In his last column as RIBA president, Simon Allford leaves feeling he has achieved his aims and excited for the institute’s future
In September, just over 1,000 days since I became president elect, I will be stepping down from the role. Medical science says the first 1,000 days in anyone’s life sets the precedent for all the days to follow. It also talks of the last 1,000 days, but in relation to an end-of-life journey, so it is not – despite how it has sometimes felt during my tenure – relevant to this Institute or this column.
Of course, like all presidents, honorary officers, members of council, board, committees and the indeed the staff team, I am just passing through. I ended up here because I was very vocal in my criticism, demanding that the profession storm its London HQ and ‘take it back for architects and architecture’ and fill the building with architectural life. Past president Jack Pringle shared my mission, and together – I as president, he as chair of board – we have worked with the similarly committed of the wider group to help build a team and a long-term plan. So I will step down happily knowing there is a continuity plan that will allow RIBA to move to the next level in fulfilling its Charter commitment. It will be better equipped to serve society, engaging with its members, public and government in leading the design of the low carbon future. This ambition is now embedded in the governance and organisational structure, and collective mindset.
Crucially, it is also reflected in the plans for the architecture of organisation’s headquarters. Though architecture has limits it can help those it accommodates to define a better future. So the RIBA has embedded the idea of the House of Architecture in all that we do and a number us are signed up long term as stewards of this project.
This overarching project has dramatically reduced our property footprint and, in a few years, our magnificent but inaccessible and decaying forever-home at 66 Portland Place is to be turned into the accessible generous and delightful centre of architectural discourse we have long needed. Our plan also involves cataloguing, digitising and generously sharing our magnificent world class collection of more than 4.4 million drawings, objects, photographs, models and books, helping give the RIBA a clear outward-looking public identity as a generous host. A place where ideas about the design challenges of today and tomorrow are aired and shared. This model of RIBA as an Institute of Ideas is vital to its future. With everything in one building – mirrored in a virtual world – we can support architectural action by our members and others around the world as we work collaboratively to design the low carbon future.
We have tough targets and 2030 is just seven years away. But I believe that by sharing knowledge we can make the rapid progress required. Alex Gordon PPRIBA was right when he said the future ‘means more climbing on other people’s shoulders and less ad hoc originality’. Which is why we need a House of Architecture. Innovation is about learning from history as we seek to address the great problems we face. Problems that demand great thinking from us all.
This will require considerable effort and engagement. Like Groucho Marx, we architects are not keen to join any club that will have us, but the RIBA is the best vehicle for supporting academe and practice in dealing with the bigger picture. We invented it and we need to make sure it is seriously useful and seriously fun.
These are exacting but exciting times, and with the engagement of members old and new, the re-modelled RIBA can enable us all to play a vital role in designing a better future.