Architect & artist Nishan Kazazian identifies his work as an archaeological layering

Vladimir Belogolovsky talks to the Lebanese-American architect about his mission to demonstrate how art and architecture can intersect and form an osmotic relationship.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Oct 25, 2021

In our recent interview, a Lebanese-American architect Nishan Kazazian, who practices both art and architecture and runs his studio A&A Design Group at two locations—in Manhattan and on Long Island—told me, “My family’s story is about being scattered and coming back together—separation and connection.” His family, of Armenian origin, survived the 1915-17 Armenian genocide; as a result, the architect’s parents, aunts, and uncles were dispersed all over the world. Kazazian was born and grew up in Beirut, Lebanon, at the time of its golden age—in the 1950s-60s—where he experienced a rich cross-cultural layering. Walking from one neighbourhood to another implied wonderful strolls along archaeological sites right next to contemporary buildings. There were fruit markets next to brothels, next to a church, next to a mosque, next to a synagogue—a vibrant and stimulating historical and cultural mix. The notions of scatteredness and coming back together defined the character of his work early on. Art was his interest from childhood and his early artistic experimentations were expressed in iterations of broken antique ceramics that he would frequently find on the Mediterranean shore at Tyre, an ancient city south of Beirut. He worked on a series of sculptures split into two, playing with their intricate shadows.

Pencil, China Ink and Watercolor, 1977 | A&A Design Group | Nishan Kazazian | STIRworld
Pencil, China Ink and Watercolor, 1977 Image: Courtesy of Nishan Kazazian

After graduating with a degree in fine arts from the American University of Beirut in 1971, Kazazian won a Fulbright scholarship and left Lebanon for America the following year to study art education and eventually architecture, both at Columbia University in New York. Earning his Master of Architecture there in 1976 coincided with the worst time of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-90) forcing Kazazian to stay in the US where he started his career and has been continuing living and working ever since. After working for several years at SOM in New York and other large offices in Boston and Paris, he opened his own design studio in 1983 with a focus on small-scale projects, visionary schemes, and artworks. Among other projects, he is currently working on a plan to turn a portion of the building where he grew up in Beirut into a museum to celebrate local families’ history of resilience. In the following conversation with Nishan Kazazian we discussed his creative identities, inspirations, his urge for breaking rules and mixing boundaries, avoiding to becoming a slave of a singular style, his visionary proposals for virtual aquarium, zoo, and what he calls Synergic Landscapes, and, of course, his obsession with continuously mixing art and architecture.

Prismatic Drawing, 1982 | A&A Design Group | Nishan Kazazian | STIRworld
Prismatic Drawing, 1982 Image: Courtesy of Nishan Kazazian

Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): Let’s start with how you identify yourself creatively. You said, “I was always regarded as an architect by artists and as an artist by architects.” Do you consider yourself more as an architect or an artist? And do you think this duality is problematic?

Nishan Kazazian (NK): I see art and architecture as two different scenic roads. They run parallel to each other, they intersect, come to a junction from time to time—there is an overpass, underpass, and then you keep on going in different directions and you end up somewhere, which is always unexpected and yet unknown. The reason I became a licensed architect is that I did not want to be treated as an artist only. I want to do both—being a serious artist and a legitimate architect. I don’t want to be dismissed as either one or the other. I met art professors who told me with regret: “I wish I became an architect.” I did not want to pass on this sentiment to my students. It was important to me to become licensed and have the freedom to do both architecture and art. Most importantly, what I am after is to demonstrate how architecture and art can intersect, and not just in theory but in practice. Art is emotional, architecture is functional, and I want to explore how one feeds and benefits the other. This relationship should be osmotic, it should be fluid. People can do both and I want to prove it with my work—this can be done, and I want my work to be a model for others.

Ceramics, 1972 - 1984 | A&A Design Group | Nishan Kazazian | STIRworld
Ceramics, 1972 - 1984 Image: Courtesy of Nishan Kazazian

VB: You also said, “I did art in one room and architectural projects in another.” And I know that next to your house in East Hampton on Long Island you have two identical studios—studio A and studio B where you work on different types of projects, right?

