January 11: The IBA Becomes the RIBA

2016/01/11 § 1 Comment

On this day in 1837 the Royal Institute of British Architects was granted its royal  charter.

First established in 1834 as the plain-old Institute of British Architects, the group’s membership convened at a series of wonderfully British-sounding places, including the Craven-Hotel, the Thatched-House Tavern and the Squiffy Snuff-Box,* as they met to figure out what it meant to be an architect.  Three years later their patron, Queen Victoria, delivered the R to the IBA and they were established as the full-fledged fancy-pants professional organization that still exists today.

Early protagonists included Thomas Leverton Donaldson, Charles Fowler, John Goldicutt, George Basevi, and other people you’ve never heard of–and a few you may have, like Decimus Burton and Charles Barry (pictured above).  “Classes” of membership included fellows (who had at least seven years of practice), associates (who had less), students (who were articled to a member) and honorary fellows (who were basically wealthy gents who contributed a set amount of guineas to the funds of the society).  Except for the latter category, who could buy their way in, the rest of the membership (the actual architects) had to be approved by their peers as they moved up the ladder.  This procedure (and the designation of seven years as being the amount of time required to master the job) oddly echoes the medieval guild practices that the RIBA said they really wanted to overthrow and replace with something that was new (and curiously smacks of the length of time many architecture students today take to get through their Bachelor’s M.Arch.).  The RIBA’s early literature explains its purpose:

Its object is the general advancement of Civil Architecture, by promoting and facilitating the acquirement of the knowledge of the various arts and sciences connected wherewith, by the formation of a Library and Museum, by establishing correspondence with the learned men of various countries, by prosecuting inquiry on these subjects, and by establishing a uniformity and respectability in the practice of the profession. [As printed in The Learned Societies and Printing Clubs of the United Kingdom (London: G. Willis, 1853).]

Imperfect as their beginnings were, and flawed as the practice is today, it remains the case that the endeavor of these men–to work against public opinion and vocational tradition with the optimism that made them all believe that what they were doing was really, honestly, truly a service to the world–is remarkable.  It’s a sad truth in architectural history that so often it is only by their physical monuments that architects are known, whereas the twenty-five original fellows of the RIBA built something of extraordinary importance: the profession itself.

*maybe I made that one up.

image: portrait of Sir Charles Barry by John Prescott Knight, ca. 1851 (from this source)

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