17 August 2023

A City in Oblivion

Yerevan’s dismantled memory and the ambiguity of the city’s perspective

© Har Toum

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The dust of faltering centuries has mounted
in the air and befogged the atmosphere.
When you look through that dust,
people appear to you from afar… afar…

Mkrtich Armen, “Yerevan”

The brick building of the Firdus district located in the center of Yerevan at a short distance from the Republic Square was demolished on June 3, 2023. Reminiscent of the three-year activist struggle, the asphalt inscription ‘OLD IS PRETTY’ was all that remained in place amidst debris and a pile of dust.

Of course, the city is an ever-changing phenomenon, and this changeability is a guarantee of its viability. Like all modern cities, Yerevan also changes, but often in a painful and hopeless way. In the last century, the city, its identity, its memory seem to have fallen into a vicious cycle of obliteration, revision and reformulation. Yerevan’s transformations are diverse, sometimes conflicting and destructive. The cityscape is adding on layers exponentially but those layers encounter the huge issue of following each other, referring to each other and emanating from each other. If this issue were limited only to the image of the environment and the architectural language there might not be a need to problematize it. Yet each layer of the city landscape conveys ideas, culture and, last but not least, memory, which defines the identity of the individual and the public. Yerevan is a city of not only complex dimensionality, but also of a multi-layered population, a city where memories are continually obliterated and, therefore, identities are erased. We are as layered and conflicting as our city. It seems like we are from different Yerevans. We simultaneously live in different cities; our memory, narrative and vision of the city are different and sometimes contradictory. In recent years, waves of activist struggles periodically occur for the protection of memory and identity, and especially in the sensitive post-war reality it becomes essential not to consign to oblivion the struggle for the right to the city, but instead to revisit the past and to understand the events of recent years that brought us to the point of a demolished brick building and an asphalt inscription.

The discourse around Yerevan’s painful transformations and rough interventions with memory is mostly restricted to the chronological range of the post-Soviet city, while the Soviet city is pictured as a nostalgic and ideal past which we have lost or which was stolen from us. In the context of revisions of the city and identity, there is still a need to extend the chronological range and start from the revision of pre-Soviet Yerevan and the master plan of Yerevan, developed by Alexander Tamanyan in 1924, because there can be found the roots of some of the present problems of urban development and challenges of architectural heritage preservation: reconstruction of vernacular districts, destruction of a number of architectural structures of the pre-Soviet period, alteration of the stream of the Getar River and partial closure thereof, ousting Hrazdan Gorge from the center of the urban space, etc. Taking into account how often Tamanyan’s high reputation is manipulated in order to justify the present processes, it should be mentioned that before discussing the contemporary realities there is a need to review the narrative of Tamanyan’s city and to understand the extent of its topicality in light of the present political, social and cultural realities. Soviet Yerevan was constructed primarily on the grounds of the nationalistic narrative. It was later transformed for the purpose of legitimizing and anchoring Soviet ideologies while post-Soviet Yerevan crashed into a new reality where the body of the city, disguised under the veil of luxury, had to serve economic interests and business priorities. There were numerous disputable and problematic processes in the post-Soviet city which feature the contemporary problems of reading the city and interacting with the environment.

© Hayk Bianjyan

Yerevan’s first and probably most traumatic transformation in the independence period was the process of building Northern Avenue and the activist struggle boycotting it (2001-2007). The avenue was still outlined in Tamanyan’s plan and was meant to complement the city’s axis stretching from north to south by connecting the Republic Square and the Opera Theater. However, the plan was not implemented during Tamanyan’s life. The municipal authorities revitalized this idea in the 1960s and even organized a few competitions in the 1980s but none of the proposed options became a reality.

And then in post-Soviet Armenia, in the 2000s, Yerevan’s chief architect Narek Sargsyan, manipulating Tamanyan’s reputation and Tamanyan’s plan, made an avenue construction proposal which was accepted and entered the implementation stage two years later. The project implementation meant abolishing an essential layer of Yerevan’s historical core, as well as blatantly violating the local population’s property rights. The government approved the Law on Alienation of Property Aimed at Securing Overriding Public Interests which created a tool to deprive people of property for the sake of securing the overriding public interest, but gaps in the law offered the chance to manipulate it. In addition, the construction of the avenue became a means of gaining political dividends, creating an imitation of improving the investment environment and ensuring a rapid economic growth.

