Change of Direction

New York

17 October 2018

There is no shame in admitting that I don’t remember when I first met Eva Franch i Gilabert: no one in New York seems to. The director of Storefront for Art and Architecture since 2010 and associate professor at Cooper Union, she has become such an omnipresence that it is all but impossible to imagine the city existing without her.

Yet that is what is about to happen. Having been selected last winter as the next director of the Architectural Association (AA), Franch, who was born in Catalonia, and trained in Barcelona, the Netherlands and the US, will shortly move to the UK. What she brings to her new position – what presumably persuaded 67 per cent of the students and faculty of the AA to vote her into the job – is a capacious intellect that seems to take everything into its compass and then weave it into fantastical, sometimes bewildering patterns. Franch is unfailingly generous, doling out ideas and alternate versions of the past and future in lavish quantities.

That intellectual profligacy makes it rather difficult to say what precisely she is likely to do as the head of the storied London architecture school. At Storefront, the programming ranged from transforming the space into a surreal comedy club (in collaboration with artists Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe), to stuffing it with letters from architects to the mayors of their respective cities (a series that has now travelled to more than 15 countries), to an ongoing itinerary of events connected with Franch’s curatorship of the 2014 US Pavilion for the Venice Biennale. That project, “OfficeUS”, has spawned a mini-cottage industry that now includes several volumes from publisher Lars Müller, purporting, in their totality, to do nothing less than track the production of buildings and work spaces by and for the American design trade over the last century. Franch is not given to making small plans; indeed she scarcely makes any plans at all. She just makes things, and makes them large.

One thing that the AA can be sure of is her dedication to a unique institutional vision. In previous interviews, the incoming director has spoken about the possibility of an “anti-institutional institution”, a kind of cultural apparatus in a constant state of flux, capable of critiquing not only the architecture world at large but itself as well. This is as much to say that the AA under Franch will not, in all probability, espouse a specific school of thought, much less a particular mode or style of practice. It may be something more like a clearinghouse for different strategies, or a kind of permanent pedagogical revolution, throwing off new possibilities and new directions as a whetstone throws off sparks.

I met up with Franch in Lower Manhattan, where we found ourselves chased out of a crowded bar and then off a cold, windy balcony, before settling at last in her apartment. There was a Catalan Easter bread in the kitchen and tea in a cup with no handle. The conversation lurched all over the map; even though I was the one asking the questions, there was little doubt who was driving.

Rotating panels cover the facade of Storefront's Kenmare Street gallery, designed by Vito Acconci and Steven Holl in 1993.

Storefront for Art and Architecture occupies a fascinating niche. It has the most interesting and varied programme of any architectural institution in the city.
Today, before you came, I had an emotional afternoon writing my last appeal for people to come to the Spring Benefit. I realised that I could not summarise what I have done or what has happened over the last seven and a half years, in the same way that a historian needs critical distance to talk about history. But I could talk about it in terms of what I intended to do: I don’t think that there are many institutions around the world that think of architecture as a discipline of critical practice.

Not many architects either.
No. But there are some architects who do and they’re not necessarily received within the field of architecture, the art world or other fields. Storefront offers that space for artists who similarly do not feel that the art world supports their practice. I think Storefront occupies a very specific niche beyond disciplinary labels and that’s why it’s very difficult to maintain financially. Over the last seven and a half years, I’ve tried to ask the questions that no-one wanted to ask, and to produce spaces of discussions and debate. Because the issues were so obvious – sustainability and environmental issues, borders and geopolitics – they were impossible to face head‑on. One had to find other ways to talk about these issues and understand that they are symptomatic of global issues within the discipline. What has happened, I think, over the last seven and a half years, is that we have moved on from a time in which architects were being talked about as “starchitects”. Everyone now is talking very clearly about much more common-sense and collective aspects of architectural practice.

That’s been the major shift that Storefront has tracked and in ways encouraged?
I have tried to avoid solo shows. I have done issue-oriented and collective shows, such as Letters to the Mayor. It’s a very simple idea that asked architects to change their perspective in terms of what their duties and responsibilities to society are. The idea was to make architects realise that they are all working together for a society that does not always come with a pay cheque or a competition brief. [Another] project that was very important to me was the Competition of Competitions. I was seeing that architectural competitions had become political instruments and were exacerbating particular forms of economic control or capital, so we ran competitions for competitions. There was another exhibition we ran called Pop: Protocols, Obsessions, Positions and that was about understanding that as architects, we all learn to use particular protocols; that we all, as individuals, have particular obsessions; and that what we need to do is to identify a position in the cultural, political and economic fields. Those shows, for me, were pedagogical exercises that I was doing, not with a class but with an entire architectural community.

