Different times, familiar context

120 years on, architects must continue to innovate to stay relevant

An anniversary is not always a clear-cut thing. When did a publication that emerged from a number of predecessors begin?  As you’ll see when you visit our history of the RIBA Journal, we date our 120-year modern history from November 1893, but can trace our family tree right back to the papers that marked the start of the Institute in 1834. Any publication covering architecture and RIBA affairs over that length of time becomes an important historical resource.

You could argue that none of this matters, that the only important thing is what’s happening now and is going to happen in the foreseeable future. True up to a point, but history tells us a lot. In particular it tells us that the concerns of architects in 1893 were not that different from today – debates about style and education, pressure on fees, government inter­ference and so on. Certain issues in arch­itecture are eternal. So an anniversary also provides an opportunity to take stock, and this is what we do in this issue in two ways.Further on in the magazine, my colleague Eleanor Young takes you through the findings of our RIBAJ120 series of live debates, kindly sponsored by Gerflor, which tackled four­ ­topics of great relevance to the profession today.

The impending death of the profession has been predicted many times

You’ll also find interviews with the participants on our website. But first, we take soundings from writers and critics on the state of the human environment today and tomorrow, from nano to interplanetary scale, the impressionistic and poetic to the very precisely prescriptive. Three are written specially for us, two are from just-published books. They range from biotechnology ­(Rachel Armstrong) to science fiction ­(Maggie Gee) by way of interiors (Ed Hollis) urban ­psychogeography (filmmaker Patrick Keiller) and new megalopolises (Peter Hall).

Beyond all this, there is always the sense, when reading the voices of the past and present, of some kind of lost golden age of arch­itecture. A time when things were better, when the profession had more power and influence, was better respected, when budgets were higher and so forth. The impending death of the profession has been predicted many times. To be honest, things have always been tough for most architects, with the important exception of that period of public-sector building with its relative job security from the late 1940s to the late 1970s.

But architects are very resourceful. They can also be prophets. Consider former RIBA President Alex Gordon. A largely unpopular president, seen as a charisma-free suit-wearing businessman-architect who appeared to challenge the creative tendency and champion bureaucracy, Gordon is immortalised by a phrase he coined for a paper at the 1972 RIBA Conference, two years before the onset of the oil crisis. That phrase was ‘Long Life, Loose Fit, Low Energy’. He saw the way the world was going, and he had a plan for a different, less wasteful, future. 

Today plenty of very environmentally-aware young practices are working fruitfully on projects that their forbears would very likely not have called architecture at all.  Different times, different responses, but still ahead of the game.