“THE ART OF ARCHITECTURE EXPRESSES THE NOBLE QUALITIES OF HUMAN LIFE”: An Interview with Christian Narkiewicz-Laine

Christian Narkiewicz-LainePhoto by Gökcen Tuncer

Christian Narkiewicz-Laine
Photo by Gökcen Tuncer

Christian Narkiewicz-Laine is a Finnish-American-Lithuanian activist architect whose struggle for justice, democracy, peace and social change is lasting both in architectural area and contemporary art world. While he produces architectural designs that understands the real purpose of housing and values the need of humanity and urban life rather than only being tied to capital market, he also contributes to art world with his sculptors, paintings and poems which usually contains highly-charged criticism against wars, injustice and undemocratic policies. His artistic style usually incorporates Found Object (Objet Trouve) which is a recreation process of the daily objects such as recyclables, broken pottery, machine parts, collage with photographs that are not traditionally used as art materials. According to Narkiewicz-Laine the use of non-traditional materials in art is really part of the necessary intellectualization process of art.”I believe that art must challenge to the viewer, not just purely entertain” he says.

For him, an artist must have a very developed sense of intellectual understanding of the universe and in this interview he told about his own story and ideas about the quadrangle of activism, art, world order and architectural responsibilities.

Mr. Narkiewicz-Laine, if we go back to the start, how would you describe the ignition point of your story?

I was not “born” with the innate ability to draw or paint. It was something I willed myself to do as both an architect and an artist. I owe my artistic sensibility to my maternal grandmother, a doctor educated in St. Petersburg, who rejected formal education and raised me like Rousseau. She taught me to read, to write, to interpret the world around me. She gave me my sense of compassion, which is something no one could obtain from any means of formal education or school training. Likewise, I was not “born” as an architect, but a poet. I have written poetry since I can remember. It is an extension of my subconscious. When I was young, my mother and grandmother read to me the most important poets such as Kazinsakis, Dostoyevski, and Borges.

As you said, you were always in deal with different art forms. Then, how would you compare architecture with other art forms?

“Architecture,” according to the ancient Greeks, is defined as “the first art”. I see no division between painting and music or sculpture and architecture. Whether it is an elaborate ancient temple meant to celebrate the deity and glory of the Gods or the adobe or mud built houses of poor rural people in Africa, the art of architecture expresses the noble qualities of human life. Architecture must embrace the ideals and principles of civilization and culture, as well as the achievements and aspirations of human life. Without that expression, there is really no architecture.

“OCCUPY MAIN STREET”

Today’s architecture is quite dependent on the capital and the market. How is it possible to have activism in architecture in this atmosphere?

It is only in our modern times that most buildings have reflected the fleeting principles of a commercial culture. In primitive times, temples and public buildings were erected by the people as a civic exponent of a community coming together in the practice of religion or the definition of democratic process. In medieval times, the building of the great gothic cathedrals in France was realized as a community project that evolved through the decades. Each trade, masons, carpenters, or artists gathered together to express a civilized ideal. Only in our contemporary times we have built dull and lifeless structures that only reflect the senseless aspirations of a commercial society based only on the boredom of mass consumerism. It has made cities rootless and chaotic.

Then, what should be done?

In order to change the direction of our built environment, we must reclaim our cities, our history, our homes, and our rights. In this sense, in order for us to transform our urban environments, from the city as a whole to our individual personal habitats, we need to develop new awareness based on profound political activism. The needs of the poor and the right of the citizens must obtain a kind of militancy in order to rebel from the neglect and from the austerity of our current lifeless global cities. We need to realign the true meaning of what are housing, human rights, urban land, community development, civic engagement, criminal justice, environmental justice, and more.

We must transform “Occupy Wall Street” to “Occupy Main Street.”

The transformation you mentioned is also related to architectural world’s trending topics such as “architecture for humanity”, “social sustainability” etc. Which architectural works can you give as an example that contributed to those topics?

Unfortunately in our defunct present-day culture where the architect has become powerless and almost irrelevant, this profession is the least equipped to deal with the integrity of social justice or architecture for humanity. This started in about 1950s, when modern architecture organized itself as a corporate entity with the birth of the mega architecture firms such as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. It also came at a time when the leading style of architecture became the vertical city, or the skyscraper, which destroyed traditional urban planning and created new dead and lifeless commercial zones in the city.

Only one modernist architect had the courage to come forward with any vision of humanity in contemporary architecture: The Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy. His style was an opposition to Western building designs. While western style uses capital-intensive technology, he utilized labor-intensive appropriate technology. Taking the traditional methods as a base, he re-built environment-friendly and economically affordable mud brick constructions. He also gave training to the inhabitants about building their own buildings.

We must follow the footsteps of Fathy to reestablish the dialogue between tradition and modernity and to advocate primary human values in design, traditional natural-energy solutions, appropriate technology, cooperative construction techniques, and genuine civic pride in major community projects and in the design of cities in order to regain the humanist aspirations of real habitat.

What about the society itself? In regards to city planning, how much should the society be involved to the decision making process? What is the role of the architects in implicating the society in this process?

There is a new generation of architects who are stepping forward with a greater and more profound vision for our future. I point to the Taiwanese architect, Hsieh Ying-Chun, whose socially engaged work has helped people to rebuild their homes and their lives after the devastating earthquake in Taiwan in 1999. His reconstruction project for the Thao Tribe has gained him international recognition where he faced two challenges: to build houses within an extremely tight budget (25%-50% of the market price) and to base the projects on the notion of sustainable construction, green building, cultural preservation and creation of local employment opportunities.

Ying-Chun’s reconstruction of these indigenous communities is a major battle in the struggle for sustainable construction since the majority of indigenous tribes are located in ecologically sensitive areas, near reservoirs or wildlife-protected areas.

His architectural beliefs were based on a new premise for design: “illegal architecture.”

Do you believe that all those struggles of artists will bring permanent and effective solutions for “saving the world”?

We can only respond to this in an individual way. Collectively we are doomed. Today, our governments define “terrorism” as anyone who stands up against the system. We can only work on an individual basis and through our own channels. As an artist, politician, architect or just responsible individual citizens, we must fight for a greater democracy, justice, and sustainability in our global cities. We need to realign the true meaning of what is housing, human rights, urban land, community development, civic engagement, criminal justice, environmental justice, and more

“Bomb…Bomb…Bomb Iran,” (The Ultimate Tea Party). Make-shift Projectile Constructed from Heating and Cooling PVC Filled with Lipton Tea Bags.

“Bomb…Bomb…Bomb Iran,” (The Ultimate Tea Party). Make-shift Projectile Constructed from Heating and Cooling PVC Filled with Lipton Tea Bags.

Christian Narkiewicz-Laine is an activist architect and contemporary artist who has highly-charged criticism towards social and political policies of world leaders, especially USA’s warfare in other countries and he is nominated for 2013 Sydney Peace Prize.

He said that people learn nothing from the losses of wars, the rising income gaps between people or the danger of non-renewable sources and consumption based economies. “The architecture should be the vehicle for social and cultural development. It shouldn’t be defeated to over-commercialization. Architects should understand the basic needs of people and must have a humanistic approach to urbanization and housing”, he said.

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