What made you want to seek the position at the AA?
I really imagine that anyone who has a sense of responsibility about architectural culture, practice and education thought about that position. The idea of “experimentation” has been used and abused, but it is true that the AA has been a hotbed for that historically. I was not looking for it, but the search committee approached me and I said I was happily married to an institution and teaching at Cooper Union. But I realised that, in a very challenging time for the institution, maybe I could contribute.

The AA evidently faces a number of challenges, financially and otherwise. What’s your outlook on those and do you have any particular scheme in mind, both for the administrative side and for the direction of the pedagogy?
When I presented to the school in February, I said that the only way in which I could take the direction of a school like the AA is by being a director of directors. There are many people there who have proved that they have important agendas, which I want to reinforce and empower. And yet, at the same time, while it has been a hotbed of experimentation, the school as a whole needs to be redefined. What I would like to do is take all the different research hubs at the AA, reinforce them and find their operative point. So it’s actually just an act of curation: curating all those different agendas in relationship to society. With regards to the financial challenges, it’s not only about the school, but also about the British and European contexts. The AA, like many other independent schools, is funded by tuition fees. And at the same time, the AA, unlike many other schools, has a much broader public remit. It has an exhibition venue, a publishing house, a bookstore, and one of the largest public programmes of architectural lectures in the world. They do these things for free, and they’re open to everyone. I don’t have the solution [to the financial issues] and I’m not bringing a chart or a map, but I do come with an attitude and a lot of expertise. The first thing that I’m going to be doing is talking and listening and reaching out to not only the students, professors and the staff, but also the different communities and constituencies in London and in Europe that I think are already part of the AA, even if they don’t know it. I also want to make sure that the AA can become that nexus between different educational institutions. One of the things that has emerged out of the education-as-a-business model is that each institution wants to compete against each other. I have no interest in that.

But you have found, in your time at Storefront, that by engaging with the discipline you are able to draw in people, and that that in itself produces a degree of institutional support that keeps the operation afloat.
What I try to do is to bring people together who have never been together before. The way in which technocracy has made everyone an expert in a particular field has produced a very atomised and divided notion of what it is we ultimately do as architects. I like to bring people together, not only from the field of architecture, but also from different disciplinary and geographical contexts. The AA’s Visiting School programme has workshops and schools in more than 50 places around the world, so that gives you a very international perspective. At the same time, the use of the words “international” and “global” is exhausting. In fact, what we are talking about is a kind of multi-locality that I think needs to be looked at with different eyes. How do we allow for different forms of knowledge production that do not belong to Western standards? And that’s something that I’ve tried to address, for instance, with the launch of the 2018 New York Architecture Book Fair and the Global Survey. The Global Survey went out recently to 1,600 people around the world: heads of schools of architecture and theory departments, but also curators, critics and historians from different cultural contexts. We asked them to nominate five books, because I was interested in figuring out what the books were that we should learn from, but which are not yet part of our Western canon. I would say that I’m a midwife. The only thing I do is ask questions. The answers are already there, I just think that sometimes people aren’t given the space to think and reflect on them.

It strikes me that you come to the AA with a strong conviction that architecture can have meaning even in an environment where it seems like almost nothing does. But it isn’t as though you claim architecture has a messianic power to transform the civic sphere. There’s never been anything so naive about your curatorial initiatives at Storefront. The searching, highly analytical, critical kind of programmes that you’ve been in charge of, and which you seem likewise to want to bring to the AA, are not of that stripe. You’re not a true believer in that sense. But you are a believer in something: that that mission, that critical searching mission, in itself has an important social value.
When I was at the AA in February, one of the students [2018 Mark Fisher Scholar Bodo Neuss] arranged a funeral for Common Land in Bedford Square, which is part of the Bedford Estate and which is the location of the AA. The project was about the idea of ownership, who has the right to ownership, and who is benefitting from it. That act, which was a very symbolic one, carried a real reflection and critical understanding of very difficult political issues. At the end of the day, I would say I’m very naive. I do hope that we can change things that sometimes seem to be based on immovable principles. One of the seminars that I used to teach was called ‘Architecture as Doubt’. Not ‘Architecture as a Dream’, but architecture as a critical practice that puts certain things into question. And that was a seminar which simply taught the history of utopia. Utopia is a term that we cannot use anymore because it’s filled with naiveté, but it is in fact the only tool that we have, as architects and designers, to try to imagine a different future. I’m sure you remember that conversation between Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky on human nature?

