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  • Writer's pictureChris Rogers

House of architecture or house of horrors?

The Royal Institute of British Architects today launched a limited competition to masterplan and design the first phase refurbishment of its home, the listed 66 Portland Place in London, to create ‘The House of Architecture @ RIBA.’ Part of a plan by its new president, architect Simon Allford, to make the private institution more relevant to members and the public, it’s not an announcement that’s been universally welcomed by the former whilst as one of the latter I’m doubtful...

Of course the building is exquisite, as anyone who has walked up to it from Oxford Circus or down from Euston Road can attest. Opened in 1934 to designs by G. Grey Wornum, its elegant stone frontage, unusual freestanding carved columns and bronze doors featuring scenes of London life conceal a Moderne masterpiece that nevertheless more than nods to the Classical tradition. Its richness is precisely calibrated, and lies in the materials, the detail and the integrated works by leading artists. Etched glass, wood panelling, decorative plaster, sawn stone, curved metal – all are visible to the browser in the ground floor bookshop, the researcher in the third floor library or the delegate in the basement lecture hall. A dramatic processional staircase stands at its heart – it comes as no surprise to learn that Wornum also designed the interiors of ocean liners.

I’ve been using the place for about thirty years, long enough to remember when the little café off of the lobby was the bookshop and you could have a restaurant-quality meal in the Florence Hall on the first floor. Exhibitions were mounted there and in other rooms on various floors, and a dynamic series of events was available below ground, with the vertical sliding wall that divides that auditorium in two up and down. Now, though, things are rather different; exhibitions are mostly confined to one specially remodelled room by the lifts, there is nowhere to get a hot meal and I can’t remember the last time I went to an event there – pre-pandemic, of course. Instead other, still private yet curiously more punchy, bodies like New London Architecture and Open City seem to be the public face of architecture in the capital.

In truth Allford was already performing that role in person even before his election, being a frequent contributor to debates, press coverage and the trade journals as well as co-founder of the prolific AHMM, who one assumes will be barred from bidding given the selection decision is his (full disclosure: I have met him a few times and done some work for AHMM in the past). His father was an architect too and he is very much today’s man. But what he really wants to do now is change 66. How?

The basics are fairly uncontroversial, including sustainability improvements, some restoration and physical accessibility moves that one hopes can be achieved as seamlessly as the carefully-made and almost invisible ramp cut into the current entrance steps many years ago. Flexible office space for staff, who will have to fit into one building following the sale of number 76 a few doors down largely to address the RIBA’s financial deficit, is also hard to argue with. Delve into the detail, though, particularly the public side, and the path becomes rockier.

Inevitably, in the current climate, it’s said that the existing entrance is “not sufficiently welcoming” despite its unobtrusive reception desk, lack of any barriers and simple, free-flowing, cruciform layout courtesy of Wornum. True, there is no signage, but that is a positive frankly and I would hate to see the building either ‘corporatised’ or turned into something better suited to Kings Cross N1C. It is thus hard to see what is needed or indeed possible here, not least as those doors and the pillars outside must surely preclude any surgery on the fabric of the building. Moving the entrance around the corner to the side street is possible but would traduce the architecture of the main façade by ignoring it. Reading that “Another area for consideration is the location of the bookshop [which] might benefit from being located on the same floor as the library” rings alarm bells too as hiding what must be a significant draw currently sounds like a strange way to increase footfall even assuming there is space on level three, which seems unlikely given much of the library’s holdings are (or at least were when I last used it) accommodated in the basement of the building next door and need notice to retrieve.

Four new gallery spaces are to be provided, with different function yet all apparently for the public to visit although this is rather unclear. The brief does state that they might not necessarily be four separate rooms, which is a slight concern to those of us who remember the exhibition-panels-on-a-trolley approach to the Florence Hall in its final years as such a venue. And we are told that “Long-life, loose fit and flexibility must underpin any design proposals”, something fundamental to the work of AHMM but equally 66 is not a building – sheathed as it is in travertine, marble and more – that lends itself to exposed trunking and bare walls acting as a thermal mass.

Comments today have focussed on the budget, the lack of regional presence and questioning the very need. Many no doubt reflect ongoing concerns of governance following last year’s spat between the RIBA’s chief executive and former president. Personally I think the RIBA has lost a lot of ground over the years in those public-facing areas that Allford now identifies as priorities, though I wonder too whether any body that exists to represent its members and is funded by their subscriptions can or should also advocate for them in that way without at the very least major transparency caveats being front and centre at all times, especially today. As for Wornum’s building, it is a genuine gem of national significance and my own experience both of it and similar well-meaning efforts to open up elsewhere are making me very nervous already. Yes it is a members’ clubhouse but I have never felt unwelcome and would hate to see it ‘modernised’.

So good luck Simon, and do tread carefully or the next few months will be less 66 and more 666…

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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