Building a reputation

24th February 1995 at 00:00
Stephen Thomas looks at the role of the Royal Institute of British Architecture.

Architects have had a rough ride over the last 10 years, blamed for everything from the ugliness of our cities to rising crime rates. The Royal Institute of British Architecture (RIBA) has been forced to think hard about its role as the public face of the profession. It was established in 1834 for the "general advancement of civil architecture and for promoting and facilitating the acquirement of the knowledge of the various arts and sciences connected therewith". Such lofty aims are mirrored in its sepulchral building in Portland Place, a few steps up from Broadcasting House, that other durable symbol of cultural stability.

The RIBA continues to fulfil its traditional functions for its 28,000 architect and 2,000 student members in creating a climate in which good architecture can flourish, advising on issues such as liability, contracts and fees. It also acts as a pressure group which seeks to influence legislation, standards and quality control in the construction industry, as well as carrying out market research into workloads, earnings and changing patterns of practice.

Partly in response to the negative images of architecture and despite its outwardly stuffy image, the RIBA's role in promoting "public understanding and enjoyment of architecture" has seen big changes. It now offers a valuable range of resources, services and support to those studying design, the built environment or urban development in schools and other educational institutions.

The RIBA Architecture Centre in Portland Place houses the British Architectural Library, the de facto national architecture library of the UK. This covers architecture of all periods and countries, theory, design, building types and methods, planning, landscapes and materials. There are collections of periodicals, manuscripts, photographs and a comprehensive stock of architectural drawings housed in the RIBA Heinz Gallery in Portman Square.

It costs non-members Pounds 4.50 to use the library for half a day, Pounds 9 for a day and Pounds 90 for a year. Day tickets are on sale in the RIBA bookshop, which is almost certainly the best architectural bookshop in the country, offering an international range of books and periodicals. There are regional branches in Belfast, Birmingham, Cambridge, Leeds, Manchester and Nottingham. The RIBA has published a lengthy catalogue of books and publications which covers architecture itself, as well as design and the environment, construction technology, landscape architecture and urbanism, and there is a mail order service. (Tel: 071 251 0791. Fax: 071 608 2375.) Three good spaces in the building are used to mount exhibitions of the work of international architects. Short-listed designs for the competition to build the new British Embassy in Berlin are on display until March 25, while at the RIBA Heinz Gallery in Portman Square 80 architectural drawings by Sir Edward Lutyens, including those for the Cenotaph, will be on show from April 27.

The RIBA also runs a weekly series of evening lectures which are open to the public. Recent speakers have included international architects such as Rem Koolhaas, who has been responsible for the City of Lille's attempt to cash in on the Channel Tunnel and its new TGV station, with the "Euralille" urban redevelopment project. On February 28 there will be a talk about the role played by structural engineers in building design, on March 7 a debate about the future of architecture and on March 21, Jeff Kipnis will talk about the training of architects. The RIBA refers some of its requests for help with curriculum projects to the Buildings Experiences Trust, an independent organisation which has recently refurbished an old wharf building in Islington which is used as a workshop and exhibition space. Practical workshops on the built environment are tied in with themes related to the exhibition programme. Several thousand children have also benefited from projects organised by BET in their own schools.

Other useful points of contact for teachers are the RIBA's 13 regional offices and its centre in Scotland. The switchboard in London will put enquirers in touch with their nearest branch. The RIBA is keen to help schools find architects to come to talk, help with curriculum projects or give careers advice. Many of the regional branches, Bristol being a good case in point, run local programmes of open lectures by leading architects. Despite the stereotypes, architects are usually more messianic than most about explaining their work to the public.

RIBA Architecture Centre, 66 Portland Place, London W1N 4AD. Tel: 071 580 5533.

RIBA Heinz Gallery, 21 Portman Square, London W1.

Buildings Experiences Trust, PO Box 217, Cambridge CB4 1EE. Tel: 0223 65378.

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