This year at the second annual Vectorworks Design Summit, which took place in Chicago, Eva Franch i Gilabert gave the design keynote address to 600 attendees from around the world. The Chief Curator and Executive Director of Storefront for Art and Architecture (SAA) since 2010, Franch’s talk was both lightning paced, densely packed, and relevant.
While the keynote touched on broad themes, projects, and exhibits at Storefront for Art and Architecture, a good half of her talk was devoted to OfficeUS, an initiative and longer-termed effort to re-imagine a more globally collaborative architectural practice model. The subject, which will eventually be a completed four volume publication, was initiated when Franch and her colleagues and partners won the honor to organize the US Pavilion at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale (video here and here). As part of this massive study, which looks at US-based architectural production practiced abroad from 1914 to 2014, OfficeUS conceives of a global history of the architectural office while “mapping aspirations for its future.”
Confronting Change in Architectural Practice
At a design and technology user conference like the Design Summit, participant architects were likely to register the thematic challenges outlined by Franch’s work on OfficeUS. “In looking not just into the big masters but also into the smaller offices,” says Franch, “throughout these 1000 projects we tried to relate issues of profit and issues of production; how the architecture profession has been losing its ability to actually gain capital recognition within society.”
At a time such as the present, when momentous change is confronting the built world, not just in the scale of population shifts to cities and the nature of human labor activities, but in the technologies that make both these shifts possible and their acceleration more likely, architects—as usual—often face a tough moment of inertia. Yet, the crowd at the Design Summit is precisely the type of audience that isn’t sitting idol waiting for the future to act on them but instead be an “agent” in its evolution. Still, Franch challenged the keynote audience to get out of their comfort zone, a message similar to the “take risk” theme at this year’s AIA National Convention in Philly.
After her talk, I had a chance to sit down to learn more about Eva Franch i Gilabert and what was behind her story of being an architectural culture provocateur.
So tell me a little bit about yourself…you were born in Spain, right?
Eva Franch i Gilabert : Catalonia
Okay, so everyone was talking about your presentation today; you threw so much at us, so much information—fast speaker, fast thinker—and I’m thinking watching you: wow, when you were little you must have asked a lot of questions of your parents…and they were like—enough Eva, enough!
Eva (laughs…) I was in fact a very quiet child.
Have you always been this curious?
Umm…Yes. The answer of course is yes. I don’t believe one changes much in that regard. But I probably didn’t find the right outlets to ask as many questions and to have that kind of passion that maybe you were seeing today. I have done many things in my life.
How did you arrive to architecture?
We are all immersed in it without knowing, but as a kid I was very much involved with sports, and architecture was something that arrived, as a discipline, almost by chance.
So I became an architect because I broke my knee and I immediately fell in love with the vastness of architecture. An architect in Europe is trained not only as a maker of buildings but as someone who thinks from the design problem of a cup to a room to a house to a building to the city to a territory and so on. So that vast understanding of scale and impact is extremely important for my understanding of everything I do.
And then if you pair that with the fact that architecture is also a way of thinking and understanding the edifices that constitute the structures of power and the relationships among people, and that there are architectures that produce those inter-relationships, then you suddenly have a lot to deal with.
So when you went to architecture school—or maybe it was even before that—did you discover someone or meet someone who influenced you and shaped the role, that today, you have found yourself in? Who did you look up to when you were in school?
I have a very bad relationship with heroes. I don’t believe in heroes. And yet, at the same time, I constantly find a hero within everyone I find sitting in front of me. And this is something that, while teaching, one learns very fast. When you are in front of a student, most of the time they look at you as a professor, and yet you look at them as the most incredibly brilliant person you have met on Earth.
So, as a student, I was as irreverent and curious as I am right now. And I would not take any piece of knowledge as authority or fact, but put it into a space where I would need to confront it myself—and the same with history. Yes, there were incredible people who inspired me, some of those were professors, some were just colleagues or even just the guy who was opening and closing the door every single night.
I always say that learning is an act of perception more than just absorption. So I never had heroes…and I think it is important not to have heroes.
Speaking of heroes. In your talk there was an image of Frank Lloyd Wright sitting at a big drafting table with perhaps three students behind him looking over his shoulder. I’m thinking about your talk and the “transmission of knowledge” in practice; in that tradition of the hero architect, or “starchitect”, you are always waiting to find out what the master is going to say.
Do you feel that that system of transmission of knowledge is valid anymore…in today’s architectural practice?
Well, if you look for instance in technology. If you go into any of the big technology companies, the 23-year-old kid is hanging out with the 60-year-old woman who has incredible knowledge, but she is going to be listening to the 23-year-old kid because he has the disruptive thought and the novel idea that might produce big change. So there is a much more agile and equal relationship between individuals.
Architecture, historically, has been perpetuating this idea that architectural maturity arrives late; that the architectural project is one that takes many years; architects always feel this anxiety. And it is true that there is a lot to learn—no doubt about it. But that space for the transmission of knowledge is a lot different than it was in the 1900’s.
So the idea underlying OfficeUS is about those spaces of knowledge and expertise…that the architectural office—let’s say corporate architectural office, which was an American invention—tried to produce as a system. The fact is that one didn’t need the “genius.” One could just have bureaucracy and a way in which knowledge was distributed among an entire body of excellence within which, in a big office, everyone could be doing amazing things.
