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.
Alan Jones has been elected as RIBA's next president, starting in September 2019. What will he bring to the institute?
AV: Alan's been vice president of education for many years, and he's been on the RIBA board of members and council member for quite some time. He's not new to RIBA. He's been involved in the development of our strategic plan. He's up to speed and will obviously bring his own presidential mandate. He's very strong on social mobility and education. We're looking forward to working with him, although we have been already. It's a good transition as Alan and Ben [Derbyshire, current president of RIBA] have a very strong working relationship. I'll expect Alan to have regular trips to support local members. He'll be coming [to Hong Kong] at some stage.How do you think Brexit will impact the industry and rest of the world?
AV: One of the problems [with] Brexit in the UK, or for organisations in the UK, is uncertainty. The access to talent is a key issue. There is a high [number] of individuals who are non-UK, mostly from the EU (European Union), who go to London to be trained as an architect and work in large practices in the UK. The freedom of movement of labour is a key issue. The policy team at RIBA will provide advice and guidance to our members.
One of the problems [with] Brexit in the UK, or for organisations in the UK, is uncertainty. The access to talent is a key issue
The other issue is the export of services from London to the EU and other countries. A big issue is the mutual recognition of qualifications. One big opportunity is the greater level of recognition in different jurisdictions of the qualifications of RIBA architects. We have to work with licensing architects outside of EU. I read one of the big firms is to move outside the UK, [but] I haven't heard of any other major practices [planning to leave]. I think there will be challenges but some will be opportunities. [In] a survey of our members 18 months ago, there's quite strong feedback that many members will remain and work internationally.How does RIBA support students and promote lifelong learning?
AB: We validate architectural courses at over a hundred universities around the world, including 50 in the UK and three in Hong Kong. The validation and accreditation of architectural education is an important part of what we do. We nurture students whether they become RIBA members or not. We've made a big investment over a long period of time to ensure that architectural education is to the highest standard it can be, all around the world.
We have programme development CPD (continuing professional development), which we are looking to digitalise and open to all members and students. By validating schools they can [set] a benchmark and a consistent approach to learning. We also connect them to local members and practising architects to [give them an] early experience to connect to the industry. We have specific newsletters for students. And we have awards for students internationally. We tour schools to promote [architecture to] students as much as we can as they are important for the future.
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.