Used for Wrapping Purposes

Commentary on Modern Armenian Architecture

For the past 30 years, architectural discourse in Armenia seems to be trapped in a self-referential loop. This article will attempt to illustrate the core problems that plague architectural practice and discourse today. It will demonstrate why the architectural style that became widely celebrated during the past decade is as superficial as the old quasi-traditional architecture. Additionally, this article will try to materialise the elusive design method employed by many Armenian architects making it available for critique.

Fragmentation

The only architectural university (NUACA) is certainly at the heart of many problems that harm the field today. The primary shortcoming of the University is the absence of an architectural thesis. One look at the curriculum is enough to realize that architecture is taught as a collection of isolated subjects delivered to students in a nearly arbitrary order. Meanwhile, the underlying thesis that is supposed to relate these fragmented areas of knowledge to each other is virtually absent. Design studios often treat Architecture as a form of visual art. Students are expected to mysteriously create artefacts based on visual references and their architectural instincts. The university neither provides the relevant theoretical knowledge nor the design methodology necessary for the synthesis of orderly architectural structures.

This ambivalent state of the university is also evident when one looks at the publications made during the last decade. The overwhelming majority of the publications are irrelevant to contemporary architectural discourse. There is virtually no significant scientific research happening in the university. Naturally, when there is no production of architectural knowledge, there is only duplication and consumption.

This treatment of architecture as a fragmented body of knowledge with no unifying thesis is something that has left a distinctive mark on the professional field too. Often architectural artefacts themselves are collections of fragments with no underlying idea to bind their constituent parts together. Perhaps the best summary of the current architectural tendencies can be found in Ashot Antonyan’s competition entry for “Reviving NPAK.

Antonyan’s proposal might be quite a humorous one but it is an extremely accurate illustration of fragmented thinking employed by many Armenian architects. For the majority of local professionals, Antonyan’s approach might seem outrageously different from their own work. However, from a little constructive distance, one can recognize that the same underlying logic permeates in all architectural artefacts produced today. Within the context of this article, we will refer to this logic as the Archdaily Syndrome.

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

Abraham Maslow “The law of the instrument”

The Archdaily Syndrome

In the absence of a holistic educational system, browsing through Architectural magazines (Archidaily, Dezeen, Architizer, etc.) becomes the primary mode of education and the main quality standard for young Armenian architects. This can be seen not only in the discussions, lectures or in the quality of architecture but also in the pride that local architects demonstrate when their work is featured online, alongside the works of their idols. However, from an architectural point of view, analysing architecture through the interface of visual representation creates a serious bottleneck.

This deeply problematic process reduces complex architectural ideas with their intricate spatial and experiential structure to flat, fragmented representations (visualization, projection, section). A well-known problem in architectural history beautifully addressed by Eisenman in “Visions Unfolding”.¹

Undoubtedly, when viewed through the lens of representations, architectural design becomes merely a stitching exercise. First, three-dimensional structures are reduced to two-dimensional shapes. Then, shapes are chopped up and stitched with other similar shapes. Thus, architectural thinking becomes limited to composition with a collection of prefabricated fragments found online. Ashot Antonyan’s proposal takes this idea to the extreme however, less radical instances of this process can be found in the works of all local architects.

A strong anti-pattern can be identified in this methodology. First, presumably coherent systems are projected and reduced to representations. Then, these representations are fragmented and mixed with other representations (increasing information entropy). At this point, the coherence between parts and the whole is lost entirely. In an attempt to regain it, different fragments are selectively fitted together. The level of fitness between different parts of the design object is determined by the gut feeling of the master architect who orchestrates this process. When a certain ill-defined fitness is achieved between the visual and functional aspects of the design object, the design process is complete.

What kind of organization is produced by this process? A collage surface would be a natural answer. While it is true that produced artefacts often resemble collages, it would be imprecise to define them as such. The intellectual beauty of a collage is largely derived from the contrast of juxtaposed fragments and the fact that fragments recontextualise their neighbours. These works, however, try to achieve the opposite. By selectively filtering the fragments that “fit” together, architects reduce the tensions between juxtaposed fragments.

Thus, the resulting compositions are not conceptual collages but rather literal Frankensteins. Dissected fragments stitched together attempting to mimic a coherent system. The parallel with Mary Shelley’s protagonist becomes even more apparent when we view these compositions in their urban context.

Given this tendency of working with fragments, it is no surprise that the collage has become the most prolific visual technique for communicating architectural ideas. Below are only some of the visuals that illustrate this widespread tendency.

The abundance of this technique suggests that there is a little more to this than merely a visual preference of one architectural office. It is a symptom of a larger systematic problem that starts already with the university. If the works themselves consist of fragments, communicating them as a collection of fragments is the path of least resistance.