The citizens started developing a movement against the construction of Northern Avenue. In order to draw public attention to the problem activists employed various methods such as petitions, exhibitions, etc. The people forming part of the struggle movement also tried to ensure legal support for local residents and these activities yielded some effect: many of the residents received compensation for consigning their property. However, some people did not want to leave their homes under any circumstances, stressing the significance of the environment as a vital part of their family history and memory. Regrettably, those people were evicted by force, and their homes were demolished. Activists did not manage to show strong resistance as it was the most repressive period of the Third Republic of Armenia and the decision to construct the avenue was backed by the second Armenian president Robert Kocharyan himself.

Northern Avenue was the largest and most disputable project of the independence period, where an important layer of Yerevan’s historical core was erased and numerous residents’ rights were violated for the sake of profit. Later the European Court of Human Rights made nine judgments against the Republic of Armenia compelling it to compensate local residents. Yet no official or individual involved in the project was held accountable for what happened. The avenue remained as the embodiment of a highly traumatic episode for a layer of society, a monument to the violation of people’s rights, identity and memory. However, the struggle of Northern Avenue later served as grounds for a new urban activism that rejected corruption, gentrification and authoritarianism in independent Armenia.

The processes of Northern Avenue were followed by the Old Yerevan project. It is a reconstruction project which was presented in 2005 but active construction was launched in 2018. The reconstruction activities are in progress in the territory between Abovyan-Buzand-Aram-Koghbatsi streets. According to the project, 14 standing monument buildings shall be preserved in the place, and another 7 historical buildings, which were dismantled in recent years, shall be moved and reconstructed in the area of ‘Old Yerevan.’ Three overground and one mansard stories shall be added on top of the historical buildings. The Republic of Armenia Law on the Protection of Monuments lays emphasis on the role of ‘the territory historically connected with the monuments’ but even the existence of legal regulation did not become an obstacle to the method of implementing the Old Yerevan project which seems to normalize the idea that historical and cultural heritage that ‘creates so many hindrances’ and ‘inconveniences’ can be relocated, stripped away from its cultural environment, that one can demolish buildings preserving only their facades, transforming them into death masks used to embellish the newly built leisure zones and business areas. The Old Yerevan project and in general the demolition and relocation of architectural monuments are almost always justified and presented in a positive light in the governmental narrative and by architectural groups closely cooperating with government circles. The demolition of buildings and obliteration of architectural heritage because of and with the permission of the aforementioned circles themselves is presented by them as something basic and inevitable, while the Old Yerevan project is presented as the only way out of the existing situation, “an opportunity to preserve the buildings on the verge of destruction, as well as the signature features of Yerevan.” [translator’s note: as Varag Siseryan, head of the office of deputy prime minister Tigran Avinyan, stated in September 2020] A question arises at this point. Who are they saving old Yerevan from and what circumstances and disasters destroyed the real old Yerevan?

As an already applicable instrument the disputable law on public interest paved the way for the destruction or, in the best case, relocation of numerous historical buildings of Yerevan to the landmark called ‘Old Yerevan.’ The same fate of destruction was awaiting the Afrikyan Club building, a historical and cultural structure of republican importance. The building was constructed in the 19th century by the Afrikyan brothers as an urban club. During the Soviet period it was given to the National Security Service and was later turned into a residential building. The discussions on the demolition of the structure and its inclusion in the Old Yerevan project started in 2009. According to the municipal authorities, “the building impeded the plan to connect Yerevan’s Teryan Street and Zakyan Street, which are on the same line … 4.0 meters of the ‘The Afrikyan House’ monument building was located in the passable part of the planned joining street, in breach of the construction line.” The law on public interest was once again brought forward which did not contribute to the implementation of projects related to vital and necessary infrastructures, but again served some individuals’ business interests.

© Hayk Bianjyan

The discussions around the demolition of the Afrikyan House became active in 2014. In response to that many people came together trying to draw public attention to the issue and to emphasize the cultural and architectural value of the structure through a more refined language of struggle. Concerts, performances and public discussions were organized in the Afrikyan House. Upon the start of the building demolition activities, the activists took more substantive steps, for instance, they removed the numbering which had been done for dismantling the stones. Unfortunately, the Afrikyan House was dismantled in 2014 amidst promises to restore it in Old Yerevan. The head of the demolition activities, the architect of the new structure to be built in the same place, and the author of the Old Yerevan project are one and the same person, Levon Vardanyan. This circumstance is essential, it shows that the processes existing in this sphere are monopolized and controlled by a narrow group of people.