NK: [Laughs] Well, you know, this is not how I first conceived of this additional studio to the one I have in New York City; originally it was planned as a single 600-square-foot shed in my backyard. But I quickly realised that as a single structure it would block my view from the main house. It also was priced higher than my estimated budget. As a result, I ended up ordering two 200-square-foot prefabricated sheds, which was the maximum size the company that built it could realise it as a pre-assembled unit and bring to the site as one piece. You see, as an artist, you are free from all constraints, but as an architect, you need to have many considerations. For example, if I ever decide to sell the house, I could easily convert one of my studios to a pool house. So, there is an intention, and then there is reality. And the reason why I needed two separate studios is very simple. In my art studio, I do all the dirty work—spray painting, woodcutting, sanding, and so on—while the other studio is for clean work, which is drafting and working on my computer. It is practical. But in reality, these spaces are very fluid, and I end up working on different kinds of projects in each of the two studios.

Multiplicities (Wood Construction), 1988 | A&A Design Group | Nishan Kazazian | STIRworld
Multiplicities (Wood Construction), 1988 Image: Courtesy of Nishan Kazazian

VB: Your work is based on numerous inspirations. They come from many directions such as your memories of home and family history. Yet, if we go over your images, many references become apparent—Kintsugi, the Japanese art of putting broken pottery pieces back together, primary colour geometric abstractions evocative of Russian Constructivism, Mondrian, Calder, or perhaps paintings by Paul Klee. Could you touch on some of the origins of your ideas?

NK: All these references that you are mentioning are, of course, valid. But for me by far the most important influences are time and place. All the places that I have been to, all the experiences that I have had, both visual and intellectual, they are all my inspirations. Since being a child, I was exposed to layering and superimposition. I was fascinated with similar pronunciations and meanings of words in different languages; these coincidences had an impact on my choices of materials, mediums, colours, forms, and so on. I traveled extensively to the most fascinating places such as desert dunes in Syria, spending nights in a Bedouin tent. And how can I forget the Middle Eastern markets and beautiful embroideries of my mother? So, my inspirations and my visions are directly related to my exposure, both consciously and subconsciously. For me, the most interesting part is how to bring all these influences and images together. I see my art as reminiscent of the layering in archaeology.

Anyway, where do ideas come from? Does anyone know? I remember my first architectural project at Columbia that came to me in a dream and when 40 students pinned up their work on the wall Klaus Herdeg, our teacher who later became a mentor to me, came, and my project stood out to him. He asked, “Who did this?” I said it was mine without knowing whether he liked it or not because it was so different from everyone else. I was so scared until he shouted: “This is it!” [Laughs.] And that vision, I remember, as if it was yesterday, it simply came to me in a dream. And another important point is that when something breaks, I consider how I still might use it. I often go back and find something in it. Ideas come while you are working. And while you are working, they keep transforming and assume new meanings.

Virtual Aquarium of Projections and Satellite Imagery, Beirut, Lebanon, 2009 | A&A Design Group | Nishan Kazazian | STIRworld
Virtual Aquarium of Projections and Satellite Imagery, Beirut, Lebanon, 2009 Image: Courtesy of Nishan Kazazian

VB: I would like you to reflect on and elaborate on some of your quotes. Here is the first one: “My aim is to transform and mix boundaries.”

NK: It is all about pushing the boundaries by expanding your exposure. It is not about what you already know but about how to expand your knowledge. It is this transformation that mixes and expands the boundaries.

VB: And you said, “I break rules. For me, walls don’t exist. The walls are transparent. Walls are not solid.”

NK: I don’t believe in boundaries. To me, boundaries don’t exist. I remember when, as a child, my family drove from Beirut to Damascus to visit Foire Internationale de Damas. At the border crossing’s passport check, amazed and surprised, I turned to my mother, saying: “Mama, the soil of Syria did not change colour,” a reference to my schoolbook’s geographical map representing countries in different colours. [Laughs.]

