In Hong Kong as part of an effort to strengthen the Royal Institute of British Architects' ties with its 45,000 members worldwide, its chief executive Alan Vallance and director of international relations Azlina Bulmer sat down with Perspective Managing Editor, Dennis Lee, to discuss RIBA's plans for global expansion and how it can become more relevant in Asia
What is the purpose of your visit here?
Alan Vallance: We have over 800 members in Hong Kong – the highest concentration of members outside of the UK – so it's a very important place for RIBA. Two years ago, RIBA formally published our Far East strategic plan. At the same time we reconstituted the council of RIBA, which is the elected governing body of architects. We introduced four formalised international regions, each with an elected council member. Roger [Wu, chairman of the Hong Kong Chapter] is representing the Far East and Australasia. We've been talking about setting up a hub operation, having people on the ground who understand the region more effectively and then translate back to London to support members here. It's very exciting for us. We'll probably make that happen sometime next year.
What are RIBA's goals for 2018 and 2019?
AV: One of our big objectives is to become a much more global body. Ultimately, RIBA is about representing the members and the profession of architects and architecture, lobbying for great design with governments and other stakeholders. We have nearly 45,000 members in 115 countries, with a much bigger concentration in places like Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. About 10 per cent of our membership is from overseas. One of the big challenges for us is digitalising what we do, because much of the RIBA operation is still in UK and much of the UK operation is still in London. One of my main objectives as chief executive is to shape the organisation for the future. We have started to rebuild the IT infrastructure to be more focused on how we can deliver to our members, wherever they are, [so] they can get access to what they need. We can support them much more effectively in future.
We have nearly 45,000 members in 115 countries, with a much bigger concentration in places like Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. About 10 per cent of our membership is from overseas
How do you intend to enhance engagement with RIBA members in Asia?
AV: It's important to have a structure on the ground, local representation in the region. For us, it means Hong Kong initially. The team here has a much bigger understanding of the issues the region is looking at and policy overlay, and obviously the belt and road initiatives. How is RIBA relevant to that and how can it help the profession? What are the opportunities for architects? It's about being more relevant and taking advantages of the brand of RIBA – which is valuable, especially in the UK – and making it relevant to the local region. We saw a good example of this at Tai Kwun. We have a UK firm, Purcell, specialising in heritage architecture, partnering with Herzog & de Meuron, which is a major contemporary design practice, and local firm Rocco Design Architects on an absolutely brilliant transformation of a prison [and police station] into a fantastic cultural centre. I'm sure there'll be many more.
There are also emerging markets in developing countries, in Malaysia and the Philippines. There is a huge number of opportunities for them to contribute. It's a global business.
How can Asia contribute to RIBA?
Azlina Bulmer: We can't deny China is a strong economy that contributes to a large portion of the world's construction. We don't have a significant number of members [in China] currently, but we have a significant number of students [from China] and many of them do return to their country. We will make sure to help them with their careers. It's a very long career and never-ending learning. There are also emerging markets in developing countries, in Malaysia and the Philippines. There is a huge number of opportunities for them to contribute. It's a global business.
What message do you have for aspiring architects?
AV: Pursue your passion. Understand what you're good at and understand where you'll develop your skills. We recognise the students of architecture today are the 'starchitects' of the future. I see architects as passionate and creative people. If they believe in themselves, they can achieve anything.