Eva Franch i Gilabert has been fired as director of the prestigious Architectural Association School in London. Having been elected in 2018 to the position by student vote, Franch’s position became untenable when the school community—teachers and students—called a vote on June 29, emphatically rejecting her five-year strategic plan, then registering a vote of no confidence in the one-time director of the New York gallery Storefront for Art and Architecture. According to a statement by the AA School Council today: “At the heart of the decision is the failure to develop and implement a strategy and maintain the confidence of the AA school community which were specific failures of performance against clear objectives outlined in the original contract of employment.”
Franch’s censure has already prompted a war of words between her supporters in the wider academic and architectural world and the AA school community. A widely circulated open letter signed by a group of Franch’s supporters—including Beatriz Colomina, Mark Wigley, Liz Diller, Anthony Vidler, Kai-Uwe Bergmann, and Paola Antonelli—stated, “the question of sexism seems obvious in the recent vote of no confidence.” The initiator of the letter, Lydia Kallipoliti, Assistant Professor at The Cooper Union in New York, insisted that the vote was “not just about Eva’s performance, it clearly symbolizes something.” This has been rejected by members of the school community. A letter by two teachers at the school, Ricardo Ruivo and Will Or, accused the signatories of the Open Letter of failing to understand the unique structure of the school and deploying “real issues… against the school community’s right to democratic oversight.” The letter also makes unsubstantiated allegations of bullying.
Adrian Lahoud, dean of the School of Architecture at the Royal College of Art, accuses the Council of failing to follow several open procedures in investigating the claims against Franch, such as the lack of independent adjudication. "In any academic institution that I have worked in, there are processes in place to deal with complaints in a way that respects the rights of both parties," he told RECORD. "That has not happened in this case."
Franch’s tenure was marked by a spectacular dropping off of popularity. She initially benefited from the singular power that the constitution of the elite school gives to its student body when she was elected as director in 2018. The electorate were at first impressed by her charisma and her dynamism and chose her from a short list of three. (Robert Mull and Pippo Ciorra were also considered.) However, two years later she suffered at its hands when in an vote of no confidence, she was censured amidst accusations of a lack of action and clarity. Strategic plans are not normally put before the school. However, Franch's was specifically rejected in an advisory vote called according to the institution’s rules.
Beneath Franch’s election and fall from grace, the school, which counts Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid as alumni, is adapting to new conditions. Parts of its constitution are unchanged since its founding in 1847 as a membership organization. The school was set up by architects to train students in professional practice and the laws largely remained unchanged in the 20th century as it gave its directors enormous control, but it has had to adapt to changing visa conditions. Unique amongst European architecture schools, the AA, until 2019, only conferred professional qualifications on its students rather than academic ones. There have been changes in visa legislation in the UK in recent years, and since 2015 the school has been applying to the UK authorities to be given Taught Degree Awarding Powers (granted in 2019, in a process begun under a previous director, Brett Steele) so it can give places to foreign students, whose fees are its life blood. In addition, the school needs to comply with new UK laws relating to charities.
In order to do so the Council of the school has been beefed up and expertise from outside architectural academia brought in to strengthen its role. At Franch’s departure, the Council stated that it would “clarify the role of the School Director.” It is possible that the election of Eva Franch and her subsequent rejection by the school community might mark the end of the school community’s democratic power. Privately, non-academic staff on the Council have been amazed that the leadership of such a key school could be decided by a vote by students.