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Creating a global architecture community

Article-Creating a global architecture community

Chris Williamson, RIBA Vice President for international affairs shares his personal views on how to promote the influence of British Architecture around the world.

British architects are held in high esteem throughout the world, due not only to a track record of excellent design, but the combination of business skills, commitment to ethical values and a pedigree of experience and knowledge.  The UK is the biggest exporter of architectural talent ahead of any other nation.  Architecture contributes over £4.8 billion in GVA to the UK economy every year, including £1.3 billion through direct and indirect exports.  One in five architects responding to the RIBA’s 2018 Brexit Survey said that they want to export overseas, but at present most practices only work in the UK.

I know from my own experience at Weston Williamson how highly valued UK architects are.  We are able to witness a long tradition of informed design dating from Paxton and Digby Wyatt and the Victorian engineering tradition, through to Lords Foster and Rogers, which is welcomed around the world.  Indeed I often feel more highly regarded abroad than at home and am certainly treated with more respect and attention most of the time.

Post Brexit, we are all being encouraged to look further afield to export our skills.  Our experience is that there are new and exciting opportunities to work abroad for all sizes of practice and in many different sectors.  Obviously a specialism helps and a willingness to work collaboratively with local partners but often UK architects find themselves pushing at a half open door.

For the largest practices with the greatest revenue, over 70 per cent of their turnover comes from international projects; for smaller and medium-sized practices, it is less than 10 per cent.  But there are great opportunities overseas for smaller practices too, especially those with specialist skills and a collaborative mind-set.

Just as architects in practice are looking at opportunities abroad, the RIBA is too.

In my mind, the campaign has to be headed by the question “Why choose an architect when you could choose a RIBA architect?”  The campaign would demonstrate why the RIBA is the gold standard as an architectural membership organisation.  Key to this is adherence to RIBA values of life-long learning, equality and ethical business practices and an overarching commitment to improve the environment. We can evidence this with our CPD requirement that I would like to see referred to as life-long learning.


Life Long Learning

The RIBA’s CPD programme calls for 35 hours of prescribed learning per year.  Personally, I would like to see this increased to 50 hours a year (which I’m sure we already exceed) to really demonstrate that we are the best equipped to influence the environment. Would you really trust an airline pilot who wasn’t retested every year, or a brain surgeon who didn’t keep up to speed with modern techniques?

Better and more rigorously policed life-long learning will demonstrate our worth to clients, to industry and to politicians.  We will be able to say, categorically, to the construction industry that the RIBA sets the Gold Standard for members and that by choosing a RIBA architect you are choosing the best. We need to establish a better life-long learning programme which is user friendly and inspirational and which can be rolled out world-wide. 

Of course a CPD programme alone does not guarantee quality and neither does the absence of one equate to inferior quality.  Switzerland, for example - according to the 2017 ACE survey - has no mandatory CPD requirement (along with Bulgaria, Malta, Portugal and Slovenia) yet Swiss architects and architecture are amongst the best in the world.

These changes to life-long learning integrate with RIBA changes to education.  A three or four year degree course can now be followed by a three or four year post degree working in an office articled or apprenticed, in partnership between practice and professional institutes.  This should be the model for practice so that architectural education does not end in our mid 20s but lasts throughout our lifetime.  So that we are always at the forefront of thought leadership on sustainability, ethics, professional practice, business skills, and other specialisms such as heritage, conservation, health care, people movement etc.  Architects are willing to invest in themselves to develop new skills or enhance existing ones. I have completed two Masters Degrees which have been incredibly helpful in my practice and personal development.  The first in my 30s in Project Management and Property Development and the second in my 40s in Urban Design. 

Both have been influential in thinking strategically and guiding my work and the work of Weston Williamson.  With today’s communication and web based technology, the RIBA could offer a range of courses and modules available internationally, forging partnerships with academic institutes and/ or publishing houses.  We could also attract significant additional revenue  by creating life long learning modules.

At Weston Williamson our young architects are willing to pay to join the Architects Registration Board, so that they can call themselves architects but seldom see the benefit of joining the RIBA. We pay their membership in order to qualify as a Chartered Practice.  I feel strongly that if membership of the RIBA was seen as a proof of additional qualification, joining would be more attractive.

The RIBA can no longer rely on prestige and the appeal of the crest to attract membership although the Royal accreditation continues to be enormously influential.  It needs to demonstrate a tangible benefit, especially to younger, potential members.  Figures show that only 25% of student members convert to full members when they need to pay for membership but this would increase substantially if the letters RIBA were seen as a proof of knowledge, of education, of commitment to life-long learning. This would attract clients who in the RIBA annual survey often praise architects design skills but are critical of other aspects of our work such as business skills, financial management and programming.  All these should be an essential component of our commitment to life-long learning. 

