We are excited that our Delve Fabrication + Art speakers, Annie Coggan and Fiyel Levent, have agreed to write guest blog posts for us this month! Today we have Fiyel Levent, who launched her own studio, The Atelier, exhibiting work at various galleries that drew inspiration from her interest in Central Asian and Islamic Architecture. In 2013, Fiyel Levent Paper Goods began as an extension of The Atelier, where her experimentation and love affair with paper was hugely incorporated into her lighting designs, and so the move to develop a stationery line was a natural one.
The significance of traveling
I grew up traveling very often. My mother worked for an airline her entire life, and since her side of the family lived in Finland, we would visit them regularly, numerous times a year. I grew very close with my grandparents and cousins, and I now know that it was an enormous gift, this experience of travel, ingrained in me from such a young age. Throughout the years I have continued to travel, albeit less frequently particularly now that we have a child, but the sense of exploration and adventure never leaves me. Even my relationship with my husband has been deeply rooted in our love for discovering other worlds. Traveling is an integral part of the work that I create, but more importantly, who I am as an individual.
Over the years, the kind of traveling I’ve become increasingly interested in has taken on more extreme characteristics. It is not really a leisurely pursuit I am after, but rather an adventure that activates my senses and forces me to think.
It began some years ago while I was still in college, working on a research and design project involving the significance of water and the fountain infrastructures of Istanbul: the political, the economical, religious and cultural dimensions the element of water added to the city. During that semester, I was able to organize a solo trip, to document and research a set of maps I found there, the first time I had ever traveled with a sense of expedition. A few years after that, I received a grant that allowed me to fly to Andalucía in southern Spain; I sought to understand the use of geometric ornament throughout Moorish architecture as a symbol of their humanity. Their society, during certain periods, was marked by great tolerance for various faiths and peoples; far from being isolationists, foreign commerce and immigration were encouraged. My journey there revealed a great deal about this society, the most fascinating element being this dialogue existing between societies, which was made evident through the architecture.
It was really the next opportunity that introduced another level of intensity. Having applied and received a grant from The Center for Architecture in New York, I was able to travel the Northern Silk Road. I had dreamed of tracing this ancient route that carried so many ghosts, perhaps because I had envisioned my ancestors also traversing along it, (though I am a New York City girl, born and raised in Queens, my lineage is Tatar and stems back to Tatarstan in Central Asia) and so the idea of this journey, for me, carried with it a mythic dimension.
In the fall of 2011, I embarked on a voyage to trace this route; the trip was to begin in Uzbekistan and end in Xian, in central China. The purpose of the trip was to explore the relationships between different peoples over time, continuously reflected in their built constructions. These relationships are particularly evident in Central Asia, a vast, restless region where for centuries cultural exchange was the norm. The cities and towns along the Silk Routes, stretching from Asia Minor to the East China Sea, are layered with a rich body of architectural history that reflects this dialogue between various cultures. My aim was to document the architecture through a series of photographs: a visual essay.
I traveled for a little over two months and visited the most crucial and amazing sites that had been on my list from the beginning. In the end, it wasn’t enough time and the trip took on many other layers as well. I hadn’t taken into account the distances and the traveling snags I would encounter along the way. Compared to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, China was immense and it took days to travel by land from one point to another. Organization was complicated, communication often puzzling and laborious.
Our experiences included taking a ten hour taxi ride through the mountains in Kyrgyzstan, with four people crammed into the backseat of an old jalopy, one of them being the most well behaved five year old boy I have ever met. We haggled with taxi drivers, slept on overnight buses, ate strange foods, got cross examined by locals and had brief encounters with strangers who offered to share their homes with us. Some sites, like the Maijishan Grottoes, took days to reach using different modes of transportation, from trains between cities, transferring to buses, then to local buses, followed by a climb along a narrow path through the mountains. Many of these sites were isolated, free from tourists, and we wandered alone along the mountainous caves and Buddhist statues that were built centuries before. It felt strange and liberating to encounter a dilapidated old mausoleum, for example, or a collection of Balbals – prehistoric stone grave markers - in the middle of an empty field, sitting modestly by themselves when one comes from a culture that places such strong emphasis on historic preservation.
Our entire trip was marked by such novel incidents. The destinations, my mapped out architectural sites, were magical experiences and have informed my design work both directly and indirectly; the voyage itself, as a whole, fundamentally changed who I am. My little world here in New York, a delightfully comfortable domain in which I live and work, was whisked away and I was standing face to face with more primal, humanistic affairs. When I travel now for work purposes, exploring architectural wonders or various other cultural artifacts, of course I look forward to being inspired. But it is very much the voyage I anticipate most, nearly a meditative act, which I know will reawaken my sensitivity towards various human conditions and allow me to view life from a much broader context.