George Grey Wornum, 1956. Picture credit: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Artillery Row

More shenanigans at the RIBA

Ideologues and marketers are ruining the Royal Institute of British Architects

The online version of The Critic (25 February 2024) carried an article highly critical of recent decisions by the current management of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) concerning the future of its incomparably precious Drawings Collection, and questioned the chilling proposals for transforming the headquarters of that Institute in London’s Portland Place into a “supposedly dynamic House of Architecture” which is allegedly intended to “inspire, members, professionals, students and the public through physical and virtual debate, discussion, learning and exhibitions”. The article, rightly, was profoundly suspicious of all that, and observed, amusingly, that “presumably the presidential ‘vision’ included some sort of desire to ‘put architecture on the map’”, as though it had been just floating aimlessly and anonymously in the ether until now

What now transpires is that the draconian changes intended for the fine building, designed by George Grey Wornum (1888-1957) and completed in 1934, will cost far more than estimated, and no assurances have been given about accessibility relating to the marvellous library and photographic collections while the works are being carried out. As The Critic stated, it “seems extraordinarily obtuse to have ended the close working relationship” with the Victoria & Albert Museum without first having a “clear, practical, and costed realistic plan as to where” the Collections would be “properly housed, conserved, and adequately protected”. One might well add that access to them by scholars and researchers is also of vital importance. 

Now, thanks to an exhibition entitled Building for Change at the RIBA (from 27 April to 21 September 2024), we are starting to learn something of the ideologies that will fuel alterations within Wornum’s creation: the Commissars of the politically-correct Politburo are peering into every nook and cranny to identify all the disturbing imperial-colonial allusions which, of course, they wish to excise, as they “explore” themes, “including gender, ethnicity, and race, and imperialism”, no doubt all in the name of “diversity”. 

Wornum designed his building in a Modernistic idiom connected with the much admired “Swedish Grace” of the time, and materials used in its finishes came from various parts of what was then the Empire: they included African marble, and Indian, Australian, and Canadian wood for finishes, all now, it seems, regarded as “exploitation”. In the Florence Hall (named after the architect Henry Louis Florence [1843-1916]) is the Dominion Screen, made of Québec pine, decorated with 20 exquisitely carved panels designed by Denis Dunlop, who made clay maquettes which were subsequently copied by the specialist joinery firm, Green & Vardy. The panels were celebratory, depicting the flora, fauna, industries, and peoples of the Dominions of the then Empire, and of India: the five sections, each of four panels, represent from the left, Australia, South Africa, India, Canada, and New Zealand. The uppermost row of panels shows a kangaroo, a springbok, an elephant, a beaver, and a kiwi, and the bottom row a waratah (Australian shrub with brilliant flowers), a giant protea (large South African shrub with big cone-shaped flower-heads), a lotus, a maple, and a silver fern. The middle rows depict agriculture and industry, including trades and crafts practised by indigenous peoples of the Dominions and India: among the representations are sheepshearing (Australia), oil extraction (South Africa), lumberjacking and fur-trapping (Canada), and basket-weaving (New Zealand).

This rather splendid artefact was very special to Grey Wornum and his wife, Miriam Alice, who was no mean artist herself. She was American, the daughter of the highly cultivated William Lewis Gerstle, who paid for it. It is interesting that Miriam Wornum raised all sorts of questions about certain Modernists (including “Le Corbusier”), especially as they “were too severe in their elimination of the past and all its ornaments and richness”: instead, they gave us “a plain box and ask us to believe it is the ‘last word’ of the Spirit of the Age”, the last that hoary old Germanic concept, the Zeitgeist. She did not believe one word of their absurd claims. She was amazed by the “chorus of praise and admiration from architectural writers” concerning that bullying totalitarian, and remarked that she had heard from Le Corbusier’s own lips that he deliberately ignored his clients’ tastes, and did not care what they did to the interior of his houses. She added that by ignoring clients’ needs and expressing just himself, Corbusier made “bad art … Why must I have … a bare, uncomfortable home designed by a man who doesn’t care a jot about me and my personality?”, she asked.

Needless to say, the current management of the RIBA, peering, like 16th-century iconoclastic zealots for any signs, however tiny, of whatever they might disapprove, have found plenty in this fine screen about which to complain. With “modern awareness of colonial legacies its exploitation of natural resources and primitivist depictions feel [sic] problematic”, we are smugly assured in clunky language. It seems that one, Giles Tettey Nartey, has “responded” to the panels of the screen by creating a series of “organically shaped” stools stained a dark inky black: these are arranged as little islands around a table, as he wished to create “something that would help to facilitate multiple conversations” … and wanted “people to pull up a stool, discuss, and come up with a collective response to the screen”. The stools represent the countries unrepresented by the screen to make us think about “other places that also had the British ideal of architecture [sic] imposed upon them”. As a good friend inelegantly but accurately observed, “Tettey Nartey’s stools are … bullshit”.

It seems to have escaped Tettey Nartey and the management of the RIBA that the Dominion screen represented the Dominions and India only, not the colonies, dependencies, mandates, or anything else. That is not a crime. I wonder how many “multiple conversations” will there actually be? If they ever occur they will be catatonically boring, couched, as they are sure to be, in the impenetrable ungrammatical lingo beloved of virtue signallers. “Through this engagement”, we are informed, Tettey Nartey’s work “will offer a space for many voices to create a new canon, providing a platform for diverse perspectives, revealing the many cultural inputs and the global networks which facilitate a multifaceted and vibrant exchange”. Will there, I wonder, be a space for voices like mine?

