The Meaning of Fellowship

“The best time to get an award is when you receive it.”

— Grafton Architects (Shelley McNamara), 2020 Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate and 2020 Royal Gold Medallist

We live in uncertain times, and I bet you’re a bit like me — you wonder about our world after we emerge from this long darkness of lockdowns.

I’m not sure how you would have reacted, but when I first inquired last year (2019) about the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Fellowship and the uncertain outcomes of a submission to this special recognition for current RIBA Chartered Members, I made an intentional choice to work towards it. Usually when the RIBA Fellow Assessment Panel reaches a decision about your submission, it could receive one of the three following outcomes:

1) Your application is approved and you are elected as an RIBA Fellow Member. (Most people would like this positive outcome.)

2) Your application is not approved, with written feedback provided as to why you do not meet at least 3 of the 5 eligibility criteria.

3) Your application is not approved but you are asked to re-apply, as the panel have been unable to accurately evaluate your application and require further written evidence and/or supporting documentation.

Just imagine, the only thing certain about its outcome is uncertainty. What most people would do in this situation is strongly assess if you’re prepared for this rigorous undertaking. The best time to work towards the Fellowship — regardless of your age, race, citizenship status, national origin, or ethnicity, is when you meet the qualifications as a member, and when you are ready.

In spite of the uncertain outcome, I worked towards it, for the strong vision and democratic process it offered. It’s a platform to impact your present, built upon your past, and to provide a brighter future:

“Fellows of the RIBA are ambassadors for the profession and RIBA community, with membership providing a profile and platform to continue to affect change and celebrate architecture.”

You’ll see it expressed in the examples of RIBA Fellows like these, who came before me. I am inspired by their examples to continue, as I come behind them.

I started mulling about the RIBA Fellowship after attending the 16th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Architecture Biennale in October 2018, which was curated by Honorary Fellows of RIBA Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara in Italy. The show created an impact on me, as the body of work I later submitted for the RIBA Fellowship is sympathetic with the “Freespace” architecture agenda on “generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity”. One of those works was the revival of the underutilised System-Built Homes — Frank Lloyd Wright’s foundational project that birthed his “Usonian” Jacobs House (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) — resulting in reduction of blight in a disadvantaged city block of New Jersey.

(“Freespace” at Venice Architecture Biennale in Giardini. Photo by Lira Luis. 2018)

By February 2019, I had visited the RIBA headquarters in London that had an exhibit on 2019 Royal Gold Medallist Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, RIBA, Hon FAIA. He is a renowned British architect who is also a registered architect in the State of New York, USA. Within the retrospective, he had a project that reminded me of Buckminster Fuller, as well as a picture of him with Bucky himself at his project The Service Tower (also known as the Bathroom Tower). It served as inspiration for my RIBA Fellowship submission on how I would later present the research and development of Leapfrog Project’s “Living Ball” that enabled self-sufficient empowerment of extreme weather survivors through geodesic constructions.

When the application cycle opened on June 10, 2019 for 2020 RIBA Fellowship and after being a continuous RIBA Chartered Member for 11 years, I chose to participate for the process and not for the outcome — particularly when it’s uncertain. It was by choice, not because of a commitment or because I have no other options. I was there for the moment and I wasn’t trapped there with nowhere else to go. And it is with this mindset that I sent my submission which included an application form, signed declaration, and projects that demonstrated how I met 4 of the 5 criteria (3 is minimum) including signatures of decision makers who verified my contributions in those projects, supported by a cover letter that specifically spoke directly to achievements that met the criteria.

The gift of inspiration from “Freespace” at the Venice Architecture Biennale came full circle when I flew to London and attended the RIBA Fellowship Ceremony on February 12, 2020 at Florence Hall. I was one of the ten elected as Fellow this year.

In the Royal Gold Medal & Fellowships 2020 booklet for the awards ceremonies, headlined by 2020 Royal Gold Medallist Grafton Architects’ Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, I learned of the “extraordinary spirit of generosity with which they exercise their profession”.

(“For me personally, this RIBA booklet from the RIBA Fellowship Ceremony has taken on another level of meaning and value! It’s great to be in extremely good company with all the people featured in it… particularly its headliner, the 2020 Pritzker Architecture Prize laureates, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects”)

And it’s with that same spirit of generosity I experienced “fellowship” from those who empowered my elevation as Fellow of RIBA, as I described in my acceptance speech:

“I advance work for those impacted by extreme climate and inequities. It demands overcoming preconceptions. (The) RIBA, a professional institute pioneer, understands this. Many empowered my elevation as Fellow: Jason Boyle, FRIBA, FRSA; Dr Wayne Ruga, FAIA, FIIDA, Hon FASID; and others, including (the) RIBA — for electing me as your Fellow. Thank you. You inspire me to pay it forward by your examples.”

(When they told me I had 30 seconds to deliver my speech, which is almost the same amount of time as what Brad Pitt got for his 2020 Oscar speech, I found a creative way to deliver my 1,000-word message in that time frame. With a little help from my friends at London Fashion Week 2020, I wore the rest of my message instead: Defying Gravity, symbolized by a cape for flying. NB: On normal speaking time, RIBA is pronounced as it is spelled: R — I — B — A, and Jason Boyle as well as Dr Wayne Ruga are multiple Fellowship credential recipients.) [Video courtesy of Karl Lenton and Alex Nikjoo]

How would you feel if an uncertainty led to a brighter future? That was how I felt because everything about the process aligned at the right time for me — from submission to ceremony (happened a month before the Covid-19 pandemic would be declared). Through this RIBA Fellowship process I learned, the way to build is with inspiration. When you have that, you have hope for a brighter Future and the promise of better days regardless of uncertainty. In it I find meaning.

You’ll find the meaning of fellowship when working towards it means something for you.

(RIBA President, Alan Jones FRIBA FRSA RIAS, presented Lira Luis her Fellowship certificate during a commemorative ceremony on February 12th, that honoured the 2020 RIBA Fellow Members, recognising their inspirational Chartered Members who have made a significant contribution to the profession.) [Photo courtesy of © nickstrugnell.com and RIBA]

2 F’s and a Frank: FRIBA, FRSA, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Fellow. Immigrant architect for the open-minded. My own views.

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