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Home of architecture invests in the future

Eleanor Young

Why is the RIBA putting £58 million into technology and a HQ retrofit? Building maintenance and an ambitious mission to extend its reach are just part of the story, reports Eleanor Young

Sketch of Benedetti Architects’ scheme for the RIBA headquarters
Sketch of Benedetti Architects’ scheme for the RIBA headquarters

The House of Architecture is the RIBA’s dramatic move to open up its offering to members and all those interested in architecture. Architect Sarah Williams is acting as the institute’s client adviser and representative for the programme, which has been summarised by president Muyiwa Oki: ‘House of Architecture is about unlocking and opening RIBA to make it – and everything it offers – far more accessible. The proposed investment in our collections, upgrades to our digital platform, and improvements to our landmark building at 66 Portland Place are vital. Together, these will ensure that we can encourage more people to care about architecture, promoting a deeper understanding and appreciation.’ The most tangible work at the moment is the £58.8 million building project, which has now reached RIBA Stage 2.

Earlier this year the popular Wide-Angle View exhibition had to be closed for nearly two months due to water leaks. It sounds simple to deal with but the pioneering mechanical and electrical strategies designed into the 1934 building by George Grey Wornum are now showing their age. Pipes embedded in the fabric are deteriorating, and even closing services off to make repairs is tricky – there is just one on and off point for the whole building. As Jack Pringle, chair of the RIBA board, presented the project to the council of elected members he brandished a rusty piece of pipe, demonstrating the state the building is in.

‘Much of what we are doing is not optional – the systems at 66 Portland Place are at the end of their lives,’ says Pringle. ‘The building does not provide universal access and its solid-wall, single-glazed, gas fired systems are not sustainable.’

First steps

Williams first worked on ideas for improving the building in 2016. In early appraisals the possibility of shifting to another London venue were considered. But the long lease of approximately 900 years – gifted to the RIBA in the 1930s with a minimal peppercorn rent by the Howard de Walden Estate – has no cash value and refitting other buildings would be significantly more expensive. So the RIBA will stay in its specially designed, Grade II* headquarters.

So far, the work with Benedetti Architects has been scoping out the project, working out the most cost effective options. Nothing has been added beyond the existing envelope but there are ambitions to intensify the use of the spaces and bring back the joy and softness that piecemeal work over the years has subdued.

The huge mix of spaces, from lecture theatre to gallery to event rooms and offices, means that a cost per metre estimate would not do the job, so instead time has been put in upfront with the cost consultant creating a 300-page room-by-room cost model. This will integrate at Stage 3 with the BIM model which will ultimately be run as a digital twin, allowing a more informed approach to maintenance. All 1000 of the original drawings have been digitised and turn out to be invaluable – particularly in giving the location of hidden ducts.

Higher Secondary School, Chandigarh, designed by Jane Drew. With children climbing a concrete sunscreen in 1956.
Higher Secondary School, Chandigarh, designed by Jane Drew. With children climbing a concrete sunscreen in 1956. Credit: RIBA Collections

From big issues to details

Early concept designs are being shared with Westminster City Council’s planners, Historic England, the Twentieth Century Society and the local Marylebone Society (and with members and the public via exhibitions, opening later this month). They address the building’s big issues while making it more accessible and visible both on the formal set piece of Portland Place, laid out by James and Robert Adam, and the smaller side road of Weymouth Street. New entrances for shop and café with a sunny terrace would create less daunting routes into the building and offer level access to start addressing the glaring problems of vertical access over 28 levels. Two tiny historic lifts that do not accommodate wheelchairs would be replaced with two larger, double-sided lifts, augmented by a platform lift to give access to the basement lecture theatre and a new lift in the rear core to help with servicing of the building.

A new Treasures Room on the ground floor is planned to bring the wonderful artefacts of the collection to the forefront of the building. On the floors above, the double-height library with its distinctive original shelves will become a hub for accessing the collections and books, along with a new offsite collections store that would enable a deep dive for researchers who need faster access to more extensive material. Speedier digitisation of the collections and a better way of accessing them online goes alongside this work.

The original south-facing members’ room will be reinstated for members wanting a central London touchdown where they can meet up or plug in, with bookable meeting rooms. The piano nobile, which has hosted so many architectural events over the years in the Florence Hall – from historic dinners and the Stirling Prize ceremony to discussions on education and the celebration of Zaha Hadid as Royal Gold Medallist – will be restored and enriched, along with the other grand historic spaces.

With the input of Neal Shasore, who has extensively researched the building, the team has already been in touch with the suppliers, still operating today, who made the original bronze doors, leather walls and curtains – very much part of the craft that 66 Portland Place celebrates in its sculpture, both inside and out. Happily this will also bring back many of the elements that artist and designer Miriam Wornum contributed to, working in partnership with her husband.

  • 1563 drawing by John Shute: The first and chief groundes of architecture.
    1563 drawing by John Shute: The first and chief groundes of architecture. Credit: RIBA Collections
  • Architect Barbie.
    Architect Barbie. Credit: RIBA Collections, Mattel™
  • Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners’ design for the Eden Project, Bodelva, Cornwall.
    Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners’ design for the Eden Project, Bodelva, Cornwall. Credit: RIBA Collections

Creative approach

A creative approach is being taken to the problematic legacy of elements of a screen and mural celebrating imperialism through exploitation of natural resources and primitivist depictions. An exhibition – Raise the Roof: Building for Change – which opened on 27 April invites artists Esi Eshun, Thandi Loewenson, Arinjoy Sen and Giles Tettey Nartey to respond to these features.

The plan is for an all-electric building with a 60% reduction in operational energy use – part of working with the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge and targeting BREEAM Excellent. The extensive single-glazed Crittall windows leak heat and the project has a nuanced strategy for improving them, aware that secondary glazing is often the most acceptable for listed buildings but that other options will need to be explored to ensure good ventilation and deal with traffic noise.

‘We are still looking to bring in other practices on projects within the project,’ says Williams, suggesting opportunities such as the design of the café bar and the staff workspaces. And there is still a lot to take soundings on before submitting for planning in the autumn. Even before the building work gets under way readers of the RIBA Journal, members and the public will benefit from a smoother digital experience, with transformed websites and a Virtual Learning Environment for learning, reflecting and recording CPD. 66 Portland Place will stay open until early 2025, with a three-year enabling and contract period.

‘This is a once in a generation undertaking, a transformative and urgently needed programme to secure RIBA’s future prosperity and sustainability,’ says Pringle. ‘Building on our nearly 200 years of history, House of Architecture will reinforce our identity as an outward looking cultural institution that champions architects and architecture. By making this investment in our facilities and technology, we are strengthening our ability to deliver on our purpose, for generations to come.’