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Following the resignation of Neil Baxter from the position as secretary and treasurer of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS), fellow architect Gordon Gibb tells Scottish Construction Now that Baxter deserves recognition as a champion of Scottish architecture over his ten-year tenure.

The concerted efforts of a small group supported by up to sixty members of the RIAS, questioning governance, direction and voice of the organisation, have led directly to the resignation of its long serving secretary, Neil Baxter.  I think that it is a shame that Neil resigned and that we shall miss his quirky delivery, approachability, commitment and passion for the promotion of Scottish architecture.

In my experience Neil has been a very positive influence in his work for the incorporation and he should receive our thanks and not our condemnation.  As an aesthete and appreciator of culture and the society that is the profession, he has been a great supporter.   He also helped put the RIAS on a much more secure financial footing, through the successful negotiations to reduce the proportion of the subscription to be handed over annually to the RIBA.  Not unknown for his showmanship, he has directly engaged in education, and using his networks has certainly helped to place architecture within the scope of the arts in Scotland and has championed the role of the architect at the highest levels possible, in government.  He may have been deluded in that last endeavour, given the way procurement has changed, but perhaps to no greater extent than the profession itself is deluded.

I don’t believe for a second that the RIAS has got it right.  Indeed, it could be argued that the idea of there being a learned society furthering excellent architecture is an anachronism in this society where finance and expediency increasingly affect the client relationship and the quality of the built product.  It is also important in this new age that governance is squeaky clean and fully financially accountable.  It is a weakness of many an elderly institution, under the current purges.  For the New Chapter Group to take some form of stand, in my view, is justified.  But, do they really care that much about governance, or is this just a stalking horse, and are there other agendas to do with personalities or political control?  The voice of the organisation, the choice of president, and the right of those outside the elected order to choose one, are central to the agenda.   Of course, the whole New Chapter and its personalities arose coincident with the delivery of an RIAS-curated public pop-up display of little houses, including the work of the group’s senior members, that so offended them.  So, are they really speaking for everyone, or do they just want one of their own number to lead and expound instead?

I would suggest that if this group really wants change, they should learn the language of politics and know what they could have gained by asking politely, like the contents of the Royal Charter.  They should also find out what the RIAS is for, and they should find out about what may be public and may be private, before each public declaration.  In their latest statement they seek an explanation for Neil’s resignation.  That either shows an extraordinary lack of awareness of the consequences of their own actions or perhaps an attempt to justify an unintended outcome.  Maybe the RIAS has been too cosy, maybe it does need to hear the voice of the rank and file and it does need to become more inclusive, but I would suggest that it does Scottish architecture no good at all to have a small and far less representative group of members without portfolio self-harming, by publicly stabbing an imperfect but staunch ally in the back.

Finally, I would say that given its limited resources, the RIAS has been a rather better champion of architecture and architects than its larger neighbour and probably much less profligate.  At least the RIAS has not expended our subscriptions on numerous attempts to take over the functions of the regulator and efforts to change architectural education to suit its corporate needs.  The RIAS also does some very good things, and belatedly, the New Chapter group have acknowledged at least one; not surprisingly the practical one that keeps them on the straight and narrow and helps them when they are in trouble.  It is a pity that none of them mentioned one other benefit, that they have been happy enough to put themselves forward for, and accept, the awards and accolades bestowed and publicised by the Incorporation, as expanded, curated and inimitably compered by Neil Baxter.

  • Gordon Gibb B arch, Dip Arch LLM FRIAS RIBA MCIArb is chair of APSA (the Association for Professional Studies in Architecture), an ARB Investigations Panel member, Director of Professional Studies at the Mackintosh School of Architecture, an expert witness, adjudicator and former Vice Chair of ARB.