and culminated in the Journal being hived off in 1993, in a joint venture with outside publishers. The RIBA retained only 25% ownership for the next 15 years. But the venture certainly steadied the ship. In the 20 years between 1993 and today there have been a mere three editors: John Welsh, Amanda Baillieu, and me.



In July 2008 the RIBA took back full ownership of its Journal, but placed it with another outside publisher under contract: during the deepest recession since the 1930s we, with our readers, endured tough times. Finally, in 2012, we moved into RIBA Enterprises where we developed an investment and expansion plan. You have seen some of the results of this, not least the launch of our sister publication Products in Practice (PIP), the well-received recent redesign of the Journal, and our 120 series of live debates, kindly sponsored by Gerflor, on the state of the profession, reported in this issue. 

There is more to come. 120 years since Macvicar Anderson brought the RIBA Journal into being and – to judge by the responses we have received from so many of you to our latest iteration – we’re well set up for the future.