Architecture and

Eva Franch i Gilabert

Eva Franch i Gilabert speaks with inter·punct about the founding and ethos of Storefront, as well as newly emerging education systems in art and architecture.

For additional information and to view Eva’s full lecture, visit the CMU School of Architecture website.

i·p: Storefront’s full name is of course, the Storefront for Art and Architecture. With that in mind, how does Storefront move beyond architecture to engage with art and collaborations that occur between art and architecture? In your mind, what can architecture learn from current practices in art and vice versa?

Eva Franch i Gilabert:
The truth is that the Storefront has never been about art and architecture as dialectical opposites, but instead, as complementary objects. It’s more about the “and”—the “and” can be “and anthropology,” “and politics,” “and poetry,” “and philosophy,” and, and, and... But yes, it’s true that the core is always architecture. Architecture historically has been a discipline that relies on the knowledge of many other disciplines, and I would like to think of architects as individuals who would like to steal a little bit of everything—of philosophy, of poetry. We don’t really dive deep into anything necessarily, but we are very good at gathering an understanding from many sources. I think that has not necessarily occurred as much recently. There has been a loss of that multidisciplinarity—of that humanistic understanding of the architect as a total figure that has the responsibility, obligation and privilege of dealing with all of these aspects within society. So, Storefront was born at the time to embody that desire, and “art” was used to refer to “everything else.”

Specifically, of course, the institution has tried to force and produce these kinds of relationships, from its iconic facade to some of our latest projects. On the other hand, I actually think that artists today are more politically engaged in the production of art than architects have ever been. There is a real sense of responsibility that artists have that sometimes architects totally forget. So I think there are a lot of things that architecture can learn from art, particularly in this moment. We are great at making fantastic images. We are great at making fantastic diagrams. We are great at synthesizing information. We are great at many things, but we need to understand the agency of what we do. I think that aspect—maybe because of the instrumentalization or atomization of the discipline—has been lost. We have lost the clarity of that vision—a vision that maybe we never had. Maybe it’s a romantic vision.

i·p: It’s interesting you mention the political agenda of art, because Leah and I were talking about this yesterday with some of the Carnegie Mellon MFA students who were questioning the necessity for art to always be political.

i·p: The necessity to always be the agitator—in many ways, they believed that art could be a personal or meditative thing—not something that has to be constantly declaring itself as political or even broadly contemporary. They suggested that perhaps it could even reach back to the past, like the cultural period of the 60s or the 70s.

I spoke about the Mies Barcelona Pavilion in my lecture. It was never presented as such, and no one wrote about it as such, but the pavilion was actually extremely political. One doesn’t need to frame or say explicitly that a work is political, but it becomes evident when something has the agency and ability to understand its own time. To be of the time—it doesn’t mean that the work must be contemporary in terms of social practices or putting the flag up. It simply means that it must articulate something, regardless of what that is—even if it is an aesthetic language. And aesthetics are not devoid of politics. We just simply don’t know how to read the arguments they present most of the time. For example, the aesthetics of the Modern movement ran in parallel to the project of democracy and freedom, but at the time were never articulated as such. We are never that conscious of the great things we do, and we don’t need to be. However, my work as curator—an architect that builds edifices of thought—is to produce projects that resonate incisively within spaces of contemporary social and political thought, and to situate the work of others into these larger trajectories, in order to deploy their full agency and power.

i·p: In a similar vein, since starting as the director of Storefront, you have really reinvigorated and embraced its role as an advocate for experimentation and alternative forms of architecture practice. However, how can we as architects—from within the profession—advocate for the importance of this critical, speculative, and utopian thinking in an age of austerity and increasing homogeneity as a result of market forces?

You need to find inspired individuals, clients and politicians. It’s not a fight that we fight alone, and that’s the beautiful part. There is space here for mutual understanding, and so we need to find like-minded people—people who are willing to take that risk. That is a process of communication and education in a very general sense. In order to change the paradigm of how we understand the idea of progress, or success, or the idea of good versus bad, it’s essential to take that risk.

