ARCHITECT JIM TOROSYAN: TRADITION IN MODERNIST ARCHITECTURE Interview with architect Davit StepanyanArmArch
ArmArch: Jim Torosyan started his architectural
career as a typical modernist architect but made a shift to traditional
architecture at one point. How and why did this shift happen?
Davit Stepanyan: This transition happened after 1975, although before then he referred a lot to traditional ornamental motifs in his small architectural forms (street furniture), such as memorials, drinking fountains, etc. It is very difficult to use traditional motifs tectonically in modernist architecture, which was the main architectural tendency back to those days.
On the one hand Torosyan was very well familiar with the architecture of Renaissance, on the other hand his professors-modernist and functionalist architects Karo Halabyan and Samvel Safaryan played a great role in his professional formation as an architect. He had also studied with Rafael Israelyan and Grigor Aghababyan, who taught him the art of uniting traditional and contemporary architecture. His trip to USA was another influence on his professional handwriting. He was very impressed with the prominent modernist architects of those times- Niemeyer, Khan, Portman, Van der Rohe, etc. This influence and admiration with western modernist architecture is evident in his designs of the 8th Policlinic and of the Scientific-Research Institute of Cardiology, whereas the Pavilion of Industry at the VDNKh complex is rather an expressionist structure, which was a double-curvature dome structure. He was the first architect in Armenia to use this structure, which was later adopted by other architects, yet Torosyan himself refused afterwards working with plastic expressionistic forms and went on working with rather rigid and geometric forms of pure structuralism. We could claim that structuralism by means of its pure geometric forms and tectonic unity of the overall structure responds better to the essence of Armenian traditional architecture. We could observe a similar but principally phenomenon on the example of Japanese traditional architecture, where the silhouette of traditional curved roofs was easier to translate into expressionistic ‘dialect’ of modernist architecture. Armenian traditional architecture is devoid of expressive forms; hence any attempt of translating the principles of traditional architecture in an expressionist-structuralist mode would yield a non-organic, formalistic result. Most of architects would simply avoid this subject. For example, Rafael Israelyan believed that creating plastic forms by means of steel and concrete structures was not the only method of being ‘contemporary’, and preferred to work in the system of strict and ‘dry’ structuralism. His design principle is closer to that of Louis Khan or Alvar Aalto, rather than, let’s say, Eero Saarinen. Although Israelyan too, being in essence a traditionalist architect, had attempted several designs of large-span plastic forms, which were still rather sculptural.
ArmArch: How did Torosyan, after all, unite the traditional and modernist architectural principles?
Davit Stepanyan: He possessed perfectly well modernist design principles, which are present in Armenian medieval architecture as well-structural thriftiness, simplicity, overall integrity and unity of function and construction, etc. For example the building of the Town Hall despite its seemingly decorative façade, has a totally tectonic structure. It is a post and lintel system building, the structure of which reflects its construction. There are no partition walls, wherever there was a need to fill in the space between columns, glass partitions are used, the construction grid can be overall read even from within. As about decorative motifs and artistic finishing, Torosyan used to polish their design to clean it up from all redundant elements and until it would reach its maximum simplicity. This is true minimalism which consists not in denying the ornament, but in making it devoid of all possible excesses.
ArmArch: In your article about the Obelisk dedicated to the 50th anniversary of Soviet Rule in Armenia designed by Jim Torosyan and Sargis Gourzadyan you bring very interesting facts about the application of pre-Christian symbols in it. Why did they refer to that historical layer? Did they mean to convey a certain message or it was simply used as a reminiscent of national symbol?
Davit Stepanyan: Construction of this monument had a very interesting history. In 1965 a competition for the design of the memorial was announced by the the government of Soviet Armenia, which was won by the team of Jim Torosyan and Sargis Gourzadyan. In the initial design the obelisk finished with its three-part dented structure, which was taken from the so called border-stones of king Artashes. The then Soviet Armenian society didn’t know about its historical reference and perceived this structure as simply a form which gave them some phallic associations and nicknames. Yet during one of our conversations Gourzadyan deliberately accentuated the fact that the reference to the historical border-stones had a particular message. According to the authors they tried to connect the structure of the Obelisk with the fact that back to 3rd century B.C. in Armenian kingdom these border-stones carried important state records particularly regarding land regulation between the peasants and the landlords. These regulations contributed greatly to the formation of united Armenian Kingdom. Despite that the Obelisk itself was dedicated to the Soviet rule, yet the message of the authors was deeper, it praised the Armenian national statehood.
The Obelisk was 50 meters high which was perhaps a reference to the 50th anniversary of the Soviet rule. However given this height, overall proportions and particularly the circular symbols of eternity on four sides of the column, it was strangely perceived and gave way to the above mentioned phallic nicknames.
ArmArch: How the culminating 15 meter high ending was added?
Davit Stepanyan: I believe this was a retrospective decision taken under the pressure of the mocking and criticism. So far as I am concerned Torosyan and Gourzadyan asked for the help of their elder colleague Rafael Israelyan to solce this design problem. In the memoires of one of their friends he remembers that Israelyan spent several days in the studio of his former students working on this design. He mentions an episode when Israelyan asked to spread the designs of finished project in the courtyard of the studio and looked at it down from the window to perceive better the proportions. Torosyan himself had told me another anecdotic episode remembering that after completion of this last part’s construction he and Israelyan climbed on the top of the Obelisk (there are stairs inside the column leading to a narrow terrace on the top of the Obelisk) to celebrate its construction. But only after having drank substantially they realized that they couldn’t go down the steep stair in their tipsy state. So, they had to wait until they would become sober to be able to go down.
ArmArch: That 15 meter addition represents an image curved on several Urartian plates which are kept in the Museum of History of Armenia. Was this reference again another intentional message?
Davit Stepanyan: Gourzadyan had told during one of last conversations that I had with him that this design was developed throughout multiple sketches. Nevertheless I am sure that Israelyan who worked with them on those designs was well aware of those artifacts, because it was him who designed the cellars of the Wine Factory, which were erectred on the place of a former Urartian fortress with towers similar to that 15 meter decorative motif. The only difference is that in the initial Urartian fortresses that architectural motif was a spatial, volumetric structure, whereas in the Obelisk they used the frontal projection of that motif on the bases of its image appearing on antique excavated plates and turned that image into a symbolic silhouette. The golden leaf culminating that 15 meter structure is also an ancient Urartian motif symbolizing the tree of life.