This tendency of thinking in fragments has been accepted for so long that even a totally made-up project presented earlier can be easily confused with a real one. “D’Cascade Résidence” is a mock project assembled from a group of articles (1, 2, 3) randomly selected from Archdaily’s front page. “D’Cascade Résidence” demonstrates the underlying process of the Archidaily method.

A lack of correspondence between outer and inner order produces a clash of orders, which is to say that it introduces an element of disorder… Disorder is not the absence of all order but rather the clash of uncoordinated orders.²

Form vs Formation

Translating an original idea into disciplinary syntax requires creative effort and a degree of competence in one’s own discipline. Vigorous duplication of motifs from foreign architectural magazines can hardly be called original but, of course, the duplication itself is not the core issue. Literate duplication requires a comprehensive understanding of the source material. It is the absence of this understanding that often results in superficial mimicry of representations. This situation is not endemic to Armenia. However, local architects often unknowingly inherited these problems from the sources of their admiration.

The design of the gerberette in “The Centre Pompidou” was a result of a continuous design process. The final shape was the product of the formation process and it bears the traces of this process. The form of the elements is not chosen arbitrarily, it was synthesised to redirect the force flow. The final form is the byproduct of merging the structural and architectural systems that together reinforce the underlying conceptual idea. In the case of “The Centre Pompidou”, this idea is the redirection of flows(force flow, airflow, traffic).

Borrowing the shape of the gerberette and fitting it into a different system will not produce a sound structural logic. It will not reinforce the underlying architectural idea of flow regulation. This borrowing will result in a superficial mimicry that is functional only in the visual domain. Thus the shape will lose its capacity to function as a part of a larger structural system and will become merely a reference to a non-existent process. Furthermore, introducing fragments from other sources will only worsen this situation.

“Internally consistent systems are inherently different from systems of collage. To illustrate this, one could take a radio and either condense its form until it is very small or distribute it, spreading it out over a wide area. As long as no wires are cut the radio would still function, it would still be a radio. This is because a radio operates within an internal logic that doesn’t change with scale but rather relies on ratios. It maintains a systematic coherence. A collage does not behave that way. The collage as a technique relies on elements being recognizably out of context or recontextualized. It is inherently juxtapositional. Simply collaging the elements of a radio would not produce a functioning device.³

Duplication of forms is fundamentally different from duplication of the formation processes.

Modernism Wrapped in Postmodernism

If we try to translate this argument into a more general narrative, we could argue that the vast majority of architecture produced in Armenia is a variation of Corbusier’s Dom-ino diagram decorated with a postmodern “duck-soup”.

Since the date of its publication, Maison Dom-ino had gone through a wide range of interpretations. However, ask any structural engineer why the stair had to be included in the diagram, and it will become evident that Dom-ino is primarily a structural diagram. It is precisely this structural diagram that is exploited to exhaustion in modern Armenian architecture.

The reason for this is rather pragmatic. Stitched surfaces cannot withstand gravity. For an architect who works with fragments of images, things that lie outside the image are a burden. Thus, the Dom-ino diagram is applied to liberate “architecture” from the corruption of outside forces and isolate the surface of the facade for self-expression of the author. Architectural design has been equated to a process of stitching the external layer of the structure with borrowed fragments.

Therefore, on a fundamental level, there is no difference between what is considered old & bad and what is considered new & good. Both are instances of modernist structure wrapped in a postmodernist surface. The only difference is that the “old” and “new” surfaces refer to different sources. The “old” refers to some sort of ill-defined pseudo tradition the “new” refers to the glossy architectural magazines. Both architectures are merely recycled decorative surface used as wrapping paper for repetitive structures. Coherent systematic thinking between structural, architectural and material systems is entirely absent.

This use of architecture as a decoration for the load-bearing structure corresponds to the hundred years old debate on architecture.⁶ ⁷

Why is the vanguard of Armenian architecture moving in this direction with a hundred-year delay?

All Are Equal but Some Are More Equal

One project that deserves special attention is the Rethink pavilion designed by Skillshop. The Rethink pavilion certainly cannot be placed in the same basket as the rest of the projects. It attempts to reintroduce structural systems back into architecture and by this simple gesture breaks away from the Dom-ino mould used by the other practices. Some might argue that comparing buildings with pavilions is not an entirely fair comparison since the degrees of freedom one has with pavilions is much higher. However, it is not the Pavillion or specific buildings that are being compared here. The article focuses on the underlying design thinking and formation process, not the final form.

The gap between the Pavillion and the Frankenstein building behind it beautifully demonstrates the gap between the fragmented thinking of many architectural practices and the more holistic approach applied in the Rethink pavilion.

