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Artillery Row

Dark rumblings at the RIBA

Secretive shenanigans concerning the future home of its drawings collection arouse concern about the wisdom of the governance of the RIBA

When honourable and professional gentlemen established the Institute of British Architects in 1834, they did so with rigorous education and research as the very core of their aims. The purpose of the new Institute was the general advancement of civil architecture, promoting and facilitating the acquisition of knowledge of the various arts and sciences connected with what once was regarded as the Mistress of the Arts. 

From the very start, those high-minded founders intended their new Institute to possess a splendid library of tomes concerning every topic related to aspects of architecture, as well as a museum of antiquities, models, casts, etc., to provide exemplars, models of excellence from the study of which much could be gained. Moreover, architectural drawings were seen as essential to the collections, not only as beautiful things in themselves (Beauty in architecture was a sought-after, essential ingredient in those far-off days, as well as Commodity and Firmness), but as works to be studied for educational purposes, to provide sources of inspiration for architects, and to form an invaluable archive of the best of British architectural practice over the generations. Today the collections include over a million drawings, over a million and a half manuscripts and archival documents, a similar number of photographs, hundreds of architectural models, and many other artefacts, from old drawing instruments to personal belongings of once-eminent architects. With the magnificent library, these form a considerable part of the Nation’s architectural treasure-house, and deserve the greatest care and respect.

For almost a century and a half everything was contained within the headquarters of the RIBA (it acquired the “Royal” prefix in 1837), which, from 1934, has been the handsome building situated at 66 Portland Place in London, designed by George Grey Wornum (1888-1957), following an architectural competition which he won in 1932. This beautifully crafted piece of architecture is an interesting mix of Swedish-inspired stripped Classicism and Modernism, with some of the finest surviving interiors of the period. It also gives subtle nods to Freemasonry in the presence of the two free-standing uprights flanking the entrance in Portland Place, with sculpture carved by James Woodford (1893-1976), an allusion to Jachin and Boaz standing before the new “Temple of Architecture”. Wornum himself was initiated into The Craft in 1923, and “raised” the following year.

Headquarters of the Royal Institute of British Architects, 66 Portland Place, London, designed 1932 by G. Grey Wornum, and completed in 1934 (from a photograph by Anthony F. Kersting, © Conway Library, Courtauld Institute of Art).

By 1972 the collections had grown too big to be housed in Portland Place, and under the inspiring curatorship (1960-86) of John Frederick Harris (1931-2022), they were moved to a fine house in Portman Square, next door to what was then the Courtauld Institute, but the library, archives, and photographic collections remained in Portland Place. Under Harris, the drawings collection expanded at a spectacular rate, and he also organised a whole series of marvellous exhibitions, but soon, mostly thanks to Harris’s skilful acquisitions, the drawings collection outgrew even the Portman Square premises. Eventually it was agreed that this huge treasure would be moved to the Victoria & Albert Museum (which itself houses the second largest collection of architectural drawings in the UK), and that a reading-room would be provided beside the one already used by the V&A’s department of prints and drawings. The gains for scholarship and, indeed, for education, were thereby colossal.

In essence, this means that the RIBA drawings collection will have to be decamped

The whole business of the complicated move of the RIBA collections, and the creation and furnishing of the new rooms to house them, was partially financed by a grant of over three million pounds from the Heritage Lottery Fund (now called the National Lottery Heritage Fund), and completed in 2004. Not unreasonably, as twenty years have passed since then, the V&A, in a review of arrangements with the RIBA, came up with a rent rise to reflect inflation, and made further proposals for a new post of curator who would be responsible for both collections held in South Kensington, but funded by the RIBA. The RIBA, however, decided not to go along with this, so an announcement was made that the partnership between the two bodies would continue only until 2027, when it would come to an end. In essence, this means that the RIBA drawings collection will have to be decamped, but nobody at present seems to know where its destination might be. Warning bells about this alarming development were sounded in the pages of The Burlington Magazine, 165/1443 (June 2023), and nothing that has happened since then has served to quiet them down. 

