Renaissance man – reclaiming Athens’ built environment

A gallery has recently opened to encourage new thinking about design in the Greek capital. The man behind this bold initiative is Christian Narkiewicz-Laine, President of the Chicago Athenaeum – an institution dedicated to promoting contemporary architecture and design.

Narkiewicz-Laine sits relaxed on a state-of-the-art swivel-tilt office chair in the Contemporary Space gallery. To his left, standing proudly on a white plinth is a polished chrome coffee set made by Alessi. Nearby stands a supremely elegant high-performance motorcycle – a sparkling HP2 Megamoto BMW.

The prestigious Good Design exhibition, celebrating the best in contemporary international design has just ended its run in the gallery. From a Boeing 787 Dreamliner to a humble paper clip, this annual exhibition features the latest products to be judged design triumphs. There wasn’t room for the airliner itself, but the gallery could handle the paper clips.

Apple and Adidas, Bosch and Bang & Olufsen plus all the other leading luminaries from the world of global design  were featured, and this first show at Contemporary Space Athens, typifies what it, and Christian Narkiewicz-Laine are all about – presenting and celebrating the best in design.

The descendent of two illustrious Lithuanian Russian noble families – Narkiewicz-Laine is on a mission of enlightenment. This polymath (a painter, writer and poet, who, when not presiding over the Chicago Athenaeum) pulls no punches when it comes to reflecting on how design has been seen and promoted in Greece in recent times.

‘If I see another exhibition here on a famous Greek architect of the 1950s I think I’m going to lose it,’ he confides. ‘They were ok but not great. We need to push the envelope. The problem in Athens is nobody “owns” anything. The citizens have allowed their city to fall apart. People need to seize the city and shape it as their own. Ownership and personal responsibility by the public and politicians is essential and alas, missing in Greece. A huge cultural adjust is needed.’

Contemporary Space Athens was launched in 2008 by the European Centre for Architecture Art Design and Urban Studies, a project set up in Dublin to assist the Chicago Athenaeum’s ambitious outreach work in Europe. As an international museum, the Athenaeum has been touring exhibitions globally for twenty years, but Narkiewicz-Laine is keen to point out that Contemporary Space,  and other similar projects  planned in Florence and Berlin, take the museum’s overseas work to a new level. ‘Our mission is public education. We need to explain why design is important, how it can change our environment and improve our lives.’

Narkiewicz-Laine’s first encounter with Athens was as a student of the American School in the 1960s. His mother, an American archaeologist was working on the Agora. He recalls his early introduction to classical Greek design. ‘I had the thankless task of working in the basement with all the shards trying to put the pots together again’. Narkiewicz-Laine has a house on Naxos, designed by Greek architect and director of Contemporary Space, the Katherini born Ioannis Karalias, a long time friend and colleague who worked with Christian in Chicago.

Plans for the gallery include an outdoor sculpture area beside the existing cafe, exterior media installations – the gallery as an interactive space demanding attention in the public space beyond. Whilst Narkiewicz-Laine believes contemporary design in Greece to be ‘pretty abysmal’ he is also convinced a younger generation of local designers are doing a better job than their elders, albeit on a small scale, and need to be supported.

The next exhibition at Contemporary Space will be ‘Seven thoughts about architecture’ promoting the work of seven young Greek women architects. Female designers in Greece he says, “are totally invisible in a male dominated professional culture’. That Rouf was chosen as the site for the gallery is of course not co-incidental.

This previously dilapidated district is experiencing an urban renaissance and the gallery is located a couple of blocks from the Benaki Museum Cultural Centre, the annex of the venerable museum, which opened in 2004. ‘We want to get involved in the urban fabric and be more than just another gallery’ says Narkiewicz-Laine with evangelical zeal. ‘It’s a place to exchange ideas – an incubator.’ In the hugely problematic urban environment that continues to define the Greek capital, Contemporary Space Athens is an overdue call to arms.


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