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The head of the Chicago Athenaeum on social activism
The head of the Chicago Athenaeum on social activism
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Christian Narkiewicz-Laine at Crain's Chicago Business
Interview By LAURA BIANCHI for CRAIN'S Chicago Business
 
Christian Narkiewicz-Laine, 59, has been president of the Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design since 1988. An architect, artist, writer and social activist, he divides his time between homes in Galena, Athens and an island off the coast of Greece.

How would you describe the state of architecture in Chicago today?
Chicago has not continued its tradition of important architecture since the 1980s. The whole thing died, and that's pretty sad.
Any bright spots at all?
I did like the plans for the Spire in Streeterville.
Your first significant encounter with architecture?
I grew up in a very tiny village in Finland where there was a palatial home designed by Carl Engel, the neo-classic architect who built most of St. Petersburg and Helsinki. I would walk past that house and daydream.
You come from a long line of prominent Lithuanian-Russian politicians, writers and artists.
How did that influence you?
I was raised to have their social awareness, and that frame of human rights and social justice has been consistent in my own writings and art.
You have been arrested dozens of times for nonviolent protests. How did that start?
My mom started taking me to civil rights and Vietnam War demonstrations when I was young.
Any memorable moments?
When I was an architecture critic for the Sun-Times in the 1980s I handcuffed myself to the fabulous old Northwestern train station to prevent them from demolishing it, and they started tearing down the building around me.
When did you unlock the cuffs?
When I saw the crane coming at me.
Your latest initiative?
Spearheading a letter-writing campaign to governors to end the death penalty in the U.S. It's evil.
Will it work?
I think the nation's problems are so overwhelming that people feel paralyzed. It's very sad.
This is all so heavy! What you would splurge on for yourself?
I would give the money to Syrian refugees. Were you expecting something lighter? (Laughs.)