It seems that this unseemly divorce has come about sans consultations with any interests outside the RIBA, and has aroused the deepest unease and suspicion among scholars and all those who see and understand the importance of access to such an important resource. At various times over the last sixty years or so, iconoclastic, philistine voices have been raised in favour of getting rid of the library and all the collections in a massive purge connected with the old Modernist ideal of creating the tabula rasa, untainted by any whiff of historical allusion, tradition, craft, scholarship, or anything much that might be of real value. Under the two-year RIBA presidency of  one Simon Allford there emerged a chilling notion of transforming the Wornum building in Portland Place into a supposedly “dynamic” so-called “House of Architecture”, possibly involving some kind of re-think on the library, which has occupied the same purpose-built spaces since the building opened in 1934. This “House of Architecture”, one reads with ice in one’s heart, is intended to “inspire members, professionals, students and the public through physical and virtual debate, discussion, learning and exhibitions”. Oh yes? When, looking back, one can remember how the move of the collections to the V&A had been achieved after an enormous amount of consultation, it would appear that the chimærical notions wrapped up in the “House of Architecture” parcel have been agreed by inner circles of the RIBA without any wider discussions, debates, or anything else that might serve to assuage concerns.

architects are far less important than they like to believe

Presumably the presidential “vision” included some sort of desire to “put architecture on the map”, as though it had just floated vaguely in the ether until then. It is all wishful thinking, of course, because architects are far less important than they like to believe, but when and where convinced Modernists were given free rein regarding the quality of the built environment, the results were, more often than not, abysmal. If, say, the medical profession had abandoned all the accumulated knowledge of millennia in favour starting again (a core belief of Modernism being the tabula rasa), and the results brought about mountains of corpses, the wisdom of clinging to failed theories and empty slogans would doubtless be queried, but despite the obvious inability of devotees of Corbusianity and other absurd cults to create civilised environments, leading to the necessity of demolishing vast numbers of extremely expensive buildings that were not only hated by those who were forced to live in them, but actually failed in every way as architecture and even as structures, the Modernist majority of the architectural profession persists on its path of destruction, imposing discredited dogmas with ever greater ferocity, and ensuring, through brainwashing and bullying techniques widely adopted in “architectural education”, that no deviation is possible. And that Old Guard utterly fails to take responsibility for the æsthetic and environmental disasters for which some of its dyed-in-the-wool Modernist practitioners have been responsible: being self-referential, indeed, it appears to reward failure. Architecture is not just about image, nor is it in any way a popular subject: the RIBA needs to take great care before it goes any further down the “House of Architecture” road, and anyway, architecture is far too important to be entrusted to doctrinaire puritanical fundamentalists still devoted to discredited theories that have clearly failed.

Now it appears that the costs and timescale involved in the proposed refurbishment of the RIBA building in Portland Place as the “House of Architecture” have been grossly underestimated, and no assurances have been given about accessibility relating to the library and photographic collections while these works are being carried out. Not all of the drawings collections have been at the V&A anyway, for much is stored elsewhere, and those storage-spaces will have to be expanded to accommodate much more, as well as have all their environmental controls upgraded, especially for the photographic collections. Where is the money to come from for all that?

It seems extraordinarily obtuse to have ended the close working relationship with the V&A without first having a clear, practical, and costed realistic plan as to where the collections would be properly housed, conserved, and adequately protected. What can the trustees of the RIBA have been doing in failing to control the ambitions of the Institute’s president, and, at the same time, so cavalierly abandoning a sensible, working relationship with one of the nation’s great museums in order to pursue airy-fairy, ill-conceived notions? The RIBA is supposed to be a charity after all: perhaps the Charity Commissioners might have a peep or two at things to find out what is going on? 

Many years ago, an architect of some eminence, now long dead, remarked to me, with an air of some resignation,  that everything about the RIBA was really a “great disappointment”. And I do not know anybody with any sensibility or perceptiveness, who has anything good to say about the RIBA Journal, copies of which are usually consigned, unread, to the dustbin on arrival. More recently, I have heard from long-standing members of the RIBA, who have paid their annual subscriptions on time, that they are being badgered for non-payment. Having drawn the attention of the highly-paid “Chief Executive Officer” (a post in happier times labelled “Secretary”) to this annoyance, very late and grudging responses have limply said that the RIBA is “experiencing some difficulties with a new platform”: on receiving yet another demand for payment, one of my friends (who had wisely obtained a receipt for his original payment) asked them had they installed Horizon by any chance?  

No response to this perfectly serious query has been received.   

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