VB: Another one: “I belong to the world. My art is my home.”

NK: Whether this relates to this quote or not, my idea is not to be a slave of a singular style. I want to be free and do what I want, not what is expected.

Hydro Healing Center, Yerevan, Armenia, 2015 | A&A Design Group | Nishan Kazazian | STIRworld
Hydro Healing Center, Yerevan, Armenia, 2015 Image: Courtesy of Nishan Kazazian

VB: And here is another quote from you: “Artists and architects are obligated to generate uplifting and positive messages.” What is the main message of your art and architecture?

NK: These messages are not direct and literal but people who visited my spaces or experienced my installations told me that they felt very positive and something else, a few people told me: “Your work is so young,” meaning “youthful.” Some have experienced my artwork as creating an “alternate dimension.” And speaking of specific messages, I think architecture should be about ideas, not just pretty images. In my projects, such as Amphibian Concert Hall, Virtual Aquarium of Projections and Satellite Imagery, and the Zoo I explored the idea of audiovisual experiences being transmitted to these projects’ surfaces by satellites and drones from all over the world to connect visitors with wildlife or with melting glaciers. These projects are intended to create a sense of global connection, belonging, and interactive involvement with nature throughout the world. The use of these technological advances provides an experience akin to a conventional zoo while avoiding animal cruelty. We have been talking about animal cruelty for years; why can’t we do something about it? So, I think architecture should put forward new ideas and positive messages. Imagine how wonderful these spaces could be—to experience sounds, light, water, and images of nature, mixed with sounds of music and imagery created by humans. These spaces could be used for a new kind of theatre-going on both indoor and outdoor to experience an emotional concert in motion. 

Cohering Boundaries, 2017 - 2018 | A&A Design Group | Nishan Kazazian | STIRworld
Cohering Boundaries, 2017 - 2018 Image: Courtesy of Nishan Kazazian

VB: And finally, “When did art stop being part of architecture?”

NK: Absolutely! Art and architecture were inseparable throughout the ages. Look at a wonderful integration of public artworks into the architecture of the Rockefeller Center right here in New York—murals as elements of facades and covering entire lobbies, sculptures, bronze panels, fountains, and so on.

VB: When you describe your work, you use such words as displacement, distortions, escape, fantasy, fragments, fragmented landscapes, transformation, interconnectedness, shifting shadows. What other words would you use to describe your work and the kind of art and architecture you would like to achieve?

NK: I would add the word energy. Another one would be multiple experiences. Then there is the concept of “functional art". In my Environmental Functioning Art Series, sculptures can serve as erosion barriers, solar panels, and functional spaces. Freud said something quite interesting: “Dreams are often most profound when they seem the most crazy.” So, sometimes, fantasy can become reality. And what I try to achieve is this—a transformation of ideas and building projects out of ideas, one over another.

Still I Rise (As per poem by Maya Angelou), 2021 | A&A Design Group | Nishan Kazazian | STIRworld
Still I Rise (As per poem by Maya Angelou), 2021 Image: Courtesy of Nishan Kazazian

VB: One of your projects is called Synergic Landscapes. These poetic structures look like paintings over landscapes. They could be built as purely emotional rides. What is this project about?

NK: These structures constitute an alternative approach to landscape and architecture where various indoor and outdoor functional and recreational spaces overlap and intersect, creating sensations of mystery, surprise, and pure delight. And I did this project, as well as many of my other projects, to first put my visions on paper, and then later digitally. This project is meant to be built but there was no client. I designed many of my visions at my own initiative because I don’t want to sit and wait for a client to come in. If I have a dream I go ahead and work on imagining it. And these projects may be pure dreams, but they are also artworks. I have done many digital prints based on them and they were exhibited and sold as artworks at galleries, auctions, and some were given to charities. So, these projects are many things; they are experiments, provocative visions, playgrounds, and artworks. Again, it is about mixing art and architecture.

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