Is this a prelude to book-burning, one might wonder, or the dispersal of the Drawings Collection in case some of its contents might prove to be “problematic” or “offensive”? 

Then there is the “mural” on a screen which was designed to separate the Henry Jarvis Memorial Hall of the RIBA from its foyer, and could be raised or lowered as required, so the painting is on a screen, not a wall, thus is strictly speaking not a “mural” at all. It was painted by Edward Bainbridge Copnall, assisted by Nicholas Harris, and was created in collaboration with Wornum himself, so is an integral part of that architect’s original design. Described as “one of the most racist things I’ve ever seen in my life” by Thandi Loewenson, a “Zimbabwe-born architectural designer and researcher”, it depicts, in the centre, a meeting of the RIBA Council, linked to various architectural societies throughout what was then the Empire. This Council is represented as six tiers of seated faceless identical men (“an imperial parliament of architects at the centre of the world”), and buildings featured include the Bank of England, London, as rehashed by Sir Herbert Baker; the same architect’s Union Buildings, Pretoria, South Africa; the Viceroy’s House, New Delhi, by Lutyens; the Scottish National War Memorial, Edinburgh, by Sir Robert Lorimer, and Cardiff City Hall, by Lanchester, Stewart, and Rickards. Other buildings shown include the School of Architecture, Abercromby Square, Liverpool University, by Reilly, Budden, and Marshall; the Old Parliament House, Canberra, by John Smith Murdoch; the Parliament Building at Stormont, Belfast, by Sir Arnold Thornely; and that hotbed of reaction, the Architectural Association, London. Around the edges of the mural are groups of indigenous people from South Africa, India, Canada, and Australia: their presence and placement are interpreted as a reflection of “the way they were excluded and marginalised from those seats of government under British rule”, a highly debatable point, and their portrayals are described as “troubling” in the way they embody “offensive racial stereotypes”. So the painting and other features in the building, together with, ominously, materials and collections held by the RIBA, judged “outdated and offensive or need further contextualising”, therefore are to be carefully scrutinised to ensure the “building, collections, and descriptions are appropriate for audiences today”. Is this a prelude to book-burning, one might wonder, or the dispersal of the Drawings Collection in case some of its contents might prove to be “problematic” or “offensive”? 

We are solemnly informed that the screen painting is “a very useful document”, celebrating “the role of the architect within the structures of colonialism. The buildings depicted here are literal repositories of stolen land and exploited labour … what’s absent are the sites of material extraction themselves — the mines, farms, plantations and jails, from where all of this wealth was violently taken”. Some of us are unaware of jails ever having been stuffed with wealth. Furthermore, the painting is a “cartography of desire and despair” which, as it rises out of and sinks back into the floor, evokes “imperial cuts and continuities, partitions, and enclosures”. Really?

The adviser on the conservation management plan for Wornum’s listed building assures us that these are “serious, nuanced responses to the complexity of the building’s colonial entanglements”, but he would like to see the “egregiously racist” (note the appearance yet again of a word that constantly recurs in contemporary claptrap) “mural” taken down and replaced by a new commission, presumably something like the “Carnival of Portland Place”, which we are told “draws on the theatrical quality of the existing screen” and reveals “the inner mechanisms not only within the screen itself but also the colonial narratives that the mural references … it utilises the notion of the ‘carnivalesque’ to subvert dominant assumptions, centrality of power, styles, and narratives whilst celebrating architecture as a laboratory for potential futures. The illustrative mural challenges the outdated symbols of power and imperial narratives by imagining RIBA as a site of reconstruction — bringing to the fore what was depicted as peripheral, marginalised and subservient.” 

Some might feel that all this “psychedelic alternative” suggests is infantilism, something now seemingly regarded as desirable in all institutions everywhere. Now I do not admire all aspects of Modernistic architecture, sculpture, and painting, finding many of the stylistic mannerisms irritating, limp, and effete, and the overall design incoherently loose. The painting on the screen seems to me to embody all those weaknesses, but nevertheless it is part of the original finishes and furnishings of the building, and should be recognised as such. What I find deeply offensive and troubling is the kind of iconoclastic zeal that prompts witch-hunting, the destruction of anything that might incur the displeasure, for whatever reason, of self-appointed wreckers, always sniffing out heresies and taking offence at the sight of the most innocent decorations, and mouthing dark gnomic aphorisms, the sure sign of reforming quackery. They are all the same, those supposedly “caring” impostors, always ready to burn something or somebody, those humourless puritans unduly preoccupied with the morals of other mortals, and they are in the ascendant yet again, those dwellers in the twilit realm of abstractions and obfuscation where there is no place for clean thinking.

Every few years, in the past, there have been ideologues and bean-counters within the RIBA who have proposed getting rid of both the Drawings Collection and the Library. In its present incarnation the Institute appears to have no interest in scholarship, knowledge of architectural history, or of the potential of architecture in human life, and seems to be concentrating on transforming itself into a virtue-signalling organisation, freed from all whiffs of historical connections with anything, and ditching “irrelevant” things like old books and drawings, gearing itself up to sell architectural services to clients. In other words it appears to have abandoned its pretence to be a learned society in favour of marketing. Not for the first time I am confronted with this horrible mixture of PC politics and vulgar capitalism. 

The RIBA’s charitable status should be removed forthwith.

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