I think I’m familiar.
So it screened in 1971 on Dutch television. You have Noam Chomsky who is very young, very nice and very naive. He says “there are some things [that] we all share as humans that constitute collective aspiration, and that is something that we need to strive [towards] and that we need to look for.” He believes in the idea of goodness and so on. And Foucault, of course, in a very nicely staged dialectical opposition, says, “even that very notion or construction of ‘good’ or ‘human nature’ is a cultural construct, and the only task that I have as a philosopher is to put those ideas in doubt.” And so, when we design, we have the ability to put those questions into built form, and to materialise some of those ideas as spaces of critique. Take Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion, built in 1929 for the World Fair exhibition. How have historians typically described that building?

I think, usually, it is described as a building that affords spaces of limitless possibility – unplanned space in which one can float. It’s the promise of a free plan.
True: the building has been talked about in material, spatial and structural terms. Yet the way I like to read it is in political terms. Mies says that “architecture is the translation of the spirit of the time into built form.” That building was inaugurated by King Alfonso XIII of Spain and there are photographs that document the moment when the king arrived at the Mies pavilion: one sees the king totally mesmerised by a building he probably didn’t even know how to enter in the first place, because, if you remember, the stairs are positioned tangentially to the datum. So first, the king has to enter that space tangentially and find the pool of reflecting water. Then he turns right and sees a building – or maybe it is a roof? – and entered. And he knows that there is a throne that Mies has designed for him – the iconic Barcelona chair. And so he is going around looking for it, not recognising the Barcelona chair as a throne, and as he goes further inside, he suddenly finds himself outside again, where there is another pool and Georg Kolbe’s sculpture of a woman covering herself from the sun. But in fact, I would say, she’s covering herself from the shame of the king looking at her and asking “Where is my throne?” She’s like: “Keep on looking.” The king keeps on going around and then finds Mies. There’s this wonderful picture of the king with his top hat looking at Mies, and it’s as if he’s saying: “Mies, where’s my throne?” And Mies, who is smoking a cigar, looks at him [as if] saying: “Throne? This is the architecture of democracy, and everyone here is the king of their own freedom.” If one were to have decapitated a king in the 20th century, I think one would have done it with a building, not a guillotine.

We can say of a 20th-century architect that he can decapitate a king with a building. In the 21st century, it seems unlikely to me that you’d be gratified by a building that claimed to contain its politics so simply within a given formal solution.
Yes, but let me just disagree for a second there. What I’m really interested in is the power of form, and in the power of architecture. When I say that, it’s because I believe that form and space shape us and have an immediate effect on our bodies. Research through form and form-finding for me is very interesting and very important, because aesthetics carries politics. Many years ago, when I was at Princeton, I worked on a paper that I started and I never finished. I was interested in the idea of goosebumps. There are different types of goosebumps: ones you get from feeling fear, pleasure, or just cold. But you can also get them from aesthetic pleasure. What happens when you enter a space that makes you feel defenceless? There are things we can do in terms of producing aesthetic pleasures that are also very important: aesthetics and pleasure also have a kind of politics. And of course that’s not the only way in which one can exist as an architect, but I think one needs to be able to address all those different issues in some way.

So much of what you bring to the AA is this critical process, even though you also hope to arrive at goosebump-forming moments of formal uncanniness. I suppose it might be useful for the incoming classes to know what precisely would be in the toolbox and who they might read up on. You’ve only just recently canvassed the entire architecture world for a list of the most important books. After doing that, what’s on your list?
Where do I start? When I was younger and had more time, I liked to get books and cover them with paper, then put them in a pile, so that at some point I’d just forget about the author and I’d read the book without really caring who wrote it. I think it’s important to be able to have that conversation historically, but also to care less about the lineages of power and the transmission of ideas, and to understand more of what is actually being said. I am a good borrower in the sense that, from Michel Foucault, to Ludwig Wittgenstein, to Friedrich Nietzsche, to Immanuel Kant, philosophy has one shelf in my way of thinking about the world. For me, books are tools. Every time I talk to one of my students about their thesis, different books show up. And I think of them, regardless of whether they are architectural, literature or politics. I think that, as the director of a school, one needs to be very tolerant, while at the same time being able to ask the difficult questions. I’ll probably enjoy doing both very much.