It may have been founded 188 years ago, but the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) finds itself reluctantly facing a range of 21st-century issues. Yet rather than asserting architecture’s relevance in tackling today’s environmental, social, and cultural crises, RIBA has, so far, fallen back into bureaucracy and defensiveness. At a time when new labor unions, activist groups, and other critical networks are working to make serious changes in the profession, isn’t it time that flagship bodies like RIBA step up?

RIBA is a vast, sprawling organization, with nearly 50,000 members—24,000 architects in the UK and 4,500 internationally, along with about 22,000 students. It organizes cultural events, runs competitions and awards, and provides professional services and academic accreditation. It also publishes the RIBA Journal (which I write for).

But the majority of members seem thoroughly disengaged. The 2020 election of current president Simon Allford, co-founder of the London firm Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, saw a turnout of only 13.2 percent. So in early May, Allford, in an op-ed in the RIBA Journal, called for greater engagement. “I would strongly argue that the institute needs members with independent and fresh critical insights,” he wrote—a view shared by many in the industry who still see RIBA as a white gentleman’s club with its posh headquarters on London’s Portland Place.

Several activist and networking groups had in March joined forces to write an open letter, signed by workers, writers, and academics—myself included—calling for the nomination of an architectural worker, rather than a firm partner or director, as the next RIBA president. Support coalesced around architect Muyiwa Oki, a 31-year-old manager at Mace, for the position. The groups backing Oki encouraged architecture students as well as emerging professionals to register to vote. But RIBA—despite Allford’s call to arms—responded by changing its registration rules, requiring new members to have joined at least 10 days before the official notice of the election on May 13 in order to vote.

The timing of the decision seemed dubious but in a statement to RECORD, RIBA said, “A cut-off like this is standard practice in membership organizations like ours.”

Besides students, progressives like Oki are courting a broader group of dissatisfied architectural workers. “RIBA does have clout and a position, so you want to see changes happen within,” he told RECORD, adding that in the past, “the presidency has been like a status symbol rather than a position of representation or change.” This year’s controversy around voting may well translate into a larger turnout from students and workers alike.

On June 20, RIBA announced that three candidates for president—Oki, along with Jo Bacon, a managing partner at Allies and Morrison, and Sumita Singha, founding director at Ecologic Architects—qualified for the election. Voting will be held between June 28 and July 26, and results will be announced in August.

In recent years, RIBA has faced other troubles: the resignation of its highly paid chief executive, a widely reported affair involving the former president, resignations, and financial losses. To help plug a budget deficit—and fund a $24 million revamp of its headquarters, to be be rebranded as The House of Architecture @ RIBA—the organization is set to sell an adjacent building that was renovated only seven years ago. 

When it was founded in 1834, RIBA was called The Institute of British Architects in London—and while the capital city was dropped from the name some six decades later, its London-centrism remains all too evident. Architect Russell Curtis, director of the firm RCKa and a past member of RIBA Council, suggests that monies set aside for the headquarters could be better spent: “It’s very misguided—rather than £20 million on a building few people engage with, they should be spending £4 million on five regional centers.”

Deborah Bentley, a British architect and former RIBA International Council Member who now works for Abu Dhabi University, extends that to internationalism. “Architects on both sides of the Atlantic had been banging on the doors of the AIA and RIBA for years” about tackling pressing issues like housing, climate, education, and fees, she says. The two organizations, she argues, “should be working together and sharing knowledge so we can improve and maybe resolve some of these issues.”

Meanwhile another major British architectural institution is in crisis as well. The prestigious Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London recently published an independent report outlining a decades-old toxic culture of bullying, racism, sexual misconduct, and harassment; and the school’s director, Bob Sheil, stepped down early ahead of his planned departure this summer just prior to the report’s release. As a landscape architecture tutor at the school, I am shocked at the report—and I suggest that all design educators read it to help their institutions improve.

RIBA did issue a statement responding to the Bartlett report, but the organization needs to go beyond simply criticizing a culture of racism and misogyny to show a new path for the profession, and for all architectural students and workers. Its members and the public still respect RIBA, which is perhaps why so many are energized by its potential. As Curtis puts it, RIBA needs to become an “activist organization, and to be provocative and challenging to those in power about the issues we all know exist.”