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Global names rally to support under-fire AA director Franch

3102499 eva franch i gilabert aa
  • 8 Comments

More than 150 leading figures have signed a letter supporting under-fire Architectural Association (AA) director Eva Franch i Gilabert, who narrowly lost a vote of confidence last week 

In a copy of the letter seen by the AJ, the signatories, who include the founders of New York-based Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Jeremy Till, the head of Central Saint Martins, urge the school ‘not to proceed in removing Eva Franch from her position’ and that she should be given more time.

Following a recent ballot of students and staff, more than 80 per cent of the nearly 900 people in the ‘school community’, said they did not support her 2020-25 strategic plan for the Bedford Square-based institution.

She also narrowly lost a vote of confidence by 52 per cent to 48 per cent in her role as director of the AA – a position she has only held since 2018.  

The letter, written ‘in solidarity with Director Eva Franch i Gilabert’, was sent to Victoria Thornton, the president of the AA’s council, which is now discussing how to address the ‘outcomes of the school community meeting’.

It reads: ’Every new administration, particularly those very few who have only recently come to be led by women or people of colour, deserves patience and support as the inevitable realignments unfold.

’This need is made all the more urgent during a pandemic and a time of reckoning with social inequity. Any decision based on a vote where there is almost no difference between those for, against or absent cannot be the basis of a decision without devaluing the school, and therefore the field.’

The signatories expressed their ‘profound unease’ at the vote of no confidence in Franch, whom they describe as one of the ’most inspired leaders and radical thinkers of a younger generation of architects’.

The letter (see attached at bottom) also points out that Franch received 67 per cent of the vote when the Catalan architect – who had previously been chief curator and executive director of Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York – was appointed to the role, the biggest majority for a new director since 1990.

It goes on: ‘We believe that Franch’s potential departure from the AA so shortly after her widely publicised appointment following a long and thorough search would not only disallow Franch to pursue and carry her ideas for educational reform to fruition, but also jeopardize an institution of seminal cultural and pedagogical importance to become the subject of media frivolity.’

The letter also calls on the school to consider the issues of potential gender bias: ‘strong women that take direct and immediate action to address crises are often criticised extensively, while men enforcing similar actions are seen as effective and decisive leaders’.

Franch arrived shortly after the school had controversially made a series of redundancies and stopped publishing its, since-revived, AA Files to save money. The job cuts took place despite an international protest before Christmas that saw figures including Rem Koolhaas, Richard Rogers, Phyllis Lambert, Toyo Ito and Kengo Kuma calling for a U-turn and warning that the exercise could prove fatal to the institution.

The results of the confidential and electronic ballot of the school community were confirmed on Monday (29 June). The poll also revealed that 90 per cent of students and staff agreed there were ’structural and systemic issues’ at the AA ’regardless of the individual or individuals responsible for its direction’.

Last year the AJ received a separate anonymous letter, allegedly signed by 161 members of the school community, voicing ’concerns regarding the current pedagogical leadership of the school’.

It read: ‘The student community also fears the school will favour theory over design, to the detriment of both, as well as some types of architectural thinking over others, which would painfully hurt the high level of diversity in architectural approaches the AA is known to offer and celebrate.’

A statement issued by the school in response to last week’s votes reads: ’The AA has a long tradition of self-determination through its school community and is proud to have as part of its constitution a mechanism to facilitate discussion and debate and to vote on significant matters regarding the AA’s future and direction.

’Council recognises the heart of the AA lies in its democratic principles and welcomes the advice of the school community expressed through its meeting and voting mechanisms to inform the governance and leadership of the association.

’The outcomes of the school community meeting have now been passed to council for discussion.’

The AA has been contacted for a response to the latest letter.

  • 8 Comments

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Readers' comments (8)

  • Ben Derbyshire

    I'm puzzled by the apparent disinterest in this issue - suggested by the absence of comment from AJ readers, at any rate. I do think that reform of architectural education is essential and urgent. Whilst I have no idea what else has been going on at the AA, I do think that Eva Franch's statement on ethics is unimpeachably correct:

    ’All of the academic programmes throughout the school have accepted the challenge of addressing issues of climate and ethics. As architects, we always speak on behalf of the other. But we also need to constantly ask ourselves: “Who has the right to speak, and on behalf of whom? How am I affecting the environment with my actions? How can I care more about others?” I invite every member of our community to practice radical empathy; to consider the planet and the future; to listen; to ask; to share; to discuss; to debate and, ultimately, to care.’

    Yet another leadership hiatus in the profession, to follow both RIBA and ARB, is not what we need if we are ever to see young professionals given the opportunity they deserve.

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  • Agreed.
    The director has done a good job in incredibly difficult circumstances. I hope council offers its support, rather than relying on the outcome of one of Bedford Square's internal spasms in respect of strategic planning.
    Brett Steele saw off a similar situation, but had the benefit of a live school community debate, where arguments could be subjected to public analysis, with half-truths and error exposed.
    The school community might try behaving like one, in this year of all years, and show a little generosity of spirit.
    Finally, I am not sure what the phrase 'media frivolity' means in the letter from important people -- perhaps it is how they regard honest reporting they find embarrassing.

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  • Complete disagree, has AJ tried to contact the students or the studio masters of the AA on why such a divided situation and such large opposition against her?

    During those two years she made lots of bad decisions, which she would not allow anyone to oppose her. Many students and teachers are actually afraid of saying anything that would not please her.

    Does the AA need a tyrant in this difficult situation?

    She had not helped with the financial situation of the AA, but instead played political games to divide the community, something that Brett Steele did not even achieve.

    Bringing big names like Kengo Kuma into the support of the AA? Please. Do these big names care about the AA or its community?

    The AJ did not even mention about the strategy she proposed, which over 80% of the AA community voted not agreeing and not trusting it.

    The AA never had someone with such poor leadership, having endorsements from big names will not help even slightly with the rising opposition in the school community, only shows she’s desperate for power.

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  • seems she is very well connected and famous and probably a good designer, but apprantly a terrible manager. Why do we assume that people who can draw or talk are inevitably able to manage large groups of people? I feel like this is a huge problem in our industry at large.
    Would you appoint a popstar as head of a record label?

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  • I imagine the disinterest Ben Darbyshire speaks of is due to 98% of the Architects in the UK having not studied there. Perhaps this is to do with the eye-watering £22,000 annual fee for BA and £36,500 annual fee for M.Arch, and as the school stands outside the RIBA accreditation program these fees cannot be supplemented by student finance. It's not a surprise that the majority of those that stand behind Franch are not from the UK, as the AA as a school for most aspiring architects is prohibitively expensive, hence the lukewarm response.

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  • The achievements and successes of the AA is built on a high % of damage to its less talented students. Its a pyramid with the a very few students getting a good education while the rest end up with a worthless portfolio and their fees supporting uninteresting and non sensical units, projects and publications. If the students who pay aren't happy they have every right to make their point. It is typical of the AA elite to tell their students they don't understand.
    Unfortunately they are the ones who are paying and being left with an unsatisfactory education a huge debt and a degree from the open university.

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  • Yes, she may be influential; yes, she may have famous friends; and yes, she may have won the the publicity race.

    But what about the decision of the school? By using her influences to secure a position overruled by the majority of the school clearly shows that she does not care about the Architectural Association. Instead of fixing the relationship with the school, she chose to lash out a counterstrike. That is a direct disrespect to the council, and to the school community.

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  • Knowing nothing of the machinations of the AA, but studying this news item and comments, I wonder at the power of the imagery in the headline portrait - that knitting needle could so easily be interpreted (or misinterpreted) as sending a powerful message.

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