Regional Modernism

Armenian Regional Modernist architecture: Translation of Tradition in Modernist Language

Yeva Ess

 Modernism in Soviet Armenia

Soviet modernism has attracted much interest in recent years, due to such books as  Frederic Chaubin's 'CCCP' (Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed). The ‘cosmic’ scenes and structures in books like this perhaps present a rather stereotyped idea of Soviet modernist architecture: they certainly tend to overlook the rather different directions taken by the particular category of Armenian modernism.

Just as elsewhere, architects in Soviet Armenia (mainly Leningrad 'VKHUTEIN' graduates) in the early 1920s were very much influenced by the new ideas which came to be called modernism or the 'International Style'. But the new state doctrine of social realism proscribed modernist or avant-garde expression in favour of neo-classical, neo-traditionalist styles in art and architecture. For almost four decades, the country (like the rest of the empire) sunk back into classicism and mutations of the neo-traditional and neo-vernacular.

This situation changed in the 1950s. Once again Soviet architecture was constrained by state doctrines, but this time it was sumptuous classicism which was condemned, [as in the 1955 decree about 'liquidation of excess in architecture and construction'.] Modernism was now politically acceptable: its minimalist solutions had the potential to build more cheaply, and chimed with the Communist Party’s need to catch up with advances in world architecture and technologies in general. 

Despite the umbrella term ‘Soviet Modernism’ for the decades from the late 1950s until the end of the 1980s, many member countries with their distinct history and cultural traditions developed their own idiosyncratic or regional modernist aesthetics and structural principles.

With the advent of the new ideology, Armenian architects who had for decades worked in neo-traditionalist architectural style had to adapt themselves to new ways of thinking and design for which there was no school or any professional-technical bases, neither in the country or in the rest of the Empire.

But for Armenian architects, the deeply embedded tradition of Armenian architecture (evident in the sacred architecture surviving from as early as the fifth century) is based on principles of tectonic connection between geometry of volumes, spatial structure and materials/technologies deployed. On a superficial level, this is austere architecture relatively devoid of ornament. Plain tuff [define] wall usually acts as an architectural theme itself, and the decor appears in places only to stress the structure and the geometry of the composition. These traditional principles, which in many ways align with 20th century modernist principles, accompanied by the widespread use of stone cladding or facing, as well as local ornamental motifs, formed the very spirit of Armenian regional modernism.

In the 1960s, predominantly classicist Armenian architects attempted to shift to the new modernist language. One of the brightest regional-modernist masters, whose work has generally been labelled as neo-traditional or post-modernist, was Raphael Israelyan. Like many of his colleagues, Israelyan started out as a typical neo-traditionalist architect. But unlike others in the Armenian architectural avant-garde who enthusiastically embarked on modernist principles, he openly opposed the rigid language of modernism and its concrete and machine aesthetics.

For Israelyan, context, whether geographical or cultural, and humanness expressed through scale, proportion and materials were the essence of architecture. Ornament, and the warmth of traditional stone cladding, made a building  'readable' by the spectator. He would not sacrifice his beliefs for the sake of what he saw as the austere and rigid rhetoric of glass and concrete modernism.

'Aragil'cafe in the Monument Park (1959, currently abandoned) is another perfect example of Israelyan's regional-modernist architecture. Never considering himself as such, in this building Israelyan has in fact shown himself as a wonderful modernist master despite few decorative classical elements on the front facade that Israelyan most probably just could not resist applying.

After leaving the profession for several years, Israelyan returned with his Sardarapat memorial complex (1968) and the Museum of Ethnography (1978).The memorial complex (a memorial to an early C20 conflict) could be seen as either tending towards post-modernism or a relic of neo-traditional nationalist ideologies and styles. The Museum in contrast had more clearly articulated modernist aesthetics. Israelyan skill, which perfectly links modernism and the traditional, was to translate traditional wood structures of 'hazarashen' ceiling into a concrete structure.

Another  important theme was the wave of national self consciousness, suppressed for decades, that rose up in Armenia and other Soviet countries in the mid-1960s. The revival of folkloric arts and crafts was encouraged, being seen by the Soviet government as a ‘generous’ gesture towards the diversity of nations’ cultures and traditions, without encouraging nationalisms dangerous to the Soviet state.

As a result, monumental arts such as mosaics, fresco and bas-relief began to appear as a means of architectural rhetoric and a part of architectural form. This tendency probably helped Armenian architects to make the shift to the new mode of architectural design.  

