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."

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