“I have the temperament of a tireless explorer.” In a conversation with Eva Franch i Gilabert – a Catalan architect, curator and academic lecturer we explore the element of surprise and experimentation as effective tools for change within architectural practice.

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How has the definition of curator changed since you became one? Is it a fixed role or is it evolving. What is the difference between being an architect and a curator?

First of all I have never considered myself to be a curator. One has to use words that society understands in order to communicate what one does, and there is still a very narrow definition of architect. As a result, unfortunately, additional labels are still a way in which people understand different forms of practice in the creative field. I remember when Carson Chan, now the Director of the Emilio Ambass Institute at MoMA, created the symposium “Curating the Curatorial” at Yale SoA.

I insisted then and I still do now, that there is no need to study curatorial studies to be a curator. A curator is simply someone who puts in motion ideas and concepts; curating for me is developing projects that take multiple forms; sometimes they take the form of an exhibition, a book, an installation, a film or a building; there is no difference to me.

As an architect you build edifices that have material, spatial, cultural, social or even emotional-intangible consequences. So I’m not fond of the term ‘curator’ itself but it is useful because it allows people to put you in a box and understand that besides designing you are also a person who creates exhibitions, leads symposiums and manages projects outside of the classical process of raising a building.

I think it speaks more about how the field of creative profession is designed in itself. Labels are as useful as limiting so as the free spirits we end up playing this game of enclosing yourselves to be more productive and then trying to break free from the boxes we created. That brings me to my next question about desirable and effective channels of communication. It is said we need access to knowledge, to ideas, to values. And yet the defragmentation of communication is a real issue. 

For example, right now I am in the midst of Model – the international architectures festival in Barcelona. An important question is to identify what are internal, relevant disciplinary debates but the other is also to identify in what capacity does society participate in the ongoing theoretical debates of architecture and should it? And if so, how? And by society I also mean experts that are connected to architecture but are not designers themselves.

For me personally, one of the biggest challenges right now is to be mindful about communicating effectively outside of our field of expertise, institutions, classrooms, cultures, genders, generations. I am interested in bridging, filling the gaps and be mindful also about the gaps that we are not aware of.

And of course, these are the issues that go beyond technology, which by now we know: that technology is not the answer. The platforms that we have are not transgenerational. The algorithms and the financial models that stand behind the platforms are limiting the capacity of communication too. 

It seems that because of the pandemic technology did finally brought people closer and now, a little bit starved, certain professions are ready to re-enter discussions in real life.

The virtual venues, no matter how sophisticated, always favour those who are already willing to speak up. That is sometimes difficult to accept but we must reminds ourselves: digital spaces are hypermediated and there is something about meaningful human bonds that only emerges in physical space. The analog space is where unmediated forms of communication take place, and where often meaningful architectural, urban and design change emerges. 

Do you get discouraged when you see the limits of your own efforts as an architect, educator, activist, curator? 

No, I do not! 

That’s amazing, what is your secret? 

I always say the glass is not half empty nor half full, there is just simply water to play with. Discouragement equals surrender and I consider myself an endless explorer. It is also important to be flexible and measure failure or success in different time frames.

For example it happened to me more than once while I was a professor that we were discussing a given topic in a classroom and I felt the confusion or misunderstanding with one of my students and ten years later I would receive an email saying: “well, thank you, now I get it. I apologize for the hard time I gave you back in the day”. Same things happen with buildings, books, exhibitions: one can not always predict how they will bloom over time within the lives of the people who encounter them.

Today everyone is speaking about sustainability and energy efficiency. What is the next ‘big thing’ in your view?

We are in a crisis of mental health and emotional wellbeing. Being mindful about the levels of anxiety, mental disorders, loneliness or chronic stress is getting more and more recognized as a shared condition among late capitalism cultures -from the US to Japan- in the XXIst century. On the top of all that we also start to realize how these feelings are linked to the environmental crisis. Therefore the next big thing should be about understanding and applying empathy towards each other, the planet, future generations, other species…

That is also one of the reasons this year’s theme of Model Barcelona Architectures Festival is “radical empathy”. Can architecture be the place from which we start to think about the others? Re-examining constantly who is benefiting from it. How the collateral benefits are distributed and in what form. The ultimate client of architecture is our planet and considering it from the emotional point of view actually puts a broader umbrella on the range of topics that are considered today to be “the big things” that you have mentioned.