Examples of this tendency include the buildings decorated with bas-reliefs by the sculptor Ara Harutyunyan, whose works represent various national historical or mythological themes and  revive the ancient techniques of Urartu (the earliest of the ancient Armenian kingdoms). One attractive example is the Erebunimuseum (Sh. Grigoryan, B. Arzumanyan, 1968), dedicated to the art of the archaeological site of an ancient Urartian fortress, Arin-Berd. The building itself is a metaphor of a fortress, being an enclosed box with plain walls of red tuff. In plan it represents the basic structure of Urartian houses, with an inner courtyard surrounded by galleries with dwelling chambers. The dominant motif is Harutyunyan's bas-relief on the front facade representing scenes from Urartian history using traditional bas-relief composition and technique.

Sundukyan theatre (1966, architects R. Alaverdyan, R. Badalyan, S. Burxajyan, G.Mnacakanyan) is a clear modernist building of steel and glass. Two floors high lobby behind glass facade, as well as the semi circular glass winter garden were truly architectural innovations for Armenian architecture of those times. Ara Harutyunyan's bass-relief framing the front entrance depicts Urartian king Argishti 2nd (who is said to be the founder of theatre in Armenia) and allegorical theatrical figures all again executed in a reminiscent of ancient Urartian bass-relief technique.

In the 1960s many research institutes were formed all over the Union. These institutions were seen as the cradle of scientific advancement and required an equally advanced architectural setting. For the first time high-rise buildings (of ten floors or more) were built using reinforced concrete post and lintel system and glazed facades.

One well-known architect of high-rise architecture was Armen Aghalyan. His buildings often have ornamental facades created with hundreds of concrete brise-soleil elements, for example the Institute of Geodesy (1972-78), the ArmenTel building (1970) and the laboratories of the State Engineering University (1981-85). It could be argued that Aghalyan attempted to translate decorative folkloric ornaments into modernist architecture by using one of its key techniques, the industrial manufacturing of standardised elements. On the other hand, his red tuff decorations once again resemble Urartian motifs or could be traced even further back to Mesopotamian ziggurats. His buildings, contrasting with the austerity of both Armenian and Mesopotamian arts, were often nicknamed 'bonbonerka' (chocolate boxes) due to their overwhelmingly 'sweet' architecture and repetitive elements.

The Institute of Stones and Silicates (architects L.Nushikyan, Z.Tonikyan, V.Tonikyan, 1968) is another typical example of ornamental modernism. A classical concrete and glass modernist building is animated with a 'tattoo' on its side facade, which is a method largely practiced in those times to break the muteness of the facade. The ornamentation theme in this and many other buildings can be argued to be borrowed from compositions of traditional carpets.

One of the most unique examples of Armenian ornamental modernism is the building of Spendiaryan music school (1971, architect R. Zubietyan), which despite its rather poor architecture and an attempt to device a cantilever, showcases a magnificent front facade realized by abstractionist esoteric artist Van Khachatur. The architecture of the facade is tectonically constructed around an ornamental motive. E.g. windows act as a part of the ornamental structure which itself represents another geometrized, modernized interpretation of national ornamental motifs.

In the 1970s and 80s Armenian modernists became more confident in the architecture of pure geometry, free forms and open spaces, and in operating with typical modernist materials such as concrete, glass and metal. Ornaments and monumental art played much less of a role, except in interiors. However (apart from those well-known ‘cosmic’ examples) concrete structures are usually hidden behind stone facing which remains as a characteristic feature.

The two masters of high regional modernism are Stepan Qyurqchyan and JimTorosyan, who transformed surface ornamentation into sculptural structure. Qyurqchyan's most vivid work is the Chamber Music Hall (1977) which while featuring a challenging geometry and structure still retains a traditional air with its plain walls of dark tuff cladding, touches of sculpted decor and rows of roughly-hewn cladding. It is not surprising that Qyurqchyan initially planned this building as a church.  

Whilst Qyurqchyan's monumental abstract forms do not have any obvious national references or iconography, Jim Torosyan's architecture is very much based on forms and volumes derived from national plastic art forms. The 'Cascade' complex (in cooperation with S. Gurzadyan and A. Mkhitaryan, 1972-88) is one of the last and best examples of Armenian high regional modernism. This most decorative sculpted structure is a successful example of contemporary landscape architecture in the best Armenian tradition. Unfortunately the political and cultural upheavals of the years that followed meant that this building proved to be the swan's song of the Armenian regional modernist school.