"If we're to ask one man to turn this around, that's a heavy task indeed"

The inauguration of Muyiwa Oki as RIBA president must become a moment of real, positive change in British architecture, writes Marsha Ramroop.

One-hundred-and-eighty-nine years ago, men whose shadows fill Florence Hall, and whose legacies are absorbed into those walls, founded an institute. They had a vision for an architecture profession that was progressive, necessary and relevant.

One-hundred years later, the Portland Place building opened its magnificent bronze doors Usui civium decori urbium – “for the use of the people, for the glory of the city”.

Eighty-nine years on from that, Muyiwa Oki stands as the Royal Institute of British Architects’ (RIBA) 80th president, and his very presence forces the architecture profession to confront the questions: are we progressive? Are we necessary? Are we relevant? Is this profession well used by the people? Do we bring glory to our cities?

We can’t simply look to Oki alone for change

The criticism that has faced RIBA most recently – at least, the one word that reverberates off the lips of all I meet – is that it is “irrelevant”. And yet, the Future Architects Front campaign which elevated Oki to the biggest job in the profession has given us all pause for thought. If we’re to ask one man to turn this around, that’s a heavy task indeed.

The impression this profession makes on communities, society, lives, means the charitable mission set out in the RIBA charter, “to advance architecture by demonstrating public benefit and promoting excellence in the profession”, is one of huge impact, and so requires us all involved across architecture to carry out introspection.

And the weight of this history and the weight of this story bears heavier because he is a first. He is a Black man. He is a young man. He is a man early in his career in comparison with those who have held this position before him. But he can bear this weight of responsibility if we recognise it’s one that we must share among all of us. We can’t simply look to Oki alone for change, especially because a cynic would be waiting, even facilitating, a trip up.

The institute is not a building. The institute is the people and the profession. The institute existed before 66 Portland Place, and exists across the country, and across the world.

Architects choosing to become active, progressive members in the institute can set themselves the task of delivering on that vision, and holding firm to the charitable mission, and to bring others on the journey. To do otherwise is to fail – fail the profession, fail the public, fail society. And while we can take lessons and learn from failure, we should first be doing everything we can to succeed.

There have been 189 years of opportunity to establish architecture as a relevant visionary profession for the benefit of the public. We all need to do this better as we look forward.

It’s more useful to speak of what we all need to see and do in this profession

We can predict the future we create, says Peter Drucker. We need to decide what new stories we will tell, what new histories do we forge? What new futures do we face?

I don’t know how useful it is to speak of the next two years or any personal legacy. It’s more useful to speak of what we all need to see and do in this profession, now, tomorrow and thereafter as a continuing endeavour.

So, let’s make a prediction now, and hold ourselves accountable for creating it, aligning with Oki’s platform and presidency.

We must all agree everything we do should be sustainable – in balance with the planet, in harmony with the earth. Net zero is not enough. As a profession, architecture must be innovating and advocating for carbon-negative impacts. Let’s share, develop, test and improve these ideas together.

There is no future that isn’t inclusive of all those the profession serves. Everyone. In our interconnected globalised world, nothing we do is without consequence for others. Let’s recognise that we have widening gender pay gaps in practices and reverse them.

Let’s acknowledge we have issues with racial dynamics and progression in the profession and challenge them. Let’s address that there are too few disabled people with access to architecture and invite them. Let’s use the power to design inclusion into our buildings, and welcome all.

Let’s commit to using the Inclusive Design overlay to the RIBA Plan of Work as a prerequisite, and deliver on it. If the Plan of Work without the overlay is not inclusive, we should ask ourselves, for what reason would we not use the overlay?

We need to rise from conversation to tangible, useful action

We must address the issue of colleagues overworked, under-paid. Harassment, bullying, sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism – if it’s in your personal and organisational behaviours, it’s in your design. None of these things have a place in the profession and we must all act to eradicate them now.

We have come to this place and this time to remind ourselves of the “fierce urgency of now”, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”

Now is the time to make real the promises of progress. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of the reports and outcomes that have dogged our recent history to the sunlit path of justice for people, place and planet. Now is the time to lift our profession from the quicksands of injustice to the solid rock of shared humanity. Now is the time to make spatial justice a reality for all.

As Oki said in his opening communications as president: be agent of change and take responsibility for this. We have the tools, the allies and the skills, and we can use this moment to create a movement and maintain momentum for change.

This has to be more than a dream. More than a hope. It has to be an expectation. An obligation. A stipulation. We need to rise from conversation to tangible, useful action. Demonstrating architecture for public benefit, and its relevance and validity, and to grow the engagement of all our fellow professionals in this mission.

If we want a different future, we need a different message. Collaboration, collegial relationships, compromise. These are not dirty words. Together we can believe in the agency of our own hand to deliver a better way, an inspiring future, a transformative impact.

And when we deliver, when we can look back at this moment, when we can be truly satisfied in the iterated structures that we have developed for ourselves, we will be able to say we accepted our mission “to advance architecture by demonstrating public benefit and promoting excellence in the profession”, and the heavy weight of unfulfilled history will be lifted. And the lightness of change, with which we will all walk, will be a testament to a profession of inclusivity, sustainability, ethics, safety and fairness.

The photography is courtesy of the RIBA.

Marsha Ramroop is founder of consultancy Unheard Voice, executive director of equity, diversity and inclusion at Building People CIC, vice chair of the Institute of Equality and Diversity Professionals and an international advisory council member at the Institute of Business Ethics. She was the RIBA’s first director of inclusion and diversity from February 2021 to June 2022 and previously worked as a journalist for the BBC.

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