What follows this short introduction is my unusually personal interview with a Lebanese-American architect and artist Nishan Kazazian. His work is inspired by numerous sources that come from many directions such as Kintsugi, the Japanese art of putting broken pottery pieces back together, primary color geometric abstractions evocative of Russian Constructivism, as well as paintings by Piet Mondrian and Paul Klee. Yet, a stronger inspiration comes from his memories of home and family history. Layering and superimposition of cultures and languages were constantly present in his life since childhood and remain guiding forces to Kazazian, who is both a licensed architect and a professional artist.
After receiving his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the American University of Beirut in 1971, he studied art education at Columbia University and earned his Master of Architecture also from Columbia in 1976. After working at several offices in New York, Boston, and Paris he opened his A&A Design Group in 1983 and now maintains two studios – one in Manhattan and the other in East Hampton on Long Island, mainly working alone and hiring part-time staff for special projects.
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Nishan Kazazian: Let me begin by saying that I think of myself as Lebanese-American; or you can think of me as Levantine, which is more inclusive and without borders; and yes, my ethnic identity is Armenian. My father was a survivor of the Armenian genocide, which took place in 1915-17. He was six years old in 1921 when he came to Lebanon with my grandparents and his two siblings directly from Marash, which is now in Turkey. The rest of his family was lost. My mother’s family came from Marash and Constantinople. Many of her relatives were dispersed all over the world. She came from a family of educators and lawyers and one of her uncles,Hrant Samuelian, was a prominent journalist who opened a famous bookstore Librairie Orientale in Paris near Sorbonne; unfortunately, this popular gathering place closed permanently a few years ago.
My mother’s aunt ended up in Boston; she was a close friend of Arshile Gorky’s sister. Other relatives went to Baghdad, Syria, and even as far away as Brazil. We used to receive postcards and letters from all these places. And my great uncle used to come to Beirut from Paris to give lectures. So, my mother’s side had many intellectuals and my father’s side was a business-oriented family. It was my father’s mother who assumed the role of our matriarch. She built the house where I was born. Now it is called Badguer House. The person who purchased it from our family turned it into an Armenian cultural center. When I was little, my father built another house for our immediate family where I lived with my parents and my two younger brothers. It is a four-story building with a factory on the ground floor and three residential floors with two large apartments per floor. I am now working on a plan to turn the second floor of our building into a museum to celebrate local families’ history of resilience. What always amazed me about my relatives was their strong spirit of survival, rejuvenation, endurance, and perseverance. It was always about building something new and positive. Of course, the current situation there is very sad, but it will pass. So, my family’s story is about being scattered and coming back together—separation and connection.
VB: What kind of factory did your father operate and did it make a particular impact on you as far as wanting to make art objects early on?
NK: My father was a mechanic and he built his metalwork factory manufacturing things like burners and Primus stoves, and he distributed them throughout the Middle East. He also helped factories in Beirut that brought him broken pieces of machinery, which he replaced with his own designs. Interestingly, he designed our building, its facades, and even fabricated all the metalwork for balcony railings and so on. And my mother’s colorful embroideries throughout the house also had an impact on my imagination. So, both of my parents were very influential on my choice of becoming an artist and architect. Nevertheless, when my father asked me to take over the family business, I said: “No way!” [Laughs.] It then passed to my middle brother who is still running it and our youngest brother lives in Greece. So, again, this notion of separation and connection has become a recurring theme in our family.
NK: I was lucky to grow up in Beirut at the time of its golden age. It was wonderful. There was such a rich cross-cultural layering. For example, I would often go to Byblos, one of the oldest cities in the world, just 40 kilometers north of Beirut, where there were traces from different civilizations since the Bronze age—Egyptian, Assyrian, Persian, Hellenistic, Roman, Ottoman, and so on—everything mixed together. And in Beirut, I would go from one neighborhood to another, walking along archeological 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. Everything was this wonderful and vibrant mix. As early as kindergarten, I studied three different alphabets. In elementary school, we studied in four languages, and now I speak five. I experienced this very rich life with people from all backgrounds, religions, ethnicities, and different languages mixed all the time. So, it was this wonderful city of the future, but I am not sure this kind of mix can be achieved ever again.
VB: After receiving your Bachelor of Fine Arts from the American University of Beirut in 1971, you left Lebanon the following year to study art education and eventually architecture, both at Columbia University. You left Lebanon three years before the Civil War broke out there, which is the reason you stayed in America, right?
NK: I won my Fulbright scholarship with the anticipation of going back to Lebanon after my studies. But you are right, the Civil War made it possible for me to stay in the U.S. Yet, I went back and forth, and, in fact, I was in Beirut at the time when the war started. I finished my first Master of Arts in Art Education in 1973, and at that point, Architecture School at Columbia was accepting people who did not have previous science degrees. I applied right away because ever since high school I was interested in architecture and this interest carried through my studies. By the time I graduated with my Master of Architecture in 1976, it was the worst time during the war with tremendous destruction. It was not possible to go back. So, I started working at SOM in New York and the office helped me get my Green Card.
VB: How was your experience at Columbia?
