RIBA opens an office in Sharjah

Butterfly Pavilion, Noor Island. Designed by 3deluxe

RIBA – the Royal Institute of British Architects, one of the oldest and best-respected professional associations for architects – has just opened its first office in the GCC (and only its second international office anywhere: there’s another planned for Shanghai). The new office is described as “an operational centre for the RIBA, enabling the RIBA to develop professional networks and partnerships, and to increase its support for architects in the region”.

RIBA has an impressive mission statement: “we serve our members and society in order to deliver better buildings and places, stronger communities and a sustainable environment”. You couldn’t possibly find fault with that, of course.

And RIBA has ambitions to extend its status outside the geographical confines implied in its name. Right now the organisation has just under 48,000 members, over 85 percent of them in the UK; but it describes itself as “a global professional membership body” and has been working on a new long-term international strategy.

The plan is to become a standards-led organisation, “creating, delivering and promoting the highest quality international standards for the architecture profession globally, so that RIBA becomes the benchmark for quality within the profession and the standard to which others aspire”.

There are commercial implications for that, of course, not least the high-value services that RIBA can provide – specific professional qualifications and certification of architecture schools, but also professional support with contract issues and the like and external services like consultancy.

In the press release for the Sharjah office announcement, RIBA Chief Executive Alan Vallance said “we look forward to forging new collaborations, opportunities for sharing expertise, and being able to offer even greater support to architects and partners in Sharjah and the wider Gulf region.”

It’s perhaps instructive that one of the first RIBA appointments for the Sharjah office will be an International Business Development Manager for the Middle East, tasked with developing “a network of architectural stakeholders (including institutes, practices and regulators)” and creating a programme of activities to support engagement and build the Institute’s profile. The job spec sounds like a good fit for the professional-status aim; the job title sounds unabashedly commercial.

The RIBA has been active in the region for some time, of course, and the organisation has had a Gulf Chapter for ten years now.

But the Institution has been ramping up local activity recently. It was busy at Dubai Design Week, with talks, a debate on ‘Creating New Heritage’ about contemporary architecture and the Middle East, and even a children’s Fantastical Cities building workshop. Three local notables (from Grimshaw, V8 and Hopkins) talked about their work for Expo 2020 – the RIBA itself will participate in Expo 2020 next year, and will again feature at Cityscape Dubai. Ben Derbyshire, who has just stepped down as RIBA President and who was instrumental in leading a push into the Gulf, spoke on Homes for a Sustainable Future.

A perhaps more fundamental step was the signing at Cityscape Global in September of an MoU between RIBA and the Dubai Land Department (DLD). The two have agreed to collaborate on “areas including professional standards and support as well as opportunities for architects working in Dubai and the UAE, in addition to exploring potential for public outreach”.

Operationally this means RIBA members communicating best practice and advising on issues like urban planning and land use, fire safety, and building regs – supporting [DLD} in making Dubai a better, more sustainable and competitive city” as Alan Vallance put it.

The elegant Bee’ah headquarters just outside Sharjah, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects and nearing completion

The value of RIBA qualifications is also part of the five-year project: Sultan Butti bin Mejren, DLD’s DG, spoke of “the exchange of information in regard to the qualification of architects and the sharing of knowledge to best nurture architecture in Dubai”.

So you might think there’s an argument for the new office being in Dubai? Well, Sharjah is leading the emirates in its commitment to advancing the built environment, both with some exceptional landmark builds (like the Bee’ah HQ designed by Zaha Hadid Architects; the masterplan for the Aljada Central Hub development, also by ZHA; lots of good work by SpaceContinuum, notably for Sharjah Art Foundation; and Foster+Partners’ House of Wisdom library and cultural centre). Then there’s the arrival of the excellent Sharjah Architecture Triennial, cementing the city as one of the world’s centres of architectural thinking.

The House of Wisdom by Foster+Partners. The image doesn’t do justice to the high-tech content of this clever building

And the ruler of Sharjah, HH Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Mohammed al-Qasimi, is keen. Indeed, last February he was named as one of nine Honorary Fellows of the RIBA.

The honorary fellowship is an annual accolade for non-architects who have helped to “influence the delivery of the built environment in a sustainable and creative way” and the citation for Sheikh Sultan al-Qasimi references his “passion” for creative design and Islamic architecture – “he has commissioned a strong and distinctive body of work based on his strong advocacy for preserving cultural heritage and traditional vernacular architecture to an extent unparalleled in other Gulf cities”.

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