Arine Aprahamian
Photo by William Lacalmontie © Rolex
Emerging Masters

Arine Aprahamian: “Small changes go a long way”

Short Profile

Name: Arine Aprahamian
Place of birth: Lebanon
Occupation: Architect, interior designer

Arine Aprahamian is the protégé of Anne Lacaton in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative 2023-2024.

Arine, would you describe your approach to architecture as more logical and technical, or more creative and free-flowing?

A bit of both, I think! My inspiration and these kinds of things come from storytelling. There’s a story in everything, the story exists in all conditions. Sometimes you just have to look for it. But at the same time, I’m still an architect, so I love to make these detailed technical drawings. So, from the free flow of the inspiration, there also comes a time of extreme order and practicality. Architecture cannot be done without this kind of organization, because it's also so easy to get overwhelmed with the data. For example, just thinking about the area near Beirut where I was raised, and where I’ve done a lot of my research… I have so much data that I'm constantly re-organizing! So that kind of calculated approach has a very important place in architecture.

What was it like growing up in the town of Bourj Hammoud, in the suburbs of Beirut?

I’m actually there right now, visiting my family, and coming back makes me realize how grateful I feel for being raised here! We had a pretty family centered upbringing here, you know, I'm Armenian-Lebanese, so we had a strong connection with Armenian culture. Living here was fun, cozy, and very community-focused, which is something that I really appreciate and something that reflected eventually in how I perceive my career in both architecture and design.

“I didn’t have the the words to understand what I was feeling, but when I got older, I realized how much the neighborhood actually had affected me.”

Apparently growing up there is what also first inspired you to become an architect. Why is that?

Yes, this is an area that was built for refugees escaping the Armenian genocide in the late 1800s to 1915. So basically, the first influx of Armenians came here, and initially were set up in refugee camps on the coast. Eventually, the government decided to move them inland to an area that turned into a small city called Bourj Hammoud. This is a place that has also continuously accepted all sorts of influxes of people coming from abroad, looking for work, escaping something, or searching for a home. It’s a city that was kind of built by the people living there, and only a few buildings have had real architects to design them or craft them. The building where I grew up was “designed” by my great grandfather, who was a baker. As a kid, apparently, I had some sort of sense of understanding of the importance of space making, and also that I could make improvements to the space… I didn't have the vocabulary or the words to understand what I was feeling, but when I got older, I realized how much the neighborhood actually had affected me.

It must have also been inspiring to see how the local residents used their own skills to fix up the buildings around them. You’ve coined the term “hackable architecture” to describe the DIY construction that appears around the area.

It’s definitely made me understand how changing small things in the space around you, could bring so much positive change to the user or a community. But it also made me realize the importance of public space, and the lack of urban strategy and governance. It’s really mismanaged, it’s a very dense neighbourhood with almost no budget to build something new — so people just DIY it themselves, using whatever they can find or afford to engineer their own renovations or additions to buildings that need it. The area might look discouraging at first glance, but it’s actually of great value, in my opinion. The change can be something as simple as building a roof for shade, or bringing in a window where you need more sunlight; and that is, with little effort, bringing a positive result for the neighbourhood.

You’re continuing to explore Bourj Hammoud’s architecture possibilities as part of the Rolex mentoring programme right?

Yes, I’m part of the Rolex mentoring programme for the 2023-2024 season, and my mentor, the architect Anne Lacaton, is actually the one who suggested I should do a project here. I explained in my application about how much influence it’s had on me, so she told me we should take advantage of this time together and work on something in my hometown. Her guidance has been so crucial, especially because I have such strong personal ties to the area, she’s been extremely helpful in reminding me of what my role is as an architect. We’ve also decided to take on a project that is really achievable, rather than some big insurmountable idea; we’re focusing on the fact that small changes go a really long way. Anne has such a confidence and a way to get her point across with only a few words — I’m lucky for every minute that I’m around her!

Do you recognize your own values in her work, as well?

Definitely. I think that kind of alignment is necessary for us to be able to properly work together, for sure. Her work is always about empowering communities and having people live in their houses more comfortably, working with humble materials, etc… Her work is in Europe mainly where social and industry conditions are different from a place like Beirut, which makes the dialogue between us more interesting.

“A lot of the times, it feels like you should just perfect one area of your work… But why try to inhibit yourself from trying something that you’re interested in?”

It must also be interesting for you to see the work of other participants in the programme, because your work also touches on objects, interior design, and art installations.

Absolutely, for me one of the most positive parts of this whole experience has been meeting all the other Protégés, there’s something like 60 of them that have taken part over the years. Everyone is just so talented and passionate about their field, and it’s been immensely inspiring to see how people have progressed in their career. I was actually worried that my work might be a bit too varied to fit in with the Initiative, because as you said, my work covers a lot of ground. A lot of the times, it feels like you should just perfect one area of your work… But for me and my studio partner Adrian Müller, we don’t want to limit ourselves. Why try to inhibit yourself from experiencing or trying something that you’re interested in? For instance, a good part of our practice is collaborating with artists to build their installations, while another part is object design, and most recently building-material research for an earth house we are designing in the Egyptian desert.

I think art installations and architecture are more related than one might think. They’re both rooted in problem solving for culture and society, no?

I think maybe the better word in my brain right now is to facilitate. With the artworks, we’re facilitating something that the artist wants the visitor to feel, we’re helping tell the story they want to tell. With architecture also, there are functions and encounters that need to happen, many user journeys that can unfold. Architecture, like installations, enables these movements and experiences through space. Both can facilitate and encourage dialogue and exchange between the surroundings, the materials and with the user.

It goes back to the mix of logic and creativity that we talked about earlier.

Exactly. One of the biggest aims of our work is to be as adaptable as possible to the current and future conditions and needs of the user. This requires an approach that balances logic and subjectivity to meet both the technical and human needs.