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He done good: Alan Jones’ journey to the top

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Hugh Pearman

New president Alan Jones talks about his commitment to improving social mobility, sustainability and putting architects first

Alan Jones rolls up silently to Clement’s Café near Queen’s University Belfast in his ­BMWi3 – an electric car (with a frugal petrol engined back-up generator) for someone much concerned about the global environment. Not that he wants to waste electricity either. In mid-July he left a signed Post-It note above the light switches in the RIBA staff café at Portland Place, querying why the lights were on, it being a sunny day, and why not save the planet? He’d already turned them off. It seems the note caused a bit of a flutter. 

He’s coming to terms with the fact that, in his new role as president, what he says carries weight, be it in an elegantly scrawled note or in a tweet. ‘I’m inclined to be mischievous but I’ve got to be a bit careful what I say now,’ he remarks, slightly sorrowfully. Expect no social media pile-ons, then, but expect him to be his own man with his own, often humorous, voice. Balancing the personal with the gravitas of office is a trick he’s rapidly learning. 

The 78th president of the RIBA (also, crikey, the 21st I have met in office) comes to the job with a mix of experience that, in theory, equips him to cover all the bases: employment in highly-rated practices, operation as his own boss, and a distinguished career in academia. The first president in the RIBA’s history to hail from Northern Ireland, a council house kid, for him social mobility in the profession is hugely important and he’s social mobility champion for the Institute. He is keen to show you where he comes from, literally and attitudinally, and he’s artlessly proud of having made it to the top job. If he can be president of a profession, he reasons, the system can work: but finding the way through is getting tougher. He was born in 1964 in Londonderry/Derry, the family later moving to Coleraine, thence to Ballymena and Templepatrick. He grew up, then, during the era of escalating sectarian conflict. He trained at Queen’s University Belfast, doing his year out with Kennedy Fitzgerald (Joe Fitzgerald recalls that his first task there was to reorganise the drawings store). 

Then came the jump to London with his wife Laura. He worked for Hopkins for seven years on such key projects as the second phase of the Schlumberger building in Cambridge and the pioneering low-energy Inland Revenue HQ in Nottingham. This was followed by a spell as an associate at David Morley Architects working on Lord’s cricket ground buildings. Their children Isaac and Gideon were both born in London. Then the family returned home to Northern Ireland where he has run his own practice since 1998, occasionally collaborating with others such as Glenn Howells on the 2006 Alley arts centre in Strabane. ‘I was interested in seeing how I could make architecture in Northern Ireland – with economy: cheaply but well,’ he says. ‘The contribution that architecture can make to the lifting of a society.’

He returned for another reason, however: to take up an academic post at Queen’s, his alma mater. He has stayed there ever since, being joint head of architecture between 2008 and 2016 and becoming a professor in 2019. Even his RIBA presidency will also be a research project for Queen’s, on the nature of engaging the profession. 

The self-builder relaxes: Jones’ house   from a low-cost economy.
The self-builder relaxes: Jones’ house from a low-cost economy. Credit: Aidan Monaghan

We should be paid about 20 per cent more – how do we get there?

Coinciding with the start of his presidency, he has co-edited with Rob Hyde of the Manchester School of Architecture the book ‘Defining Contemporary Professionalism: for architects in practice and education’ from RIBA Publishing. Jones and Hyde have marshalled a field of 60 contributors, which in academia is like herding cats. No mean feat. This in-depth look at the profession should be required reading. 