A third integration is when genius and bureaucracy become one thing—in which this idea of genius and innovation is able to occur in every individual. The idea of the atomization of expertise that has occurred over the past few decades was an invention of the market to produce, for example, the project manager, who is able to articulate: “these are the targets, these are the systems, this is the core, this is the exterior”…and that kind of atomization of the understanding of architecture is, I think, one of the biggest problems we have today.
The industry and business models keep on supporting these methods because they are driven by money, not by ideas. And I think that is one thing that really needs to change. So responding back to your question: yes, I think we need to change the ways we have understood the structures of architectural production. That’s why all those diagrams in the OfficeUS Manual are being shown, because we see things being done in other fields and they are working in a very different manner. And this is not to say there is not a chain of expertise. And of decision making. And a temporal understanding of how things need to happen in order for something to become a building. The current form of design is very close to social participatory processes and I would say the idea of “participatory design” is the worst idea that we can have. If we are going to agree on how I am going to dress [today] then I am definitely not going to look great, right?
So it is not about that. It is about really empowering individuals and allowing everyone to find their space of expertise. And of enjoyment…and of excellence. And that is probably the most difficult thing—the idea of valuation.
We have people who are just working in a very small part of the system without having an understanding of how they are contributing to the whole. I think it is a huge problem within architectural practice. It saddens me to see incredible students, who I have given my life and soul to, who I have seen have visions for the future of architecture unlike anything we are doing today, go to work for a practice—in order to get licensed, or pay back their loans—in which they are doing details for toilet rooms for an entire year, that sometimes becomes an entire life.
So this OfficeUS vision, or online platform, that you have been creating…how do you see the architectural profession reacting or participating in that? Obviously you are asking firms, or maybe individuals, to contribute. Where do think that will go?
It’s not only an online platform it has also a physical component, a hub, a place of encounter 24/7/365. If you say: “Eva, I will give you $10 million dollars to start OfficeUS” I would deliver a global platform for excellence in research, development, and design, where each member is able to articulate visions, expertise, skills, and abilities, and where the platform serves as a place for convergence in which those ideas could be discussed, developed, and presented to a wide audience. While there are already online platforms that allow for some of that, we do not have one platform for the production of architecture on a global scale that is able to be moved by “idea models” instead of business models. Taking the best from offices, universities, city governments, and other disciplines, OfficeUS would become the global reference platform for excellence in design and decision-making, and from developers to designers, everyone would want to be part of it.
Once we have that directory of desires and skills, we would produce a series of research units to investigate and develop some of the areas we think are important—then, an entirely new world is possible. For example, I was talking briefly about this idea of “labor” right?
So, if we—and I like to use “we” as a royal historical we—managed to have the USGBC Green Building Council produce the LEED accreditation system…that you are familiar with I am sure—and you know how they managed to make that a global movement—do you know the story? They lobbied right? They managed to have the US Embassy Program adopt LEED. So, of course by proxy, and due to the effect that the US has on many countries around the world, local and regional communities were saying: “we also want to be LEED accredited.” So, you would find very early on people like the Sheikh of Qatar giving no other constraints for the design of his private home other than that it to be LEED Platinum. The guy doesn’t even have a local code that is asking him to be sustainable, but he wants to…it’s an honor system, a desire system. He wanted a plaque on the door of his home.
So, if we think about how we would create an equal system that allows us to examine questions of labor—many of the conversations around the Gulf revolve around that but we can think about it here too. If we were to think about this building just outside of the window where we are sitting, and how many people we need to build and maintain it—where they come from, how far they travel—we would have a way to calculate not just how much a sustainable a building is in terms of “energy” but also in “human” terms. If we are able to think about the values we want to put forth and the constituencies involved in deciding those values for each local region, we can create tools that allow us to empower designers to make better buildings and better cities.
We could create the tools for measurement and for design. It is, in fact, very easy. So OfficeUS would be a platform that would research and implement, with the industry’s support, these kinds of tools. If you were to produce that within the private sector, you can of course make it an incredible revenue generation process, but OfficeUS, as a non-profit endeavor, instead produces open source and free tools, and is an ethics-driven innovation. And then you have architects around the globe who would implement those principles.
So how does this get organized, internally and how does this relate to global exchange?
So I could constitute a team, right? Around a particular project, around particular structures of funding and venture capital, and we would produce projects that would transform the city radically and drastically. This would counter what we have today, which is “developer driven” where the architect is always at the end of the equation. In this scenario, the architects would drive the propositions for cities, ideas, territories, and so on.
So, how I see this platform operating is having three different lines of input. One is expertise. The other one is ideas and visions. And the third one is investment and income. And so, how do we make these three things come together? And how do we produce more fluid structures that are not about one brand or one company but rather ideas that are driving all the other issues?
I really think this is the future where the profession should go. I don’t know if this is going happen in one or two or ten or a hundred years, but that is how the future of working and interacting will happen. We are all one family; we are all global citizens. And we know that our expertise can be applied elsewhere. And I think that is the beauty and importance of exchange.
Links and Recommended
The official website for OfficeUS is here. You can learn more about Eva Franch i Gilabert and Storefront for Art and Architecture at SAA’s website. The OfficeUS book volumes are available at the SAA’s online book store here.