What does it mean to be RIBA president? Do you get to do anything? Is there anything you can learn from your predecessors? Sunand Prasad is about to find out
In the same month as Sunand Prasad takes over as president of the RIBA, he’s had a book published. It’s a handsome work called Transformations, the Architecture of Penoyre & Prasad. There’s nothing like having a fixed date for one aspect of one’s life (RIBA presidents are elected a year in advance) to make one keep up with deadlines in another.
Transformations is a series of essays under headings such as “Purpose”, “Construction”, “Context” and “Care”, each with drawings and photographs illustrating the practice’s architectural approach. The most impressive aspect of Penoyre & Prasad’s work is not its quantity or quality, but how clearly it demonstrates the firm’s cultural remit.
It is also impressive that 20% of its buildings have been funded by initiatives such as PFI and LIFT. It is hard to overestimate how valuable this experience will be when our new leader finds himself dealing with the government in all its guises. Architecture can only be as good as its client, and what Transformations also demonstrates is the attention the practice pays to briefing. It makes a welcome change to move away from the relentless scheduling of accommodation to statements such as “the purpose of education is not to fill minds but to fire the imagination”.
Then there’s the green agenda. Penoyre & Prasad has been committee to it since it was established 20 years ago. In an essay headed “Limits” it states: “In a few years, we will barely recognise some of our current architectural preoccupations – our synapses will be so reconfigured and keenly focused on addressing climate change.”
Most of the projects illustrated are in the £5-15m, but the practice is now working on projects of £40-50m, and at nearly 60 staff, is becoming a serious player indeed.
Its architectural kindergarten was Edward Cullinan Architects, and it is serendipitous that Cullinan was awarded the RIBA gold medal in the same month that Prasad became president. There is some physical similarity in the way the two approach architectural projects, and although there is arguably more poetry in Cullinan’s best work, P&P have produced some inspiring buildings, particularly in healthcare and education.
There are two big problems in being president of the RIBA. One is being president of anything. The other is being president of the RIBA. Past incumbents have gone about the job in different ways.
Trying to get something radical done at the RIBA must have been like wading through a vat of ready-mix in a diving suit
In terms of reputation, the most high-profile president of recent times has been Marco Goldschmied. For a man who had the business skills to persuade a virtually bankrupt Japanese client to resuscitate an ambitious commercial development in London Wall so that Richard Rogers Partnership had some work to do, trying to get something radical done at the RIBA must have been like wading through a vat of ready-mix in a diving suit.
Prasad probably has more in common with the other high-profile designer, Sir Richard MacCormac. Not only were both trained at Cambridge and the Architectural Association, but both have established reputations on the basis of work that has been cultural rather than commercial.
Jack Pringle, the outgoing president, made a great success of high-end office fit-outs. Although he will be best remembered for having “Pringle Brandon” stitched in huge letters on the spinnaker of his racing yacht, he did sow the seed of smart PFI in the Treasury’s mind, and Prasad is uniquely placed to take bring this to fruition, particularly as he has also been a Cabe commissioner.
Of the presidents who have served since I’ve been on the RIBA council, the most impressive was George Ferguson. Although not a producer of signature buildings he did an enormous amount to regenerate Bristol simply by getting stuck in and by not giving up in the face of philistine developers and councillors. And at his tobacco warehouse development he actually led by example.
All presidents need to have energy and drive (and it helps to have a practice that doesn’t need you there to run it 24/7). But two years is not long to make any proper changes. Ferguson managed to reduce the number of council meetings by 20% and ensured that one a year was held outside London. This was a help in managing the RIBA, but I’m not sure it did much to help the profession as a whole.
In Sunand’s book he pays tribute to his early education in India where at least half his time was spent learning bricklaying and carpentry skills. Let’s hope this hands-on approach helps him to ensure that the RIBA and its members play an increasingly collaborative role in the whole construction industry.
Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London.
Sunand Prasad will be giving the president’s inaugural address at the City of London academy in Southwark on 20 November.