So where do we start? Why don’t we start by making propositions that make people laugh, that make people wonder, and that get people surprised? I always like to think that anything that surprises you ultimately makes you think. That’s a good place to start—with kids, with friends and with everyone. It’s essential to understand the tools through which society expresses itself. Laughter and surprise are essential to start to break things down without violence and aggression.

i·p: With regards to education and architectural pedagogy, much of the language used in the academic setting is often opaque and cloistered by jargon. How do you think these methods you just mentioned can also be brought back to the academy to begin to change how architecture is taught and talked about?

i·p: And also, how can we open up the discourse to the larger public, so we can get them engaged and interested enough to walk into the gallery so-to-speak?

These are all somewhat the same, and yet very different questions. The architectural discourse in this country has been monopolized by a certain set of figures that in an egotistical power trip have developed a jargon and a set of terms that have absolutely nothing to do with architecture’s abilities and responsibilities. Architecture has the privilege, obligation and the need to respond to all sorts of different things, but many of the discourses we have inherited have the tendency to intentionally exclude. It’s like when religious sects speak a particular tongue and use it to reinforce the idea that if someone doesn’t understand the tongue, then they cannot participate. I think a lot of the so-called theorists, or the leading voices within American discourse simply act just like that—like schoolyard bullies. I think we are over that. We all can speak the tongue, and while entertaining, it isn’t relevant anymore to architecture or to the world. Time is on our side, and soon, those in the positions of power that have been forcing everyone to use the useless tongue will move on. What we need is a new generation of thinkers, writers and critics, and I’m making quite of an effort to try to get people who are interested in writing to really start a new form of criticism. I think that is really important, and that now brings it back to the pedagogical process.

The education of an architect is still a very difficult and piecemeal process. When you learn how to write as a kid, there are so many different methods by which you come to understand the totality of things. I think as long as there are multiple understandings of what it means to build and a multiplicity of ideologies operating at the same time, then that’s positive. The problem occurs when there is a single encompassing vision of what things should be. That’s not education, and yet architectural education in so many places is like that. Thankfully, I’m starting to see a lot of changes within different pedagogical programs now. Do I always see all the changes I would like to see? No, but that’s for us to take on.

i·p: Along those lines, Storefront was founded as a space and strain within architecture that seeks to find a broader political and cultural relevance. This is a vision that is widely under-emphasized within the academic and pre-professional setting of many programs. What are some tangible ways you encourage these creative platforms, and how can they seep back into architectural pedagogy and education?

I think that’s never easy. You clearly need to have visionary leadership that allows for a diverse faculty who already carry that relevance within their own practices. There are not many people that practice within that space. That’s why looking to other disciplines sometimes really helps. It’s true that within architectural practice you will still find people who enjoy their gibberish and their space of awkwardness and otherness, in their corner of illegibility. That’s great, and they celebrate themselves. They expect you to revere them and to buy their monographs. It’s very hard, because there are very few people who will be generous enough to put all that ego away in order to focus on how we can contribute to the most important questions of our time. We do need to find a space of excellence that allows us to contribute, but I don’t necessarily have an answer to what that looks like. It’s in your and my hands, and it’s a new generation.

i·p: That has very much been my experience in school. In order to explore my own interests, I’ve had to leave the department to develop my own art and architecture installations, in part because so many of these conversations happen within our faculty amongst the select few, versus Storefront where it is confidently put forward. You are engaging with people from Occupy Wall Street, and there is no need not to disclose that.

This is part of the idea of being a rebel and being a student. It means not just waiting to get what you need from your educational structures, top-down. I miss teaching so much because while teaching, I simultaneously learned so much from my students. It is your responsibility as a student to begin to articulate and advocate how your interests enter the architectural project or the architectural discourse, and to help the people who are in the structures of power. Educators are inherently generous; they are dedicating their life and their knowledge to bring the best out of you, but it is your challenge and your responsibility to make that happen.