Back to much-transformed Belfast, and we find we’re going the wrong way. ‘Here’s a remnant of the past,’ says Jones as he makes the U-turn, indicating a police station compound surrounded by high mesh anti-rocket screens. ‘When I was growing up and studying architecture, this was inspiration.’ He means it – this was urban context for him, and in his thesis project for the Lisburn Road he developed the use of mesh screens as veiling for a research institute. ‘Looking back on it now, it was a study of Belfast, done through a particular building type.’ Well, he wasn’t wrong: the mesh veil became quite an architectural thing and still is, look at Carmody Groarke’s ghostly enclosure for Mackintosh’s Hill House

Soon we’re humming along in the i3 on the M2 out of Belfast, heading for Jones’ home and studio in Randalstown, some 20 miles west of Belfast in County Antrim just north of the freshwater inland sea of Lough Neagh. In town we stop by the Grade A listed Old Congregation Presbyterian church which Jones is keen to show off: a fine galleried oval church of Georgian origin, modified sensitively in the early 20th century. Behind the trees next door to this is the house he built for himself and his family in 2005, in the conservation area around the church. Deliberately recessive, set back behind the original line of the church, a high thermal mass in-situ concrete structure clad in Eternit slates, it is a simple barn of a building placed in a garden. To London or south eastern UK eyes this set-up might seem to indicate an affluent existence. Jones demurs. ‘I come from a low-cost economy,’ he points out. ‘This cost £300,000 all in, for site, construction and fit out.’

The family are all home and wander in and out, including a couple of dogs and a kitten. We sit in the studio and Jones expounds his philosophy. He has talked to a number of previous presidents, he knows the score, he knows how hard it is to get much visible done in the two years you have at your disposal. ‘All I have to do,’ he says, ‘Is deliver my election promise: architects first.’ As to why he wants to BE president – to the extent of running for the office twice – it’s all about not standing still, he says. ‘What should I be doing at this point? What’s next? How can I have the maximum positive impact? So it’s time for the next thing: to step up to the plate.’

He emphasises the mutual importance of the two main roles of the RIBA – the cultural outreach side and the trade-union side, so to speak. It’s never just about protecting members. He quotes one of his predecessors who he consulted: ‘The role of the RIBA is to create the conditions in which both architecture and architects can flourish. It has to be both.’ The RIBA climate emergency action plan should work on both fronts, he muses: the expertise of architects in this field providing a vital voice in the public debate.

‘How do we enable individuals to be better, to be happier, to be more profitable, for themselves and for the businesses and institutions they work in?’ he asks, pointing out student debt and architects’ low pay. ‘We should be paid about 20% more – how do we get there?’ Being properly paid allows not only proper design attention, hence better buildings, but also acquiring new skills and having more time for family. ‘It’s an upward rather than a downward spiral.’

There has been a fair amount of upheaval in recent years at the RIBA, culminating in 2018 with the sale of a large stake in RIBA Enterprises to clear the institute’s accumulated debt, the largest financial transaction in its history. So is Jones expecting a steady-state presidency, no surprises? He laughs raucously. ‘Ben Derbyshire’s slogan was ‘change is necessary',’’ he says. ‘Mine could be: "change is constant". We’ll never reach steady state. If we did, that would be a mistake. There are so many facets of the industry, of becoming and being an architect, that are in flux. It’s a broad front.’


At home with his architecture and his dogs.
At home with his architecture and his dogs. Credit: Aidan Monaghan

It’s all about making structural change, he concludes, and goes back to improving social mobility – which in turn will much improve the institute’s overall diversity. His previous work on this has now led to a social mobility action plan approved by Council, so he will hit the ground running on that one. ‘It’s not just about getting people into the profession. It’s about access into, up and through the profession, to director level. Equality of opportunity.’

How to pull all this together? Increase the status of the profession and its rewards, get away (for instance) from the design architect/delivery architect split? ‘This is the golden thread, keeping control all the way through. It links with the idea of the elevation of the architect. It comes down to responsibility. That is the route to meaning. You have to be prepared to take on the responsibility.’ 

And clients have to be prepared to grant it, of course. He’s ready for the struggle. ‘It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s exciting, and I’m optimistic,’ he says. He’s wearing a slogan T-shirt. It reads: ‘Risky Business’. You get the impression that Alan Montgomery Jones knows exactly what he’s letting himself in for.