Contemporary Space Athens

A gallery in Athens has recently opened to encourage new thinking about design in Greece and beyond. The man behind this initiative is Christian Narkiewicz-Laine, President of The Chicago Athenaeum - one of the world’s foremost institutions dedicated to promoting contemporary architecture and design. He talks to Neos Kosmos about why Greece needs a centre like Contemporary Space Athens.

Christian Narkiewicz-Laine sits relaxed on a state-of-the-art swivel-tilt office chair in the Contemporary Space Athens gallery.

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.  – Christian Narkiewicz-Laine –

To his left, standing proudly on a white plinth is a polished chrome coffee set made by Alessi. Close by is a supremely elegant high performance motorcycle – the HP2 Megamoto from BMW.

The prestigious Good Design exhibition celebrating the best in contemporary international design worldwide has just closed its doors.

From the Boeing 787 Dreamliner to a humble paper clip, this annual touring exhibition features the latest products to be judged design triumphs.

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

A descendent of two illustrious Lithuanian Russian noble families – Narkiewicz-Laine is a man on a mission.

This polymath (a painter, writer and poet 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.’ On the subject of the New Museum of the Acropolis, he refers to it as ‘a sad example of how “great architecture” turns its back on the city proper.’

Pushing the envelope is exactly what Contemporary Space Athens is there to do. ‘It’s not another gallery’ says Christian emphatically.

“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.”

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 Athens, the Katerini born Ioannis Karalias, a long time friend and colleague who worked with Christian in Chicago.

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 major exhibition at Contemporary Space Athens is titled Seven Thoughts About Architecture, promoting seven young Greek female architects.
Women architects 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 coincidental. This previously dilapidated district of the Greek capital is experiencing an urban renaissance and the gallery is located a couple of blocks from the Benaki Museum annex.

“We want to get involved in the urban fabric and be more than just another gallery,” says Narkiewicz-Laine with almost evangelical zeal.

“Our mission is public education. We need to explain why design is important, how it can change our environment and improve our lives.”

In the hugely problematic urban environment that continues to define the Greek capital, Contemporary Space Athens is perhaps an overdue call to arms.

Currently showing at Contemporary Space Athens, 46-48 Megalou Vassiliou, until April 19 is New World Architecture – an exhibition of selected entries for the 2008 International Architecture Awards. The exhibition Seven Thoughts About Architecture opens on May 27 and runs to July 31.