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June 2023

Vol. 165 / No. 1443

The future of the RIBA Drawings Collection

When the Institute of British Architects was founded in London in 1834 – it added ‘Royal’ to its name in 1837 – education and research were at the heart of its objectives. According to its charter, its purpose is ‘the general advancement of Civil Architecture’, and ‘promoting and facilitating the acquirement of the knowledge of the various arts and sciences connected therewith’. From the outset, it was intended, in the words of its founders, that the Institute would possess not only a ‘Library of Works of every kind connected with Architecture’ but also a ‘Museum of Antiquities, Models, Casts, Specimens of the various Materials used in building’. Architectural drawings were collected from early on, as an educational tool for students, a source of inspiration for architects and a record of British architectural practice. Nearly 190 years later, the RIBA’s collections consist of one million drawings, 1.5 million manuscripts and archival documents, 1.6 million photographs, five hundred architectural models, and over one thousand other artefacts, which range from sixteenth-century drawing instruments to C.F.A. Voysey’s umbrella. Together with the RIBA’s library they form the national collection for architecture in the United Kingdom. It is therefore astonishing and even shocking that there is a serious threat that from 2027 they will be homeless.

For their first 140 years the collections were housed in the RIBA’s headquarters, which from 1934 has been the purpose-built 66 Portland Place, designed by George Grey Wornum and widely admired as one of Britain’s most distinctive inter-war buildings. By 1972 space had run out and so the drawings, models and other artefacts were moved to premises in Portman Square, next door to Home House, then the home of the Courtauld Institute. The library, archives and photographic collections stayed at Portland Place, where the books and photographs remain. Thanks to a spectacular rate of acquisitions over thirty years, by the end of the last century the Drawings Collection had greatly outgrown Portman Square. In 1999 an imaginative deal was struck between the RIBA and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), which owns the second largest collection of architectural drawings in the United Kingdom. The collections at Portman Square, together with the archives, would be moved to the V&A, which would provide a dedicated reading room adjacent to the one used by the museum’s department of prints and drawings. The benefits were evident, not least to the V&A, which in partnership with the RIBA opened the museum’s first permanent dedicated gallery and exhibition space for architecture, furnished with many loans from the RIBA collections, and appointed its first curators for architecture. The advantages to scholarship and education of these pooled resources and of the two collections of drawings being available in one building were enormous. It has not been only scholars who have benefited, however, as around a quarter of all requests to see material in the Drawings Collection are from architects, architectural students and designers, fulfilling the founding principles of not only the RIBA but also the V&A, a museum that has as one of its main purposes the encouragement of contemporary design.


Completed in 2004, the complex move of the collections and the fitting out of the new spaces to receive them were paid for largely by a grant of £3.27 million from what was then the Heritage Lottery Fund (now the National Lottery Heritage Fund). Since then, the RIBA has paid an given to the museum in 2004. At a twenty-year review of the arrangement the V&A proposed only a modest rent rise and the creation of a new curatorial position funded by the RIBA to work across both collections. When the RIBA decided not to accept the proposal, negotiations came to an end. A formal announcement was made in June last year that the V&A and RIBA trustees have ‘determined that the Architecture Partnership will run for a further five years before concluding in 2027’


The background to this decision, which dismayed the V&A, was the election in 2021 of the architect Simon Allford to the two-year post of president of the RIBA. Having inherited the realisation that after ninety years the Portland Place building was in urgent need of repair and refurbishment, he decided that this should form the basis for a radical rearrangement of the collections so that they could form the centrepiece of a new initiative, by which the headquarters would become a ‘House of Architecture’, designed, in the words of the RIBA’s website, ‘to inspire members, professionals, students and the public through physical and virtual debate, discussion, learning and exhibitions’. Whereas the move of the collections to the V&A had been preceded by extensive consultation with all stakeholders, the plans for the House of Architecture were agreed by the board of the RIBA without any public consultation, and if there is a business plan underpinning it none has been made public.


Shortly after it had been announced that the relationship with the V&A was being terminated, serious problems began to emerge. Following the appointment of Benedetti Architects to carry out the refurbishment of 66 Portland Place, estimated at £20 million, it soon became clear that the cost and timescale of the work had been seriously underestimated. Due to begin in 2024, its start has now been pushed back to 2025 at the earliest. No reassurance has been provided about whether the library and photographic collections will be accessible while this work is carried out. At the same time, the RIBA is committed to another expensive project, the expansion of its collections store in the Piper Centre, Fulham, to accommodate the archives as well as to provide increased space for the drawings, and the upgrading of its environmental controls so that the photographic collections can be stored there, which is not at present possible for conservation reasons.


There was never any possibility that the Drawings Collection would move to 66 Portland Place, where there is no more room for it than there was in 1972. It is extraordinary that the trustees of the RIBA agreed to end the relationship with the V&A without any clear idea of where the collection would be housed. Despite vaguely expressed hopes that a building would be found for it near 66 Portland Place – an area of some of the most expensive property in London and short of buildings capable of being converted to museum use with the floor loadings required to store hundreds of thousands of drawings – there seems to be a real danger that in 2027 there will be no alternative to placing the drawings and their associated collections into deep, inaccessible and expensive storage. It beggars belief that the trustees of the RIBA – which is a charity – should so patently have failed to exercise proper control over the ambitions of its president, and should have so casually abandoned a highly productive relationship with a great museum on the basis of vague and evidently ill-thought-out plans.