I also have perhaps an unpopular opinion that modernism had a good approach about posing large questions – the best for the most for the least by the eams isa one of them-, and there were some visionary aspirations about well-being which later on became overcast by the goals of capitalism unfortunately. One of the outcomes we are dealing with now is the hyper-capitalization of the city, and its financialization. The perception of the people on the streets changed: people are consuming the city instead of living in it. For all its bad hings, what the pandemic made is think and reflect about was about our relationship with our cities, and many cities around the world have started a major transform`tion towards better conditions for living; the walking city or the 15 minute city of Paris, the playable city or the green superblocks of Barcelona…

One of the “fashions” in the field is now to design in multidisciplinary project groups. Does it mean we are introduced to the Bauhaus 2.0 kind of thinking? 

The city, architecture is a collaborative endeavour, a multidisciplinary one, yet it is challenging for architecture to connect with other disciplines or groups of experts working on the same ideas. How many teams are out there working now on the theme of public breastfeeding? Probably a few hundred but they do not know about each other. How many people across the planet are working on the same research agendas? While conferences used to fulfil some of this function they are often too academic and do not reach ost of the population; what other spaces do we have to connect across generations, continents and disciplines? That is why creating temporary spaces like festivals are good as focus points. 

Having said that I feel like transdisciplinarity was never really dead. The invention of disciplines as such is quite a recent phenomenon in the course of history. While we had artisans, we also had humanists. The well known idea of the renaissance figure who knew a bit of everything.  Of course, it is a fact that for the last 30 or 40 years a notion of expertise came to the forefront of architectural thinking, but I have been always interested in architects – or thinkers- or practicioners of spatial and social practices that would understand architecture as an interrelated space with many other disciplines. From Doxiadis, to Fuller (who would not be an architect according to many contemporary professional bodies) architecture, urbanism, ecology, all has been in a constant continuum. I am very much interested in thinking of the planet as the ultimate site of every project we do, to first understand of the environmental consequences of what we do, but also of the network in which we insert ourselves.

Where are the architects of the future, born and educated? 

When my students ask me where they should go to get their PhDs or get a better job, I always say it does not matter where you get your degree from but what you do with it. And while what you do with it depends on you and is determined by the amount of work and knowledge you acquire, there is unfortunately a significant factor that we rarely talk about and that is privilege. What background does one come from, race, class, gender, etc… is rarely discussed within the profession of architecture but it has a significant impact on how that precondition affects how you can apply your knowledge: from how you will get commissions -from your wealthy accolades, how long can you push your agenda before you start becoming profitable – using resources from your family in the meantime- or playing with the network of privilege your gender or race or class has produced over centuries or millennia.

I can also answer your question on a very different direction: how much is being built and how many things will be built in the next let’s say 10 years?. We do know that some of the major constructions on the planet are going to be taking place in cities in Africa, India or China – and all of these have little to do with the idea of architects being educated in this or that school. So the powerplayers that are building the planet are being educated into a very specific mindset and way of thinking that has to do with costs but more importantly revenue. If we want to be optimistic, they will also be interested in sustainability, ideas of locality, and empowerement, but that might be asking too much of a global infrastructure of development that does not need of architects educated in any specific school of thought to continue to built -some would argue destroy- this planet.

Therefore this poses a question about the sense of the whole ecosystem of architectural recognition that promotes one design over the other, one building at a time. I think we need to start thinking about systemic issues, large corporations, and transnational office if we want to answer who are the architects of the future. Therefore, the anonymous architect, its impact on the future of millions of lives, is the most powerful of them all.  

Now, if you ask me where the architects that will become the change makers are being educated? At UMPRUM, at A2, the studio I direct, we are working on the design of the future office, the future of architecture work and practice… let’s hope I can fully answer in a few years from now.

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Words: Ania Diduch