Architecture: An eye on the future: The RIBA's new head has designs on change, says Peter Dormer

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The Independent Culture
The Tory party conference revealed the philistinism of the current government. It reminded us that if the country is to enjoy intellectual inspiration then it must look to the professions. Never has the quality of the people who lead them been so important. So it is fortunate that the Royal Institute of British Architects has appointed a president who wants to strengthen the intellectual basis of his profession. Francis Duffy, who took up his two-year appointment in July, wants architects to shape as well as to contribute change in society.

Born in 1940 and educated at the Architectural Association, London, Berkeley and Princeton, Dr Duffy is a specialist in the design of offices, chairman of the architectural firm DEGW, and the author of several books and essays. He sees his profession as an institution that, first and foremost, holds together a substantial body of knowledge. He sees architecture as a catalyst for practical and intellectual change and he understands its professional organisation as a means for ensuring good architectural education, high standards of research and the maintenance of critical inquiry.

Dr Duffy's understanding of the way debate and critical analysis is central to professional practice was demonstrated by his inaugural lecture when he said: 'Our open-ended debates are sometimes misunderstood as time-wasting, diversionary activities; our continuing self- criticism is read as an extended apology.' That, he explained, was wrong. Architecture provides both a critique of change in society and the means of managing and humanising such change.

He argues that the cities of the 20th century were created towards the end of the 19th century by architects such as Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, who grasped new forms of construction and had the foresight to see how burgeoning office technology and new forms of corporate organisation could be housed - in short, creating the office block in all its forms.

Dr Duffy believes that we are at a point of revolution with regard to the concept of the office and, more importantly, the city. Information technology is altering what people need to do in offices. It is changing the pace of information and increasing the rate of innovation. There is a move away from offices that are designed like factories, housing a white-collar proletariat, to spaces where the emphasis is on flexible, informal areas in which people can meet.

One of the unexpected consequences of technology that permits you to conduct business without meeting your client, customer or colleagues face to face is that the reverse has occurred: more people appear to be meeting to exchange ideas and information than ever before. Dr Duffy's agreeable vision of the city is one that is modelled more on old Milan than on the new Dallas: it is a city of durable architecture housing cafes, libraries and art exhibitions, which hosts conferences, seminars and workshops and generally provides appropriate spaces for cultural exchange and experiment. Such a vision will strike many British people as either daft or decadent but it is a view that our European and Japanese competitors already understand. As most office drudgery becomes automated, more and more people will be employed to think and create.

While excited by the challenges posed by information technology, the new RIBA president is worried by the consequences of short-termism in architecture. He deplores the temporary, cheapskate nature of much speculative post- war commercial building and sees it as ecologically unacceptable to keep flinging buildings up and tearing them down. Dr Duffy wants an architecture that will last. We should consider what a building will look like in 700 years' time, he says, and suggests that one of the problems is to marry longevity in a building with the volatility of the organisations that will be housed in it.

Dr Duffy values sound research and to that end he is establishing a programme of research seminars at the RIBA that will look at different categories of building, with one question in mind: what will the needs of its occupants be in the year 2010? Architects feel they are under attack from the Government which is essentially contemptuous of the profession and believes that anyone who wants to should be allowed to call themselves an architect. Dr Duffy sees it as one of his tasks to build morale and give his members confidence as designers of the future.

(Photograph omitted)