British Archaeology, no 24, May 1997: Interview

The Prince's new man in architecture

Simon Denison talks to Richard Hodges

When an archaeologist, and a former Director of the British School at Rome to boot, was asked to head the Prince of Wales's troubled Institute of Architecture last year, most people probably thought the Institute was entrenching itself even more deeply in its perceived role of advocate for reactionary classicism in architecture. At a time when its degree courses were failing to receive validation from the RIBA, and the entire governing council was asked by the Prince to step down, you could imagine the smirks of modernists in every architect's office in the land.

Yet meeting the Institute's new Director, the Anglo-Saxonist Richard Hodges, it becomes clear that the Institute is bent on a new course. Design, apparently, is no longer the main issue. Hodges does not even, as one might expect, emphasise the `archaeological' aspects of the Prince's vision - the desirability, for example, of conserving locally-distinct building styles and materials and fostering traditional craft skills. Instead, all the talk is of energy-efficiency, the sustainable use of materials, and the `sustainability of communities', meaning (I think) the creation of settlements, often with community involvement, that are somehow complete in themselves, providing both work and recreation for their inhabitants.

The details of how these ideals might be achieved are still fuzzy, but there is a great air of new beginnings at the five-year-old Institute's rather dowdy neo-classical HQ in Regent's Park, London. Hodges talks of the Institute's plans to `bring people together' to work out, for example, how new developments can be both sustainable and cost-effective, or both eco-friendly and enhancing of the spirit of place. My impression is the educational side of the Institute will begin to take second place to its new role of think-tank and publicist for any new ideas that emerge. The construction company Tarmac, apparently, has shown an interest, but there are still many seemingly intractable problems to solve and no guarantee of the Institute's ultimate influence on a market still largely driven by the need to keep costs down.

In view of these new directions it perhaps is surprising that an archaeologist is now giving the orders. Richard Hodges is a relaxed 45-year-old with a languid, aristocratic manner - who clears his throat and even seems to blink slowly - and he does not deny the rather tenuous connection between archaeology and the new job. His credentials, he says, are simply his experience of running `a similar sort of organisation' at the British School at Rome, though the parallels between the two are hardly exact.

If he is something of a layman in the new job, that, I suspect, is all part of the fun for Hodges himself. He claims that the main principle on which he lives his life is `intellectual stimulation', and he admits to being `a little tired of academic research' - even though he still directs two research projects on the continent, one in Italy and the other at Butrint in Albania, where by chance the classical and Byzantine ruins were looted last month during the Albanian civil unrest. Hodges now plans to spend less time in Norwich, where he lives with his wife and two children, attached to the University of East Anglia by a research professorship, to spend more time on his Institute work in London. `I have put out such a huge amount of research for the short term that I can afford to take a little time out, and explore and adventure something else,' he says.

Moreover, architecture is `far more important than archaeology', and any archaeologist who thinks otherwise `is living in cloud- cuckoo land'. The Institute, he says, is `making an impact on this country's social and economic circumstances', and `that has to be more important [than doing archaeology]'.

He sees himself as the kind of man who `is good at making things happen, and getting them in place', before moving on to allow someone else to carry on the work; so (who knows?) his stay at the Institute may not, after all, be very protracted. Linked to this is his apparent belief in the importance, in the best aesthetic tradition, of not being stuck for too long in any one occupation: `I had a year off before' - that is, after leaving Rome - `and I intend to have a year off again in three, four, five years time.'

Potential successors at the Institute will want to watch his progress very carefully over the next few years, however, before being certain that his present act is one they'd necessarily want to follow.

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1997