Eva Franch Sees Architecture Through a Catalan Lens
Published in fredbernstein.com
September 2017

by Fred A. Bernstein

Within hours of being chosen as a curator of the United States Pavilion at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale -- the architecture world’s most prestigious international event -- Eva Franch i Gilabert was planning the opening night party, a dinner next June for “the 100 most important people in corporate architecture, and the 100 most radical, agitative individuals” in the architecture world -- seated alternately. The event, meant to encourage cross-generational cooperation, will be a reflection of the pavilion itself, in which young architects (chosen for five-month “fellowships”) will revisit buildings designed by established U.S. firms for overseas clients during the last 100 years. The idea is to view architecture -- a 20th century American export, as important, Ms. Franch says, as Coke and Mickey Mouse -- through the lens of contemporary architectural ideas, morphing the old projects into new ones in full view of Biennale visitors.

It is an ambitious and expensive high-wire act, for which Ms. Franch, 34, and her co-curators (Ana Miljački, an architecture professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Ashley Schafer, editor of the Boston-based architecture journal Praxis) have to “aggressively fundraise,” she says. But at the same time, Ms. Franch is busy mounting exhibitions at the Storefront for Art and Architecture, her home base on Kenmare Street on the Lower East Side, where she has been director and chief curator since 2010.

They include Being Storefront, a retrospective of the institution’s 30-year history (opening on October 11), with a decidedly un-braggy approach. At the center of the space, Ms. Franch says, will be “a circular waterbed where visitors will be invited to dream surrounded by all the failed applications, rejection letters and other unfulfilled institutional” ambitions. And she is has just begun the search for cities to participate in next September’s WorldWide Storefront, a kind of global festival that Franch will coordinate from a broadcast studio to be built in Storefront’s basement -- not to be confused with the Storefront International Series, a nomadic discussion of architecture’s possibilities that has recently set down in the Dominican Republic and Portugal and will soon head to Taiwan, Burma and Brazil, with each event featuring Ms. Franch not only moderating but serving paella, which the Catalan native cooks for up to 50 people at a time. Charles Renfro, the Manhattan architect who is the president of Storeront’s board of directors, says, “Some people are fatigued by how much stuff is happening. I think it’s amazing.”

She is no stranger to multi-tasking; before coming to Storefront in 2010, Ms. Franch was simultaneously an artist in residence at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, a practicing architect in Catalonia, and director of the master’s thesis studio program at the architecture school of Rice University in Houston. Mr. Renfro, who has traveled extensively with Ms. Franch, says he has “no image of her sleeping.” Lisa Phillips, the director of the New Museum, who has worked with Ms. Franch on the festival called Ideas City, said that “in the relatively short time she has been in New York, she has had a big impact.” Ms. Phillips added that she admires Ms. Franch for being “a new kind of strong woman leader, one who is not hewing to stereotypes of what that might mean.”

Ms. Franch (who was chosen for the Biennale by the State Department on the recommendation of a committee of experts) speaks with a heavy Catalan accent that makes her sometimes oracular pronouncements even more mysterious. “It might throw some people; I get that,” says Mr. Renfro. But if she can sometimes be hard to hear, she is equally hard to miss -- her attire often includes elements of extreme asymmetry. “Asymmetry is symmetry in movement, and I like to move,” she says. The looks may start with shoes in different colors, continue with off-kilter dresses she designs and makes herself, and culminate in hairstyles that could be Isamu Noguchi or Henry Moore sculptures. Karen Wong, deputy director of the New Museum, who has been collaborating with Storefront since before Franch was hired and recently joined the Storefront board, calls her “a blessing in disguise” -- the disguise being the “bold, sometimes wacky” outfits she wears to draw attention to herself, which then gives her the opportunity to be heard.

In a way, Storefront also wears a disguise -- a fun-house façade, designed by the artist Vito Acconci and the architect Steven Holl, with panels that swing out and around to become doors, windows, tables, and enticing portals. The façade, built in 1993 and restored in 2008, was commissioned by the Storefront’s founding director, Kyong Park, who worked out of a tiny, windowless office beneath the gallery. Ms. Franch, using a grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, opened Storefront’s first above-ground office, about two blocks from the gallery, and a block from one of her haunts, Café Select in SoHo. Arriving there 10 minutes late for lunch, she quoted the French philosopher Henri-Louis Bergson’s description of time “as a malleable entity outside of linear and rational constraints” in her apology.

It is that kind of talk that makes Storefront very different from MoMA, where the focus is mainly on artifacts, even when the shows have theoretical underpinnings. At Storefront, you’re unlikely to see conventional works of art or architecture. And Ms. Franch is more likely to pose a question than to answer it. Other institutions run architecture competitions; Storefront, under Ms. Franch, created the Competition of Competitions, inviting architects to submit the questions to be answered.

In a commencement address this year, she told the graduates of Sci-Arc, the avant-garde Los Angeles architecture school, that their job was to create manifestos -- which she described as “obsessions turned into positions.” It is similar to the advice she gives architects looking to show their work at Storefront. “Why do it here if it can be done somewhere else?” she asks them, challenging them to use the space in ways that go beyond conventional display. Not long ago, she allowed the artist Daniel Arsham and the architect Alex Mustonen, who call their partnership Snarkitecture, to fill the entire room with styrofoam, then carve cavelike spaces into it over a period of weeks. The ideas behind the show, she says, include “uncanniness, illegibility, defamiliarization, doubt, serendipity, surprise, and formlessness.” Also, she says, “It was fun.”

Ms. Franch grew up far from the kind of intellectual life she orchestrates at Storefront, on a dirt street in Deltebre, which she said “has been described as the ugliest town in Catalonia.” There, in the Ebro River Delta 100 miles southwest of Barcelona, surrounded by rice fields, she spent much of her time in her mother’s hair salon, learning to wield scissors and conversation. She left to study architecture in Barcelona, and then Princeton; practiced briefly in Rotterdam; then moved to the State University of New York at Buffalo as a junior professor. Even before she came to Storefront, Mr. Renfro noticed her at architecture school critiques, where he saw her as “a force of nature” and “someone we would all be listening to in the future.”

With the Biennale pavilion, Ms. Franch will be not only representing the U.S. on an international stage -- a tall order for an immigrant who will turn 35 in December -- but deconstructing the work of iconic American architects. An act of architectural suicide for the United States? Stan Allen, the New York architect who met Franch when he was dean of Princeton’s school of architecture and she was a student there, says the Biennale proposal is “both respectful of the past and at the same time activist. I think that characterizes Eva and her generation,” he said, adding. “They don’t feel the need to choose between respect for history and a search for alternative visions.

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