"I sometimes think students (in the United States) have a very complacent attitude because of the structure of the system and the amount of money that you pay to study. It leads students to maybe say, “I want to have this because I deserve this.” That is not the case."

In Barcelona, I remember during my second year, we blocked the main entrance of the city because they were increasing the tuition from $600 a year to like, $651 a year, and we said, “No way!” We, the students, took over the street. That’s, what, one day of tuition at this university, right? I think sometimes here, with the system of education in this country as it is, we don’t think about what activism means.

i·p: You touched upon this a bit, but how has having an outsider perspective, being Spanish working in an American context, influenced how you approach your work at Storefront, and also with OfficeUS, being a non-American representing the US Pavilion?

Let’s just start by saying I’m Catalan, not Spanish, so this already tells you that I’m always an outsider. I’m always from elsewhere, always from somewhere on the edge so-to-speak. I think that’s an attitude that allows me to be at home everywhere, because I can always find the periphery. I think Storefront somehow acts as that edge.

There is one thing that I’ve found from the US that you cannot find in Catalonia or in Europe and that is meritocracy. Here, if you have an idea, you know how to pull it off and you want to do it, people will let you go for it, and that’s not something you will find all that often on the European continent. So there was opportunity for me with that. People don’t really know it, but you cannot represent the United States at the Biennale if you are not American. Fortunately Ashley [Schafer] and Ana [Miljački] who joined me in the project are both American, but that tells you how strange politics are.

What was fascinating to me about working on the US Pavilion was that you can only exhibit works made by American architects. Now, fortunately, the US is and has been representative of a lot of very real global forces—it was the first country within the modern era to really understand the foundations of where we are today. It thus became a very easy way to establish a transversal lens of inquiry to interrogate contemporary global practice. In that sense, I didn’t intend to represent the US and I didn’t want to go to Venice. I simply wanted to do a project—it just happened that Venice was the perfect way to make the project happen. You can imagine, going to all these architectural firms as the director of Storefront, they would be like, “Oh yeah, you are that crazy, radical thing from SoHo, and I don’t understand anything that you do.” Yet if I say, “We are going to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. We are doing a history of the 20th century architecture exports, would you like to be involved?” People’s eyes light up and they’re then like, “Bingo! We’ve won the jackpot!” They then say yes—you use the Biennale not as a destination, but as a Trojan horse that allows you to get closer to those that never understood who you were and how they could be related.

With that in, we were then able to get much closer to a lot of the practices that were dismissed at the time by the self-proclaimed avant-garde. We wanted to change the way history had been written, and so we decided to look into absolutely everything and everyone. We tried to understand the levels of intelligence and expertise that everyone brought to the table and the best mechanisms for changing the protocols by which we produce architecture and understand cultural exchange. In order to do that, we needed all of these people, and for us it was very clear that the Biennale was the best way to do that. I actually don’t like Biennales and never went to one before being director of Storefront, but it was the perfect opportunity.

i·p: In some ways related to that, the image of the architect today is still very much male, with a long legacy of men representing female voices. How have you, as a woman working in the profession, worked to bring forward your perspectives? How can we encourage diversity more generally?

i·p: And within that question, there’s the example of Natalie de Blois of SOM, profiled in OfficeUS Agenda, as someone who really enabled the suppression of women in the development of Corporate Modernism. She was an important woman architect in the 50s, 60s and 70s, but was complicit by never asking for the proper representation and acknowledgement from her male superiors. With that as an example, how can we work to bring forward our ideas to make them more visible?

I’m actually having a conversation tomorrow with Mimi Zeiger, who is doing an issue in Architectural Review about gender and women in architecture. I’m always more interested in doing things instead of just talking about them, so I’m trying to be radical in the ways in which I try to bring women to the forefront.