The next large-scale process of obliteration of Yerevan’s historical layers began in recent years and this time the tide of gentrification reached Yerevan’s 33rd district commonly referred to as Firdus. The alienation of Firdus was launched in 2008 but later discussions on the fate of the district faded away and were resumed only in 2020. The preceding processes suggested the political perspective of the likely obliteration of historical cores developed in the urban environment over centuries. Rejecting the idea of ensuring the preservation and transfer of historical layers and their integration into the new construction activities, the choice again fell on an urban development tactic that tends to serve economic interests. It seemed that the Armenian Velvet Revolution of 2018 would mark the start of a new phase in the development of post-Soviet Armenia and it should have become a chance for reflecting on the past and revisiting the vision for the future.

Even though the post-Revolution processes are not implemented with the use of massive corruption schemes and brutal force, overall the same tactic of urban development and preservation of historical and cultural heritage persists. The discussions around Firdus became active in 2020. Failing to convene a thorough and consistent public discussion and use the competition procedure of the project design, the municipal authorities approved a construction project proposed in 2015 by Narek Sargsyan which fully manifested the political and economic ideas rejected by the revolutionary public. The contents of the project triggered a sharp disagreement among the public and professionals of the field. A building dating back to the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century was demolished in this district in June 2020, and this incident triggered passionate discussion and active counteraction by the civil society.

© Ani Sargsyan

The struggle for Firdus was positively different from the previous civil initiatives aimed at the protection of the urban environment. Due to Firdus: The Memory of a Place research and the struggle for the protection of the district has not been confined solely to the discourse on the protection of people’s property rights and the preservation of ‘pretty’ historical buildings. This work has emphasized the role of vernacular districts in the context of cultural and social memory and has ensured a richer language and firmer ground for activists. In opposition to the project approved by the authorities, the experts and activists struggling for the protection of the district later organized an alternative open competition for the reconstruction of Firdus. The competition results had no impact on the reconstruction project but this competition became an important precedent/example of implementing processes significant for the city through an open competition and a wider public discussion.

The demolition of Firdus is currently in progress. After a while, the small number of families reluctant to leave their homes will also relocate and in a few years this layer of Yerevan’s historical landscape will be entirely lost along with its unique dimensionality, urban significance and socio-cultural memory.

We see that the city continues to transform for the sake of ideas and trends that are not based on the needs and problems of the public. They are state narratives, actions aiming to legitimize the ideas of the authorities and/or simply to make money, and all of this excludes the public. In parallel, the absence of a persistent architectural and urban development mindset is conspicuous: no idea related to the city is implemented to the full, each of them follows the previous one, neglecting the past and the people, their social and cultural memory.

Construction is gaining new momentum in modern Yerevan and this can result in new challenges for the protection of cultural heritage. In parallel to small-scale projects, the question of the reconstruction of Yerevan’s Kond district was also put forward and municipal authorities organized a tender on the reconstruction of Kond. In view of what has happened to Yerevan in the last decades and given the lack of the new municipal authorities’ defiance against it, we do not have any guarantee that the historical layers of Yerevan will not be targeted by the demolition vehicle yet another time. The public is once again all alone when it comes to the protection of its rights to the city.

The militarization following the Second Artsakh War added to the unsettled problems and unformulated principles and has permeated the entire public discourse. The war trauma and daily post-war challenges have made the public insensitive to other aspects of life. There are processes which are ruled out from discussion and popularization by the discursive noise. In this context, it becomes important to stress and confirm that the war trauma and post-war realities cannot cancel discussions and resistance regarding internal issues.

Finally, the most important questions still remain: What is the future of Yerevan? Where is the city heading? Who is going to protect it? What is the vision for Yerevan and isn’t the absence of such a formulation dangerous? Won’t this result in new traumatic events and ruthless transformations? Doesn’t this make the city’s and citizens’ future vulnerable?

The missing, demolished, dismantled Northern Avenue, Firdus, Buzand, Aram, already endangered Kond, seem to reflect the dismantled memory of the city and its citizens and their disrupted attachment to the place. Yerevan is fading away. Letting it go will mean thrusting it into oblivion and dooming its identity to ambiguity.