When Eva Franch i Gilabert walked into the Architectural Association’s Georgian townhouse in Bloomsbury’s Bedford Square, she cut a flamboyant figure: a “Spanish tornado” dressed in an electric orange kimono, addressing a world full of precise men in thick-rimmed glasses.
The enigmatic New York gallery curator joined London’s prestigious architectural finishing school as its director in 2018.
Her days working in her mother’s hair salon in rural Catalonia were believed to have inspired her signature dark quiff pinned up with chopsticks and among her working wardrobe was a dress made out of the mattress cover on which she claimed she and her siblings were conceived.
Gilabert, 42, was the first female director in the 170-year history of the school, which has seen the likes of novelist Thomas Hardy and award-winning architects Richard Rogers and Zaha Hadid come to study behind its black doors.
Friends and colleagues from New York described her as “fierce” and a “force of nature”, with industry critics noting that she’d been hired in the wake of #MeToo to give an ageing but influential institution a much-needed shake-up.
But last month, less than two years later, Gilabert was fired by the board of directors two weeks after a vote of no confidence in her leadership — the latest in a string of professional upheavals to rock the industry.
Sir Nigel Carrington, head of the trust responsible for running the Royal Institute of British Architects, resigned last month after clashing with members, while Karen Holmes, CEO of the Architects Registration Board, and Alison White, chairwoman of the regulator, are among other high-profile resignations since June.
According to the AA, Gilabert failed to perform against the clear objectives in her employment contract, but an open letter by two AA tutors has since referenced anonymous allegations that she “bullied” workers, “with prominent cases brought forth by women staff”.
The claims fuelled a mutiny. A letter signed by more than 220 top architects and academics came out in opposition.
Addressing the AA directly, it claims Gilabert’s dismissal itself was sexist and that the industry suffered from “systemic biases against women”, accusing the school of using “the pandemic for anti-democratic purposes”.
Elia Zenghelis, a former teacher at the AA and co-founder of the OMA studio in Rotterdam, has said it has “put the school and its future in serious jeopardy” and has called for the 12-strong AA council responsible for the decision to resign.
So what really went on at the school? “I think what she represented was something that is extraordinarily hard for an established institution to digest,” says Lydia Kallipoliti, an assistant professor at The Cooper Union in New York and a close friend of Gilabert’s.
She was among the first to sign the letter against Gilabert’s dismissal and many others have since added their names, from Adrian Lahoud, dean of the School of Architecture at the Royal College of Art, to Andrés Jaque, founder of New York’s Office for Political Innovation.
A retaliatory open letter from two tutors at the school has called the accusation of sexism “grossly uninformed”.
According to its writers Ricardo Ruivo and Will Orr, Gilabert “worsened” the existing issues of diversity and “extreme exploitation of labour” at the school, described later in the letter as a “culture of intimidation”, and her dismissal was not influenced by gender.
The teachers’ letter goes on to accuse Kallipoliti and her fellow signatories of running in “the elite circles of architectural celebrity” and basing their views on “their familiarity and friendship” with Gilabert. They write:
“The privileged nature of the open letter, coupled with its ignorance of the people involved, renders its baseless claims regarding the pandemic turmoil ironic to the point of satire.”
The duelling open letters were just the beginning of the meltdown. A cloud drive set up to share members’ testimonies called Letters to the School is a window on what some of the school’s students and staff feel went wrong.
A letter by Christina Varvia, a tutor at the AA, asks if Gilabert would have been treated the same way if she was any other employee.
“In my mind she was a creative, open-minded leader with a thirst for work. If she was in fact a bully and a ‘patriarch’ as some claim, I would endorse any action necessary to uproot this type of toxicity. But I was offered no explanation, no evidence, and no clear reason for her being let go.”
Other letters accuse the school of mixing the vote on leadership with “systemic issues” like the lack of diversity. Diploma student Gabu Heindl says: “It seemed that voting for Eva would mean voting for the continuation of problematic working conditions or against diversity,” which put her and her fellow voters in a “problematic” position. Not that her opinion counted, anyway: voting took place over Zoom and her internet connection failed halfway through so hers was never counted — another legitimacy concern.
What Heindl and others find upsetting is the message Gilabert’s dismissal will send to women in the industry. Her appointment in 2018 felt like a historic moment. “It was perceived as undeniable progress for our profession,” recalls Belgravia-based architect Simone de Gale, an alumna of the school.
“Most famous architects 1847-2006 have been here”, a student-made blue plaque reads beside the entrance — and though its interiors were an engine room of radical experimentation, there was an elitist culture it still needed to shake.
At the school’s 2018 election, Gilabert was the only woman shortlisted among 26 candidates. She won with 67 per cent of the vote. Not that she wanted to focus on gender. She disliked terms like “women in architecture” and shrugged off questions about being the first female director. “If we keep talking about it, this will never become natural,” she told the Financial Times.
“You might as well say the first director who was a figure skater or the one with the longest hair”. Both of which were true: at 17, an injury is said to have brought Gilabert’s promising figure-skating career to an early close.
By 24, she had already set up and closed her own architectural practice to take up a fellowship at Princeton, turning down Harvard, Yale and MIT.
The AA school has refused to comment on the allegations against the ousted director’s dismissal. A statement issued after the decision explains that a series of meetings were held with Gilabert after the vote of no confidence “to give her the opportunity to outline her plans and rectify these issues”.
But “the discussions did not provide council with the confidence that she could fulfil her role”. It says the council “recognises how difficult this period has been for many people within the AA school” and will now work to “clarify the role of the school director going forward before a new search process begins”.
Meanwhile Gilabert has remained silent. When asked if she’d spoken to the ousted director since her firing, Kallipoliti explained that her friend is a “very strong person” and is not shocked but “frustrated”, while Gilabert’s lawyer, Erica Bolton, explained that her client was unable to address any requests for comment because of the legal situation.
Many wonder whether the former director will struggle to find work again, but Royal College of Art students are among industry members urging their institutions to hire her “immediately”.
But who will replace Gilabert in architecture’s hotseat? Samantha Hardingham, a former AA tutor currently designing the world’s first experiential TV channel for CBeebies, was interim director before Gilabert’s arrival, while British academic Robert Mull and Italian professor Pippo Ciorra were among those beaten to the role in 2018. Will Hunter, who founded the London School of Architecture has just stepped down as director there.
In the meantime, the claims leave “a cloud over the school, indeed over architecture”, says Eyal Weizman, an AA alumnus and founder of Turner Prize-nominated agency Forensic Architecture.
Issues of sexism and discrimination have “poisoned architectural culture for decades”. Varvia, Weizman’s deputy, hopes the damage can be undone.
She thinks of her female students who will one day dream to fight for leading positions like Gilabert’s. “What lessons will they learn from all this?” she asks.
“My heart is sunk realising the character that we as a community just demonstrated. Not because Eva was the perfect director, but because she deserved a chance and a process. Just like everybody else.”