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We are designing forever architecture

Simon Allford

Adapt with optimism, these are exacting times but also exciting times, says RIBA president Simon Allford

Simon Allford addressing a packed hall after 100 Days In. RIBA
Simon Allford addressing a packed hall after 100 Days In. RIBA

Late in November, 500 people attended my ‘100 Days In’ address at 66 Portland Place, where I outlined the challenges that lie ahead for our profession and for architecture. And of our ambition to turn the RIBA into a House of Architecture – a place of serious fun! 

Fifty years previously, Alex Gordon, in his presidential address, coined the phrase ‘Long life, loose fit, low energy’. His world was very different – he spoke of public works and public practice; of fixed fees and the self-governing profession. But much was the same – he spoke of total design, of value not cost; of the need for good clients and our responsibilities to society. He also spoke of the irrelevance of petty internal squabbles! 

Even in those heady days of fixed fees, he chose the title Architecture for Love or Money – a brave choice as, too often in architecture, money is too commercial and too tight to mention. Of course architecture drives us all but money fuels that drive. Indeed, I would go as far as saying that while good cashflow can enable creativity, bad cashflow is sure to destroy it. That is why I look forward to a future where the word ‘commercial’ is no longer derogatory!

I studied in and support the classic degree and diploma courses but am also keen on the new disruptor schools, such as the London School of Architecture, where I am a trustee. I learned much from teaching at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and its ‘conversion course’ and am delighted that apprenticeships offer a fourth way in. At last there is a landscape of choice, where artificial barriers between institute, practice and academe are disappearing. 

In the ‘new normal’ – post-Grenfell, post-Covid – we must focus on the immense planetary challenge. Darwin wrote ‘the species that survives is the one that is best able to adapt … to the changing environment in which it finds itself’. Today 38 per cent of the world’s CO2 emissions are the responsibility of the built environment so architecture and infrastructure must adapt – and fast. We must collaborate with the wider world of clients, consultants, contractors, manufacturers, regulators, the public and government to make sure that all projects demonstrate the standards that must be achieved. This is a global challenge and we are a global institute, well positioned to help lead so that the UK’s ‘new green economy’ can drive the design project that Buckminster Fuller described in 1969 as the ‘Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth’.

Vitruvius wrote of commodity, firmness and delight. Delight cannot be questioned … no one retains a building that is not loved.

What does this mean in practice? We have tough targets. 2030 is just eight years away. But as I am an architect so am I an optimist. By sharing knowledge – ‘deep collaboration’ was the COP term – we can make the rapid progress required. Alex Gordon was right when he declaimed that the future ‘means more climbing on other people’s shoulders and less ad-hoc originality’. Innovation has never been about style nor shades of derring-do. It is about addressing the great problems we face; problems that demand great thinking from us all. These are exacting times but they are also exciting times.

So now – be it new-build or reinvention – we are designing for longer life, looser fit, and lower carbon. We are designing forever architecture.   

Two millennia ago, Vitruvius wrote of commodity, firmness and delight. Delight cannot be questioned. Architecture must lift the spirit of all who pass by and enter. For only then can we be sure that future generations will not only be able to adapt but will want to adapt the architecture they inherit. No one retains a building that is not loved. 

Vitruvian logic remains intact. Architecture’s eternal function is the provision of generous structure, of elegant enclosure, of tolerance on many levels all to accommodate the theatre of everyday life. So architecture must become permanent infrastructure, to be renewed and reused by future generations – a forever architecture where nothing need be added and nothing can be taken away.

Enter the 2022 RIBA Awards today!

RIBA Awards champion and celebrate the best architecture that displays a commitment to designing and developing buildings and spaces for the improvement and enhancement of people’s lives.

Entries close on 13 January 2022

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