"I wonder sometimes if this system of protagonism that we work so hard to equate ourselves to is really so great after all. It’s filled with anxiety. It’s filled with very problematic ideas of ego and self."

That for me is why it’s not just about equating woman to the system that men have produced. I don’t think it’s such a great system—it doesn’t produce great societies; it just produces great egos. So how do we produce a space where collective effort and understanding are the real currency? For that, I think we need to change the way in which we understand the participation of people in the decision-making process. As we saw, Natalie de Blois designed and did more or less what she wanted, but she was not within a place of visibility, and in a certain sense from a historical perspective, was professionally abused. The point is that if you enter the game of equating yourself to men, then suddenly you enter a world that abuses and instrumentalizes you, and then you have a very weak relationship versus power.

There is however another way of thinking about doing things. I try to bypass the patriarchal way, because why embrace a system that’s not so interesting or good? Let’s just move forward. Let’s move into what can be brought about by celebrating diversity, minorities, and forces that have been historically oppressed or not heard. The existing taxonomies do not allow us to understand who we truly are. If we imprison ourselves within the categories that we have inherited, then at the end of day, we are still prisoners. We need to create new taxonomies, new ways of thinking, and new dualities that are not simply Republican and Democrat, not just man and woman, and not tall and short. We need to be able to move towards higher values and aspirations—not oppositions. At the same time, I operate simultaneously with all of them, and explicitly not just one. You will never see a show at the Storefront called “Women in Architecture,” yet we are trying to be as critical as possible within as many different areas. I remember once I was invited to give a lecture for a series at a university, and it was called “Women in Architecture.” I said, “No, I’m not coming. I will only come if you call it ‘Now in Architecture’ and just invite women.” If you do a series on women in architecture, only people interested in the subject will come, but if you call it “Now in Architecture,” then everyone would come. So don’t limit yourself by framing things one way.

i·p: Just one last question to conclude—you often describe yourself as an architect first, and curator second. How do you navigate the boundaries between curation and architecture, and how has your training as an architect given you a different perspective on curating and the curatorial world?

In 2013, I rewrote my biography on Storefront’s website, and I wrote, “In 2013, Eva Franch decided to stop calling herself an architect, a curator, an educator.” Those labels are just labels. And of course I would love to say, “Eva is Eva, just get to know her.” The space of expertise and the ways in which I have learned to contribute to society are through being an architect; that’s my entry. That is the same as to say, “Eva is Catalan,” or to say, “Eva curses in Catalan but dreams in English.” There are so many ways in which I can start to describe myself. We all engage with these protocols, and I hate them deeply. If I could, I would say other things about who I am. That’s why I always say, “Eva is a world citizen.” I think curator is a term that has been overused—everyone's a curator, this food has been curated, and this table has been curated. They make sense of the forces that surround us, and then make those forces visible through buildings. I am an architect who makes edifices of thought. I can create not only buildings made out of bricks, but also buildings that are made out of ideas and can be inhabited in different forms. So, I do think of myself as an architect. Also, when I cook, I think like an architect. Architecture is probably the only discipline that is able to synthesize all of these disparate things.

But I don’t care so much about the nomenclature. I do care that I have a diploma and that I pay monthly taxes to the Royal College of Architects in Catalonia and the insurance on the buildings I build, so that if they collapse, I’m not going to prison. There are certain legal responsibilities there that I am accountable for, but as a curator, I’m not accountable for anything. There is no responsibility. There are almost no risks, except for my own reputation, and in the end, that doesn’t really matter. There is an importance in knowing how you can contribute to society in a certain meaningful way, and so you must take yourself very seriously, but never forgetting the necessity of employing a high degree of lightness at the same time. I do that all the time, because that is the only way I am able to operate. I do take myself very seriously—especially when laughing—and I think it is architecture that brings that kind of seriousness to the table.