Harder to join but more attractive

There will be some who ask why we should pay over £400 a year for membership and then make it hard work to become and stay a member.  But I believe that the world is changing rapidly and that unless we do this, young architects will not be impressed with professional membership, particularly if they can demonstrate their skills to clients without it. 

It is a chance for the RIBA to regain some influence in the construction industry and the wider environment at home and abroad.  Prestige and heritage are major influences particularly in attracting international members but we need to develop our commitment to excellence if we are to be relevant.  If we do, I can see us attracting members and increasing influence in all parts of the globe.  The Middle East, China, America, Africa, India are all huge markets and, although they would need specific, nuanced marketing, would find us very attractive.  An Architect in Shanghai would see membership of the RIBA as giving a distinct advantage over his colleagues as it would demonstrate additional learning and professionalism.

In order to succeed, all the RIBA departments need to work together to offer a compelling list of member services.  The international awards need to be revisited to have regional and national awards going forward to an international prize similar to the Stirling Prize model.  Awards could culminate in exhibitions which could tour major cities over the course of the year; shortlisted entries could be resolved into high quality coffee-table style books which could be distributed internationally, perhaps through partner organisations such as the DTI and other bodies with an international reach such as the World Architecture Festival, Royal Society of Art etc.

Each chapter or region needs responsibility for part of the budget to organise their own events and members exhibitions and networking evenings etc.  Competitions need to be rolled out internationally to increase influence and promote higher standards. 

The RIBA needs to lobby to enable working abroad to be easier.  My response to the RIBA survey said: “As a result of our practice’s work on Crossrail, which is highly regarded all over the world, we were invited to bring our experience and expertise in infrastructure to fantastic projects in Australia.  Despite these being government projects, it still takes two or three months to get visas approved so that our designers with Crossrail experience can get out to Australia to work on these projects – this is frustrating for us and adds delays to the work. 

“The same challenges apply for architects from outside the UK coming to work in the UK.  If we identify a fantastic graduate from Singapore, for example, it will take three to four months to get the relevant visa approved for them to come to work for us – we’re often forced to settle for less talented people who don’t require a visa to work in the UK.  As the world is getting smaller, it’s important to make it easier through the visa system for talented architects from inside and outside the EU to work in the UK and vice versa.”

Attracting Student Members

More time and attention is being taken to attract student members around the world and then convert those members to fee paying architects following qualification.  The RIBA’s research shows that around 25% of students go on to become fee paying members. We can increase this percentage but even at 25% the number of International members is huge if we target universities world wide. We need to show how we champion the new generation and strive to connect them with established industry professionals. We should collaborate more closely with organisations like the NLA, perhaps adopting some of their methods for engaging with students and young architects such as pecha kucha events, giving young members the opportunity to present new ideas, projects and initiatives to their peers, and speed mentoring sessions, with more established professionals offering advice and information on working in a multi-disciplinary industry.  We need to dovetail the Part 1 and Part 2 PEDR process with life long learning. This becomes simpler and desirable with the likely rise in apprenticeships.

The RIBA’s cultural offer has huge relevance abroad.  We can send exhibitions, lectures and seminars around the world, both physically and virtually to an appreciative audience.  We can initiate dialogue with key international cities, making use of video conferencing technologies to engage in live debates in front of an audience, with fellow professionals around the world, sharing best practice and learning, fostering connections and partnerships. We work with other institutes such as RTPI on a cultural programme, which can be established globally.

Video conferencing can also facilitate another idea that I am particularly keen to promote, international charrettes, using the RIBA as a base.  With 30 or so young architects at 66 Portland Place working collaboratively with others around the world joined on big screen.  Learning from each other in different parts of the world with a combination of live and recorded footage depending on the time differences.


Creating a Global RIBA Community

Another important initiative would be to increase and promote our business to business networking amongst fellow architects and the wider design community.  From our experience, there are many architects willing to work collaboratively on projects in many parts of the world.  Often architects wishing to work abroad need a local partner and even if this is not strictly necessary, local knowledge is certainly a good idea.  The RIBA should instigate a sector-specific data base of architects with specialisms and target markets.  These could include both large practices and sole practitioners.  Even a one man band can work remotely in collaboration with local partners.  The RIBA needs to help like minded colleagues around the world to collaborate.

My hope is that post Brexit, we attract the brightest and best architects in the world – not just Europe – to the UK and that we work internationally much more openly.  This requires political pressure and a strong institute and the RIBA is working on a strategic vision to achieve this.  I wrote after the referendum that despite having campaigned to remain, we should have nothing to fear from Brexit if we continue to produce goods and services which the rest of the world want. These new offers from the RIBA will, I believe, significantly enhance our international reach and influence.

The 1937 Royal Charter says the RIBA is for “the general advancement of Civil Architecture, and for promoting and facilitating the acquirement of knowledge of the various arts and sciences connected therewith…”

I believe these proposals for better, more focussed, recordable and auditable life-long learning is true to this charter and will demonstrate to clients and decision makers around the world that being an RIBA architect means being the best.

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