NK: I would single out the influence on me of Professor Klaus Herdeg who was Swiss and educated at Cornell. He traveled extensively in India, Iran, Uzbekistan, and throughout the Middle East, which he knew better than I did, including intricacies about its politics. He wrote a book about the city of Isfahan and another one about Indian step-wells. He was fascinating in his vast knowledge. He was able to mix different cultures and identify their most precious characteristics. He was loved by all students. Klaus was my thesis advisor. He was a real inspiration to me. So, I chose to design my thesis project in the Armenian Quarter of Isfahan, which I eventually visited. I love studying building traditions of different cultures and how they left a particular mark. Zoroastrian water and wind towers, which I visited in Yazd in Iran are a precursor of modern-day concepts of sustainability. It is very fascinating, and everyone should look at their design because so many forms that we think are symbolic of their religious significance began, in fact, as functional forms.
NK: I worked at several much smaller firms in New York, Boston, and a bit in Paris at one of my relative’s ateliers. In Boston, for a while, I worked at a firm, for which I was selecting works of art for various projects, and at the same office, I worked on a mosque’s interior artworks in Saudi Arabia. I was fully responsible for that project and went there to present it. It was in 1983 when I opened my current practice with two partners who are no longer with me. We did house additions, stores, apartment renovations, and we also worked on art projects and installations. So, I kept working on architecture and art in parallel all these years. Then, one of my partners died. The other one moved to Boston, and I stayed in New York on my own. I kept the name of the studio.
Both of my former partners had been licensed, but I wasn’t. At that point, I decided to get licensed. I didn’t want to be dependent on other architects. In 1997, I became licensed in New York State and remained solo, only hiring part-time staff for special projects. I also became more critical in my work and stopped taking projects that were not challenging creatively and professionally. That’s how I focused on experimental work, consciously blurring the boundaries between art and architecture. I wanted to demonstrate how architecture and art can intersect, not just in theory but in practice. For me, art was emotional, architecture was functional, and I wanted to explore how they mutually feed and benefit each other. I also did video animations, art installations, and when there were opportunities to do architectural projects, I did those as well. Being licensed gave me confidence and it opened new opportunities, but it never closed the door to continuing my art explorations.
VB: Here is one of your quotes: “In many of my works, the act of breaking the pieces and then putting them back together refers to the personal experience of falling and getting back up, as well as to spatial, social, and individual transformation.” Could you give an example of how you break things and put them together in new ways? And what is the main reason for doing that? How did you start doing that? Do you remember, or was that by accident?
NK: No, it was not by accident. First, although I’m not sure it’s the source of the idea, I used to collect broken, antique ceramics on the beach at Tyre that were washed to the shore by the Mediterranean. These pieces intrigued me. I first experimented with this idea of breaking the pieces and putting them together while a student at the American University of Beirut, when I did my ceramic pieces series in 1970. Then I did a series of sculptures split into two, playing with shadows. The idea of separation is intriguing to me —belonging and not belonging, being a part of something and not being a part of something. This originates in social, political, and environmental situations. We are all a part of something, or we are not. We are either accepted by someone or we are not. So, breaking and putting things together is about fulfilling a desire to come together after a long separation. It is about a desire to reconnect, rejuvenate, to recreate, and to make something out of nothing, as was the case with my family—my grandmother building her house and my father building his house and factory. So, there is an element of this idea of reconnecting in all my works both in art and architecture. And there is space for displacement, passage, transformation, and new beginnings.
VB: You said, “My aim is to transform and mix the boundaries between expressiveness and functionality through osmotic sensations of form, scale, light, color, and texture; to be provocative, poetic, and ironic.” Perhaps we could speak of some examples of your work that better illustrate this aspiration. One work that I am thinking of is your Wood Constructions of 1982. Could you talk about those pieces?
NK: They first came from leftovers at the model shop at SOM, where I worked at the time. I would make cuts and bends to bring openings and shadows. I called them Iron Nerves, Floating Altars, which later became a show in Nantucket. And I later played with colors and directions of the wood grain, and so on. I even combined wood planes with plexiglass planes, I keep bringing new ideas to those original pieces. They were never meant to be a finished series; they continue to be explored and I go back to them from time to time. In a way, the original idea was just the initial impulse. In my mind an idea never dies, it keeps regenerating itself. So, going back to your question about words – transformation, adaptation, taking a new life and new form have always been my preoccupation. These pieces were never specific, in a way, they are scaleless. They could be art pieces on a desk, or they could be skyscrapers. In fact, those explorations led to a project, Arizona House that I designed in 1994, which was commissioned, but unfortunately, the house was never built.
VB: When you look at buildings that surround us, built in recent times, what would you say is missing?
NK: Overall, I am very critical of what is being built in recent years. So many of these projects target tourists exclusively. Many neighborhoods have become gentrified, displacing working-class residents to the outskirts. Take Hudson Yards, for example, here in New York. Let’s say some of the buildings are quite grand and they succeed as a destination for visitors. But the neighborhood is not a real neighborhood. And only the rich can afford to live there. The street life is not vibrant, it is a tourist attraction. You asked me about Beirut of my childhood, and I described to you the most wonderful memories. I don’t see any of that in Hudson Yards. I think what architecture can do is to create meaningful living environments for all kinds of people to enjoy. So, we still have not built that city of the future where I once lived. Architecture and art are about generating ideas. That’s what I want to do. Whether these projects are realized or not. I like when ideas travel and take new lives. That’s what keeps me going.