Levon Vardanyan, the chief architect of the Old Yerevan Project and his wife Marietta Gasparyan, an architectural historian, were the first employees of the Division of Monument Protection when it was created in the 1970s as part of the Yerevan Municipality. Gasparyan is also the author of “The Architecture of 19th to Early 20th Century Yerevan,” where she explains the architectural value of the buildings of that time. In fact, the theoretical approach to the Old Yerevan Project is based on her research.
“One day the Chief Architect of Yerevan, Jim Torosyan, who was also my thesis advisor called and said that I would be working in this new division since I’m interested in pre-Soviet Yerevan architecture and in designating the ‘black buildings’ built from that era as ‘historic monuments,’’recalls Levon Vardanyan.
During Tsarist Russian rule in Yerevan, buildings were constructed that were known as “black buildings” due to the color of the stones used.
This architecture was considered “Tsarist periphery architecture,” which included several Middle Eastern and Armenian influences. These influences were mainly expressed through the buildings’ inner courtyards.
“Ever since my years at university, I always said that the Tsarist era black buildings were under threat,” Levon Vardanyan recalls. “However, other architects refused to acknowledge them as historic monuments.” While working together in the Division of Monument Protection, Vardanyan and Gasparyan started measuring and categorizing these buildings. Meanwhile, they tried to convince other architects and residents of Yerevan that these buildings needed to be protected and given proper status. However, their pleas fell on deaf ears.
The demolition of these buildings started during the Soviet era, because they were considered to represent bourgeois architecture. However, even after the independence of Armenia, active demolition continued.
At the end of the 1970s, Levon Vardanyan approached Soviet Armenian authorities asking them to allow him to carry out his project of preserving the black buildings located between Amiryan and Aram Streets in the capital city. At the time the historic buildings with their inner courtyards were still intact, however the project was not approved.
In 2005, there was only one building left from that area near the intersection of Aram and Byuzand. However, the government, then led by President Robert Kocharyan, began formulating plans for an urban redevelopment plan in that quarter. “When I realized that the remaining historic architectural monuments were to be demolished as well, I went to see then Chief Architect Samvel Danielyan,” Vardanyan recalls. “I explained to Mr. Danielyan that there were buildings there from the Tsarist era and they should be preserved. The Chief Architect did not listen to me and said that the presidential decree had already been handed down.” Vardanyan then went to see Yervand Zakharyan, the mayor of Yerevan. “I explained to him that those buildings were historic monuments and we shouldn’t touch them. Mr. Zakharyan proceeded with the plan anyways,” Vardanyan says.
This was how the Old Yerevan Project was born. The area was divided into five lots, put up for auction and sold to three private companies.
Graphic provided by Levon Vardanyan.
The Old Yerevan Project
While the Old Yerevan Project was approved in 2005, construction only started in 2017. It has been designed to incorporate the neighborhood along Abovyan, Byuzand, Koghbatsi and Aram Streets (altogether 2.2 ha). The Project includes the original residential houses from the 19th and early 20th centuries that are architecturally intact with their inner courtyards and gardens. According to published state data, the project envisions the restoration of the colorful outer brickwork of the buildings from the early 19th century, decorated facades, as well as ornamental wooden or metal balconies.
The Old Yerevan Quarter is going to be non-residential. However, it’s not clear what those 21 reconstructed and restored buildings are going to be used for. One thing is clear: the space is going to serve as an entertainment area with cafes, restaurants, art galleries and museum-shops.
The overall space will have a 7000 square meter glass dome. According to Levon Vardanyan, there are several reasons for this, starting from preserving the harmony of the space to solving issues that may arise from different weather conditions. These historic buildings had stone facades and arched open alleyways. These separated large public spaces from residential homes where you could find gardens and intricate wooden balconies. Since the general appearance of the city has changed to include newly built high rises around that space, the authors intend to build the dome to cut off the Old Yerevan Quarter from that view. They want to create a place where people can stroll and enjoy themselves without having to see modern high rises. Solar panels are to be installed on the sides of the glass dome to provide 24/7 lighting for the space.
The Old Yerevan Quarter has three categories of monuments:
Monuments that have been preserved wholly or partially, which are going to be restored according to the project plan.
Monuments that have been dismantled in the past several years, and the stones of which have been kept. They are going to be reconstructed according to the project plan.
Demolished monuments that, according to the project plan, are going to be recreated based on archival and image measurements.
Levon Vardanyan prepared the architectural model of the project in 2005. The process was slow then and no one was pushing it forward seriously until 2014 when Armenia’s Consul General to France, Vartan Sirmakes, decided to finance the project. The Government in turn passed a decision according to which the lands belonging to the previous developers – Glendale Hills and EMC – which included the streets of Abovyan, Byuzand, Koghbatsi and Aram, should be deemed eminent domain and passed to Old City Company that would do the actual construction. In the graphic below, the sections highlighted in blue belong to the Old City Company.
Currently, the zoning for the property allowed for construction belongs to three companies: Old City CJSC, Serge-Agopig-Der-Sahaguyan CJSC and Starline CJSC.
The original plan of the project foresaw low-level buildings with two underground and two upper ground floors with attics. However, when Vartan Sirmakes financed the project he demanded that instead of three floors, there should be four.
Who is Overseeing the Construction Process of the Old Yerevan Project?
Levon Vardanyan recalls that when the Urban Development Council was discussing the project for approval, the majority voted for the project, including the Council’s President Mkrtich Minasyan.
