Woman aims to smash the architects' glass ceiling

Maggie O'Farrell meets Clare Frankl, who wants to be president of Riba

All is not well at the elegant London headquarters of British architecture in Portland Place. Behind its classical portals, there is a tussle as tough as any across town in the House of Commons.

On one side are the reformists, on the other, the backers of the status quo. The prize? Presidency of one of the most well-known professional institutions in Britain, the 28,000-strong Institute of British Architects (Riba). If the reformists win, a woman, Clare Frankl, will move into the president's office in the imposing Portland Place HQ for the first time.

Over the coffee cups at the Riba headquarters' in-house branch of Patisserie Valerie, where the whispers are usually about the latest Richard Rogers steel and glass creation, or the Norman Foster tower, there is plenty of chat about presidential elections on 13 December. Architects may be used to controversy about their buildings, but election of the president is usually a humdrum affair, with the vice-president elected unopposed to the top job.

But this year discontent about the running of the 162-year-old Riba - recently described in a letter to Building Design magazine as "an inner sanctum ... something of a cross between Rotary International and a masonic temple" - has led Ms Frankl to challenge the current vice-president, David Rock.

Frankl, 48, a specialist in inner-city housing and urban design, is critical of the organisation she hopes to front: "The profession has been ill-served by an institute mired in self-pity and introspection. The endless bickering over who controls the corpse of the 19th-century stereotype architect has achieved nothing but increasing self-doubt and marginalisation.

"The Riba, for all its institutional baggage, is still a valuable place," Frankl claims. "Its biggest problem is introspection: the efforts and energies of those who have tried to do things have got trapped inside the walls. The work goes on but doesn't get communicated outside. My main focus would be to reverse that, to open up the institute's work and the understanding of what architecture is about. We need to open the Riba to everyone who is interested in architecture."

Frankl's stance has put her opponent David Rock in a curious position. He earned the reputation of a radical by pioneering the workspace movement in the 1970s, creating a working community of 65 firms in Covent Garden. Rock, 67, has often worked with neighbourhood groups helping them discover what they want from architecture. In 1988, he backed Rod Hackney, adviser to the Prince of Wales, in his candidacy for Riba president. Hackney, like Frankl, was standing against the council nomination.

Now his own candidacy is seen as that of the Establishment. "It's rather nice," Rock says, "to have been a radical and to be accepted in-house. I reckon I've got a lot of support because of that."

Rock's approach is more cautious, devising a long-term corporate plan to lay the foundations for the next 10 years of institutional activity. He wants to see it become "proactive, aggressive ... It needs to prioritise. As with most large organisations, the problem is too many ideas." He would set up a fundraising committee: "Skilled, in-house commission-based help."

Top of his list of financial priorities is the Riba's unrivalled collection of architectural drawings for which he wants Lottery money to fund their conservation and provide a new building.

Indeed, the Lottery is playing a spectacular role in the resurgence of architects' fortunes, boosting the building of arts and sports venues. For a profession which suffered up to 50 per cent unemployment and underemployment during the recession, this revival could not come a moment too soon.

Employment may have improved but architecture is still about jobs for the boys. "Architecture still works in an incestuous way," says Anne Boddington, senior lecturer at Oxford Brooks' University Architecture School. "We still get paid less than men." Would a female Riba president help? "Definitely. Even if only as a role model."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions