Building a new path forward Article icon

Building

The Royal Institute of British Architects’ Art Deco headquarters at 66 Portland Place may have been standing since 1934, but change is afoot inside its Grade II-listed walls.

‘Our strategy is now to promote architecture to the general public,’ explains Gill Webber, executive director of communication and outreach at RIBA. ‘In the past we’ve focused more on RIBA members. Exhibitions haven’t been public-facing enough.’

Webber joined RIBA, the professional body which champions better buildings, communities and the environment through architecture, three years ago. Her role encompasses communications both to RIBA members, who include qualified architects who choose to join the Institute, and to the general public. As communications director, she heads up a team of around 25, including communications, marketing, digital and social media and the press office.

Wider restructuring and a strategy review created the impetus for change at RIBA. A five-year plan was introduced in 2012 with the vision that, by 2017, the RIBA will be ‘recognised internationally as the leading authority on architecture and the built environment.’ To do this, Webber and those who lead RIBA recognised that the Institute had to engage with others outside its familiar remit of RIBA-registered members.

‘Of the general public, 45 per cent say that they have an interest in architecture,’ explains Webber. ‘This is a really high proportion, so we have a big potential audience to work with. We segmented the public into seven groups based on their interest levels in architecture, and we decided to target the top three segments: people we call the ‘design appreciators’.’

The central focus of RIBA’s new strategy is its new public-facing exhibitions. A brand new gallery, with specific museum conditions, such as controlled temperatures allowing particular pieces to be displayed, was created in 66 Portland Place in time for the first of these exhibitions, The Brits Who Built The Modern World. The exhibition, which runs until the end of May, tells the story of a generation of architects who gave 21st century British architecture an unrivalled reputation around the world.

The six architects featured in the exhibition are Norman Foster [now Lord Foster of Thames Bank], Richard Rogers [Baron Rogers of Riverside], Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, husband and wife team Michael and Patty Hopkins and Sir Terry Farrell.

According to Webber, these names were chosen intentionally as ‘they’re big names that people will have heard of’. Sir Terry Farrell, for example, designed London’s MI6 building; Lord Foster is known for the Gherkin while Baron Rogers created the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.

The Brits Who Built The Modern World was also publicised with a three-part television documentary of the same name, broadcast on BBC Four in February. ‘We wanted to make it as accessible as possible to the general public,’ explains Webber.

RIBA plans to hold two exhibitions a year in its headquarters, and intends to open a further gallery in Liverpool in 2015. Exhibitions will move between the two cities. The Institute also has a partnership with the Victoria & Albert Museum, whose architecture gallery is currently showing a RIBA collection on British architecture abroad during the Colonial Period.

The next collection to be shown in Portland Place will showcase the work of photographer Edwin Smith, who specialised in architectural images. ‘Smith was working in post-war 1950s and 1960s Britain,’ says Webber. ‘He’s not a name that’s as well-known [as those in the current exhibition], but the places and times that his work is set in are very relatable, which will engage people.’

And next year RIBA plans to return to a more familiar name, with the next exhibition to be based on the work of Scottish designer and architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Architecture may be about the physical environment, but online, Webber’s work continues. ‘We had over had 30 different websites, Facebook accounts, Twitter accounts,’ she says. ‘We have 11 different [RIBA] offices across the country, and each had a different website. There was no focus or central narrative across them all: they were sending very mixed messages.’

Over the past 18 months, work has been done to create one new, centralised website, which will go live at the end of April. This website will stay at the address of the RIBA’s current corporate site, architecture.com (‘whoever got hold of that address was obviously thinking ahead!’ jokes Webber), but its content will be completely revamped. ‘The old website is just about RIBA as an association,’ explains Webber. ‘We had a really high bounce rate, as people visited ‘architecture. com’ only to find that it was a corporate website, and quickly left again. The new website will be about architecture in general, not just about RIBA.’

RIBA’s social media has also been overhauled, with more than 30 Facebook pages condensed into just two. ‘We’re making our social media more focused, and integrating it into the website,’ Webber reveals.

At the same time as reducing the number of Facebook and Twitter accounts, two new RIBA pages on Instagram and Pinterest have been created. ‘Architecture is by nature very visual, so these platforms work well for us,’ explains Webber.

The RIBA e-newsletter has also been relaunched, while the in-house journal aimed at RIBA members has been renovated, with new cultural sections added.

The Stirling Prize, the industry’s prestigious award which is presented every year to the building that has made the greatest contribution to the evolution of architecture, is also being presented a little differently to the public.

‘In the past, people just thought that the prize was just about recognising the aesthetics of architecture,’ explains Webber. ‘But we wanted to send the message that buildings have a function too. The built environment is all around us, and we wanted to encourage a broader appreciation of this, and to show what makes a building really work.’

To do this, short films were produced on each of the buildings shortlisted for the 2013 Stirling Prize, highlighting their functions as well as their aesthetics. These films were shown on the BBC website and on BBC News. After seeing the popularity of the 2013 videos, Webber is currently planning to produce similar content this year.

RIBA is a registered charity, and is entirely self-funded. It runs a Patrons’ programme, consisting of donations from current RIBA members, but, according to Webber, a Friends’ programme, extending to non-members, will be launched next year. ‘We’re hoping that the cultural side of RIBA, our exhibitions and so on, will eventually be completely funded this way,’ she explains.

The building industry has, concedes Webber, been hit hard by the economic downturn. ‘But in the last two quarters we’ve seen a turnaround,’ she says. ‘Architects are now getting more work through and are feeling more confident about that. The cultural work of RIBA hasn’t really been affected by the recession. In fact it is our priority to continue to promote architecture to the general public [during difficult economic times]. Our work can do this and be beneficial.’

And it seems that Webber and her team’s work is proving successful. They have exceeded footfall targets of 300 visitors per day to The Brits Who Built The Modern World, meeting that figure on weekdays, and doubling it on Saturdays when about 600 people pay a visit.

The challenge continues however, as Webber attempts to keep those numbers up after the television programme has finished. The target for the new website is to increase the number of hits and to retain visitors on the site for a longer time. ‘We’ll see how the new website pans out,’ says Webber expectantly. ‘Anecdotally though, the changes we have made so far have gone down really well.’

RIBA’s case shows that, even in an industry known for creativity and innovation, communications can not only keep up, but may even be able to build its own path forward.