Monthly Archives: February 2020

Yerevan’s Architectural Fusion

“Yerevan is unlike any other Soviet city: an intoxicating blend of ancient and modern styles, grandiose planning and small-scale disorder and reminders of a nation’s tragic recent history

The first sights of Yerevan do not suggest a city planned or built with a great deal of care and consideration. Zvartnots Airport, named after a ruined cathedral nearby, is a circus of concrete and aluminium surrounds a derelict central control tower. From this building you can already infer two very important things about Armenian modern architecture: an appeal to the glorious past, combined with a flamboyant futurism and a tendency to neglect. The road from the airport, meanwhile, gives a completely false sense of what sort of a city (central) Yerevan is. Dusty, small houses and dozens of neon-lit improvised kiosks and gas stations, and behind them, the nondescript fortress of what was the largest US embassy in the world outside of Baghdad when it was built in 2005. It’s not here, as it might be in the Baltic, to keep an eye on Russia, but because of Armenia’s position on the borders of Iran and Turkey, and a short distance from Iraq and Syria. And then, quite abruptly, you’re in an absolutely exemplary, planned, and impeccably “European” city.

Yerevan offers the spectacle of an ancient city (it was founded as Erebuni in the eighth century BC — some fortress ruins are preserved in the suburbs) where almost everything you can see was built between the 1920s and 1980s. It also offers the spectacle of a Soviet city where the notion of a “national form” was deployed consistently from the very beginning. Some explanation of this can be found in the horrific events that immediately preceded its incorporation into the Soviet Union. In the 19th century, Armenia was divided between the Ottoman and Russian Empires; the assumption that Christian Armenians would sympathise with the Russians was the logic of the first genocide of the 20th century, the extermination in 1915 of over a million western Armenians by the Young Turk government. Refugees streamed into Yerevan — a small city which became briefly the capital of an fragile independent republic in the aftermath of 1917. The Bolsheviks, who had a large proportion of Armenian activists, eventually retook eastern Armenia in 1920, with the Red Army marching in without firing a shot. Within a couple of years, the Bolshevik government of Soviet Armenia commissioned Alexander Tamanyan — an exile from revolutionary Petersburg — to design a town plan for its capital.

The resulting plan is an icon of the city. You can find it on logos, as a relief in cafes, as an object of branding. It is not a 20th-century plan in any way: with its green Ringstrasse, and its radial spokes terminating in a vast opera house, it was more like the Hapsburg Empire reborn in the Soviet Caucasus. And as with a Hapsburg city, the result is exceptionally pleasant, logical and easy to understand. There is a rhetorical aspect to it, too. Many of the main streets lead up to slopes, from where you can get jaw-dropping views of Mount Ararat, the double-peaked mountain where Noah’s Ark ended up, its snowy top roaring up out of the clouds. Mount Ararat is, however, just over the border, in Turkey. The plan seems to have been deliberately executed to create a longing for the lost western parts of Armenia, and for the hundreds of thousands who were massacred there. It’s town planning as either memorial or irredentism, depending on what side of Ararat you’re on.”

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