In 2017, the construction of three buildings started: the Mirzoyan brothers’ residential house, the house designed by Vasili Mirzoev and the home of the Hakhnazaryan family. All three buildings were designed to secure revenue and the outer stone work started in the spring of 2018.
According to a post in the project’s official Facebook page, the design stage of the Old Yerevan Quarter Project was coordinated with the Ministry of Culture, led by then Minister Hasmik Poghosyan, and the Municipality of Yerevan.
The former Minister of Culture, then headed by Lilit Makunts told EVN Report that the ministry had not given approval or permission for the construction to begin and considered it “to be in violation of the law.” The Ministry of Culture also stated in its reply that, according to the decision passed by the Government in 2017, the Old Yerevan Project’s urban development plan was given to the Ministry of Urban Development, which is now the Urban Development Committee. However, the Committee has not prepared nor presented any plan to the Ministry of Culture.
The Urban Development Committee in turn stated in a response to our question (a month late) that they are not the body responsible for the realization of the Old Yerevan Project. Instead, the Project is being carried out by a private developer which has authorization from Yerevan Municipality and the support of the Committee. In their response, they stated: “We would like to inform you that the oversight of the ongoing construction is not within the Committee’s jurisdiction. That responsibility belonged to the Urban Planning State Inspectorate, which has been dissolved. The Inspectorate’s responsibilities have been passed on to the Urban Development, Technical Standards and Fire Safety Inspectorate.”
In January 2019, one of the walls of the building on 23 Aram Street, which belonged to the Little Singers of Armenia and is considered to be a historic-cultural monument, collapsed. The official reason given was that the building’s foundations cracked due to ongoing construction work on the Old Yerevan Project.
During a discussion a couple of months prior to the wall’s collapse, on April 23, Levon Vardanyan said, “When the project was being discussed, my colleagues from the Urban Development Committee said that the sidewalks in the Old Yerevan Quarter were too narrow for public space. To solve that problem it was decided to keep the sidewalks in the section between Abovyan Street and Aram Manukyan’s house the same. The rest of the buildings were to be built with sidewalks three meters wider. It is for this reason that 23 Aram Str. is being dismantled. This building is part of the list of monuments that are to be dismantled and moved.” He added, “The building is right on the edge of the street and since there is only one wall left, we are going to dismantle and move it three meters. This means we are keeping the building in the same area. Besides this, all these buildings need to be reinforced based on seismic norms.”
The Ministry of Culture, in response to EVN Report’s question, stated that the construction on the land adjacent to 23 Aram St. was authorized by the Yerevan Municipality. However by doing so, they violated the demands of technical urban development requirements, which caused the building on 23 Aram to be damaged. The Ministry of Culture filed a criminal lawsuit with the General Prosecutor’s Office. Currently, it is not clear what will happen to the lawsuit once the Ministry of Culture is dissolved.
It should be noted that Levon Vardanyan only took part in the dismantling of the historic Afrikyanner building. According to him, that building is 100 percent preserved and will be restored true to the original. The dismantling of the other buildings were done negligently and without his presence. The damaged stones were loaded on a truck and dumped somewhere. According to Vardanyan, only 30 percent of those historic architectural monuments has been preserved. The remaining 70 percent has to be recreated.
Architecture vs. Pseudo Architecture
Architect Karen Balyan considers the Old Yerevan Project to be pseudo architecture. According to him, the architectural community agreed on this project, however criticism was not welcomed. “You can’t create something old again. There’s no such concept in architecture,” Balyan said. “The Old Yerevan Project is pseudo architecture and a theatrical approach to architecture.” The architect insists that what should have been done from the outset was to preserve the old quarter, similar to the preservation of historic buildings in neighboring Tbilisi. “People should not have believed that it would be possible to restore Old Yerevan through this solution,” Balyan stressed.
Levon Vardanyan states that according to Tamanyan’s layout of the city, that section, also known as the main avenue, had to be a recreational area. Vardanyan tried to stay true to Tamanyan’s layout as much as possible by turning that space into an area for entertainment while preserving the historic buildings.
Karen Balyan in turn recalls that the main avenue was completely surrounded by gardens and was considered an important urban center for Tamanyan who didn’t pay much attention to the black buildings. “Today we are constructing a large number of buildings there and calling it Old Yerevan.This will simply be decoration, a product of pseudo architecture and mass culture,” Balyan said. “We can’t fuse the idea of preserving historic buildings with the idea of urbanization and then say we are preserving historic architectural monuments. Whatever was done in the capital city in urban development since independence was wrong and everyone tries to justify those mistakes by blaming Tamanyan.”
Levon Vardanyan believes otherwise: “We want the Old Yerevan Project to be geared not only toward preserving historic buildings, but also to be a complex on par with 21st century standards.” However, how much of Vardanyan’s architectural signature is on par with those standards, and if he can guarantee that quality, remains to be seen.
Levon Vardanyan considers the Old Yerevan Project his own creative project and often prefers that no one meddle in that vision.
Those who came up with the plan and others who are financing it should realize that this area of Yerevan is in the public domain and belongs to the people. Hence, the voice of the people should have also been taken into consideration. “Perhaps we want to see contemporary architecture which will, in and of itself, be a criticism of the cruel destruction of Yerevan’s heritage,” said environmental activist Arpine Galfayan.
Our generation wants that space to represent ideology, values, new ideas, to be an accessible space for artists and the middle class, and not the next Northern Avenue or a ‘luxe’ Vernissage.” The new Government has to understand that it does not have the right to continue on the path forged by the former government, that is to continue to protect business interests and ruin Yerevan’s appearance. Instead, it should give green solutions to grotesque and ‘illiterate’ architecture.