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News catch-up: RIBA acknowledges racism in the profession

Simon Aldous

RIBA’s Alan Vallance vows to ‘tear down barriers’ in architecture in the wake of controversial CRED report. Plus ransomware strikes Arup staff, two Antepavilion winners announced, and a six-strong shortlist for NT Sainsbury Wing refurb includes three Stirling Prize winners

Following the government-commissioned report proclaiming that institutional racism no longer exists, the RIBA has spoken out, offering an alternative view: that in fact it still very much does exist and that it afflicts the architectural profession.

In a statement, institute chief executive Alan Vallance said: ‘Systemic racism and discrimination clearly exist in the UK. We must fully acknowledge and understand this, so we can tear down the barriers and drive out injustice.’

And he added: ‘The RIBA does not absolve itself of responsibility in tackling racism and in recognising our own history. We know that people who face racism are less likely to progress in our industry and we are working to ensure that architecture is open to all.’

Indeed, a survey last year, organised by the Stephen Lawrence Trust and the Architects’ Journal, showed that nearly nine out of 10 BAME respondents thought there was some racism in the profession. And the percentage saying it was ‘widespread’ had increased to 33 per cent from 23 per cent when the same question had been asked two years previously.

The RIBA statement was welcomed by the chair of Architects for Change Femi Oresanya, principal at HOK London Studio, who said he was pleased by its crucial acknowledgement of the issues. 

The government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities has been much criticised for its methodology and for distorting the evidence. Many have argued that it had more to do with a politically motivated ‘war on wokeness’ than any desire to uncover the truth.

Recently there have been claims that while the government appointed 12 independent commissioners to compile the report, much of it was then rewritten by Downing Street officials with the commissioners having no final sign off.

Among those critical of the report was Doreen Lawrence, who helped to set up the RIBA’s Stephen Lawrence Prize. She said the report had ‘pushed [the fight against] racism back 20 years or more’.

It was the murder of her son Stephen – an aspiring architect – that led to public awareness of institutional racism. Its existence was a key conclusion of the Macpherson report into the botched police investigation into his death.


Arup staff hit by ransomware attack

Staff at multi-disciplinary consultancy Arup have been hit by computer hackers who launched a ransomware attack on the firm’s payroll provider, Symatrix.

Ransomware attacks usually involve hackers encrypting data on a company server, making it inaccessible and then demanding money in return for reversing the process.

A year ago, Zaha Hadid Architects was the victim of such an attack on its server. It said it was sharing its experience as a warning for other UK architects, though it added that all its data had been backed up elsewhere and it had refused to pay any ransom.

While the attack on Arup’s payroll provider will have had a less direct impact on the practice itself, it could be far more serious for its staff, who will fear the attackers have accessed personal information such as bank details and addresses.

Arup supplies engineering services to many high-profile architectural projects as well as employing around 40 architects itself. In total it has more than 6,000 staff working at its 16 UK offices.

It says it was informed of the attack on 11 March – a month after it took place – and then carried out an investigation before informing its staff.

Interestingly though, the attack seems to have been brought to public attention by law firm CEL Solicitors, which specialises in data breaches and said it had received enquiries from some staff members seeking advice.


Six teams have been shortlisted to refurbish the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing.
Six teams have been shortlisted to refurbish the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing. Credit: © National Gallery, London

National Gallery names shortlist for Sainsbury Wing refurb

London’s National Gallery has shortlisted six teams to design the upgrade of its 30-year-old Sainsbury Wing, originally designed by postmodernists Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi.

In the running are three Stirling Prize winners – Caruso St John, David Chipperfield and Witherford Watson Mann – all of whom would seem very well qualified with experience both with galleries and working sensitively with existing buildings. 

They are joined by Asif Khan, David Kohn and New York practice Selldorf Architects. 

Khan initially made his name on a variety of pavilion projects and is now working with Stanton Williams on the Museum of London’s new home in Smithfield. Kohn has refurbished the ICA and created the V&A Photography Centre.

Selldorf, the only non-British practice in the running, was founded by German-born architect Annabelle Selldorf and has designed gallery and exhibition spaces in New York. Its team also includes conservationist specialist Purcell.

Caruso St John’s team includes Muf architecture/art, whose extensive experience in designing public spaces makes it eminently qualified to upgrade the public realm outside the gallery, one of the brief’s key aspects. 

The £25-30 million project brief also includes the creation of a research centre and tackling circulation issues. The design team contract is worth £3.5 million.

This is not the first time this part of the gallery has been the subject of a competition. One was held in 1982 to design the original extension, and was won by Ahrends Burton Koralek. That design never saw the light of the day, being refused planning permission after Prince Charles famously described it as a ‘monstrous carbuncle’ – part of the opening salvo in his war against modern architecture.


Antepavilion 2021 winners announced

Commenting on the shortlist for this year’s Antepavilion competition last month, I speculated that the organisers of the increasingly council-baiting programme might like to go for broke and commission all seven shortlisted entries.

In fact they have shown sober restraint and only named two winners, neither of which makes overt references to either Hackney Council or sharks.

The annual competition to design a temporary structure at Columbia and Brunswick Wharf on the Regent’s Canal has been involved in a war of attrition with the council for the past couple of years. Hackney has tried to have previous winning structures removed – successfully in the case of last year’s Sharks! creation – while the organisers have sought to goad the council by making blatant references to it in their competition briefs.

Indeed, this year they expressly asked for portable structures that could, if necessary, be swiftly relocated – presumably to a borough with a more creatively minded local authority.

The two winning designs are All Along the Watch Tower by engineer Morgan Trowland; and AnteChamber by Nima Sardar of studioN. The latter will be built using salvaged timbers from the now-dismantled 2019 Antepavilion, Maich Swift Architects’ Potemkin Theatre.

Since Maich Swift’s structure was one of those that Hackney sought to remove, its role in this year’s winner surely serves to warn the council that, if it strikes down an Antepavilion, the venture will become more powerful than Hackney can possibly imagine.


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