The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Changes at the RIBA

There are multiple changes proposed for the interior of the RIBA Building, which if implemented, pose a potential threat to the integrity of the seminal fabric of the institution.

The various schemes have been sent to us individually and we only gradually became aware of the extent of the undertaking. We are now concerned about the cumulative effect of the changes if the schemes are not jointly assessed for their impact on the building as a whole.

Clearly the most serious proposals are for the Council Chamber:
All furnishings are to be removed and put into storage. And plasterboard is to cover those parts of the walls where fixtures are to be removed. Further, the floor is to be brought to an even level except for one remaining raised portion and a new dropped ceiling is to be installed. The new leadership of the institution feels that the Chamber presently is not suitable for the Council meetings to take place in. They claim the space is hierarchical and outdated. If they are to proceed, the proposals will obliterate what is now still the completely unchanged Chamber from Wornum’s original design of the Royal Institute of British Architects. All of the furnishings, which are an integral part of the scheme, are currently still intact.

More changes are proposed for the Jarvis Hall and Foyer. But where the updating measures in the lecture hall are commencing as a sensitive restoration of the original fabric, the foyer is to be subjected to a brutal facelift. The room has been the victim of numerous insensitive alterations already, but rather than attempting to reclaim some of the spaces original intent the new scheme foresees stripping away the last remaining art deco features. The octagon mouldings of the rooms ceiling are to be removed and replaced with flat plasterboard. The walls are to be painted with a stark white finish.

At first glance perhaps the most shocking proposal involve the installation of two wind turbines at roof level. The Royal Institute of British Architects wishes to “lead the discussion with regard to energy issues” in their role as representative body of the architectural profession. The wind turbines will set an example.

At this point a meeting was scheduled with the architects in charge and dialogue and clarification were sought.

Overall, we stressed the importance of this Grade II* listed building and the responsibility involved in retaining its originality whilst functioning within it.

Concerning the Council Chamber we have taken the view that the interior must remain intact subject to provision being made for disabled access. We have suggested a phased programme of work involving the much-needed redecoration of surfaces. This will make the room a more attractive place for the Council to meet and will hopefully change the users’ perception of the space in the long run. The Council Chamber is after all a key room of the RIBA. The continuity of the interior fittings is of a very high quality and part of an important historic and architecturally relevant environment.

We have also maintained our previously held stance for the Foyer outside of the Lecture Theatre. The decorative ceiling is an essential part of this space and we are not prepared to accept its replacement with a flat ceiling and down-lighters as a suitable substitution.

Being the only surviving art deco feature of the room, the refurbishment scheme will have to retain and restore the octagons. In the discussion our concerns for the colour scheme was also aired. The Foyer, although stripped of much of its original character, is still an important part of the Grade II* listed building. We have recommended that the original colour scheme for the walls and carpeting be investigated and re-implemented.

The discussion proved fruitful also in explaining the wind turbines on the building’s roof. They are to be understood as an exhibition with the purpose of drawing attention to renewable energy sources and sustainability. We have given a broad approval of these plans, which we have considered as being temporary installations.

This case proves clearly that planning applications should not be assessed in a piecemeal fashion but must be looked at as a sum of its parts. It is clearly in the best interest of all involved (including the building) to properly integrate the various schemes and taking this as a basis for discussion between the parties involved.

Still, it seems as though the RIBA needs to learn to work with this building and we have yet to see if our concerns will be taken fully into account.

Related links:
10/2001 RIBA update

Eva Branscome