Can Architecture & Design Help Pull Back the Iron Curtain & Let in the Light?

By Lee H. Skolnick, FAIA, Principal

 

What do Sofia, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan have in common, besides the fact that they all speak languages that most Americans don’t understand? I was thrilled to participate in a panel discussion at the Trespa Design Centre recently, where three New York architects spoke of our incredible experiences working in these formerly closed and exotic-sounding places in the post-Soviet era. While there is still much that is foreign to westerners in these cultures and societies, what a wonderful opportunity to feel that you have real friends and colleagues in these truly rich, intriguing and interesting places. That your heartfelt work is appreciated; that there is so much history and culture to draw upon in your quest to serve, and to be reflective of, the people and their lives, experiences and memories.

 

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The search for authenticity is a noble exploration, and the chance to bond with others whose life experiences are so different from your own is a gift. It makes your life so much richer to gradually feel comfortable in milieus that you might never have visited otherwise. And it makes you feel like your work can really make a difference when you can open up the possibilities of freedom of expression, support for education and optimism for the future.

 

Why shouldn’t children be made to feel that they are valued? Why not expose them to the wonders of the world and global interaction? Why not inculcate in parents and care-givers the notion that they have much to offer in enhancing and supporting their children’s growth and opportunities?

 

Muzeiko means ‘little museum’ in Bulgarian. The America for Bulgaria Foundation Children’s Museum in Sofia is conceived to spark the curiosity of children and to promote exploration and discovery. The long term goals are to assist kids in developing a love for learning and to prepare them to participate in the ever-integrating global community. Like my colleagues on the Trespa Design Centre panel, all of whom are working in lands that were under Soviet rule, I have been invigorated by the challenge of bringing to bear my professional expertise and experience in architecture and design while being sensitive not to impose my own cultural values and norms on the project. How do we truly work in service to the population and assist them in more fully understanding and appreciating the strengths and richness of their own history, heritage and potential? How do we help them leap-frog into the 21st century after a moribund period of isolation and repression? Certainly, the native intelligence and creativity are there. What needs to be conquered is the inbred pessimism and reticence that has built up over the years, so that their own talents and ambitions can be unleashed. This is what we strive for. This is why we endure the soul-deadening exigencies of modern travel. For when we’re working in these far-off places, enjoying the personal cultural expansion that comes from new multi-sensory experiences, forging new friendships, sharing food and drink, and collaborating to improve people’s lives, we are reminded of why we became architects and designers.

 

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