Despite the fact that Pavillion is a definite step forward it can still be argued that it is not entirely what it aims to be. While the overall idea of this pavilion is fundamentally different, one can still see the traces of similar postmodern thinking. As beautifully pointed out by Tigran Harutyunyan the pavilion uses the rhombus shape of the nearby buildings as a reference point for its geometrical exploration. Despite the fact that the project embodies a new digital mentality it still inherits the postmodern urge of visual reference.

At the beginning of the 20th-century digitalization allowed architects to treat context in a more formalized manner and go beyond visual references. Architects now are able to use contextual information as input to localize abstract geometric structures. Nevertheless, the authors still felt the need for a direct visual reference. This gesture, unfortunately, weakens the underlying idea of the Pavillion. Although, it is important to highlight that referencing in the Rethink Pavillion is done in a more discrete and peripheral manner. It is apparent that the reference is not an integral part of the structure but rather it is an easter egg lingering somewhere in the background. Unlike other projects, the pavilion does not use predefined structural types(Column, roof, Dom-ino) instead it folds the structural and architectural systems together in order to create different spatial and light qualities around it. From this standpoint, the pavilion is much closer to the idea of regulating flows than projects that would directly duplicate the shape of the “gerberette.”

A closer inspection, however, will also reveal a certain discontinuity between the overall form and the chosen structural logic. The pavilion relies on a system of welded joints to ensure its structural wholeness. A more holistic approach would perhaps introduce intersections between each layer of elements allowing the entire pavilion to become an active structural system. The corbelling geometry of the pavilion would become part of the structural and material system reinforcing the underlying architectural idea. However, taking into account limited digital manufacturing possibilities in Armenia it is understandable why this would have been an enormous challenge to manufacture. Ironically, the pavilion aimed at demonstrating the power of the digital approach and digital manufacturing still bears the traces of visual referencing and mechanical production.

Rethink Pavillion is positively different and it is a great sign for the whole architectural landscape in Armenia. Sadly, despite the fact that the project was completed a couple of years ago it seems that it was largely treated as a rouge expression of exotic architecture.

One outlier is enough the affect the average, but it takes more than one to shift a well-established trend.

Thinking in Complex Adaptive Systems

The disinterest in architectural research and the lack of educational institutions in Armenia is a huge part of the current fragmented architecture. Architects have become consumers of outdated architectural knowledge while the university has stopped producing new knowledge. This stagnant environment is a valid explanation for the architectural landscape we see today. However, it is not a justification. The responsibility for producing uninventive architecture cannot be externalized to the environment. The environment is a trigger but how offices react to this trigger is first and foremost a decision made by these offices.

As long as Armenian architects refuse to think in terms of complex systems they are stuck in the postmodern paradigm of using borrowed architectural styles as wrapping paper for unimaginative structures.

Important Notes

1) This text should not be taken as a personal attack. Many of local architects I know on a personal basis and they are great people. The text is a critical look at their work. The purpose of the text is to start a discussion.

2) Despite the first disclamer I fully realize that this article will make some people angry and probably wont make me many new friends :) However, before taking the role of misunderstood artists its important to understand that this kind of professional “friendship” is part of the reason why architectural discourse in Armenia has entierly vanished . Instead there are localized gangs of architects who continously praise and promote eachothers work creating self referential loops. Any critique of the work is often seen as a attack on a person behind the project and therefore on the whole gang. In this kind of environment meaningful discussions canot be facilitated.

3) I am well aware that being an architect in Armenia is not easy. However, using this hardship as a justification is also part of the reason why there is no constructive discourse in the field.

4) In many ways being a consumer of architectural knowldge is advantageous position because you don’t have to invent new knowledge, you just have to wait for everything to be invented and duplicate. While it is advantagous for offices with a production line it can hardly be called interesting.

5) To focus the argument only architects living and practicing in Armenia were taken into account.

6) Some things are better visible from a distance.

7) As the Armenian proverb goes “The red cow won’t change its hide”. Most of the offices in Armenia are well-defined businesses with a stable production line that pays off well (by Armenian standards). There is no incentive for these offices to innovate and change (yet).

References

[1] Peter Eisenman: “Visions Unfolding: Architecture in the Age of Electronic Media”.

[2] Rudolf Arnheim: “Entropy and Art: An Essay on Disorder and Order”

[3] Jesse Reiser and Nanako Umemoto: “Atlas of Novel Tectonics”

[4] Peter Eisenman: Duck Soup” (Log №7 (Winter/Spring 2006)

[5] Le Corbusier: Et Pierre Jeanneret: Oeuvre Complete De 1910–1929

[6] Heinrich Hübsch: “In What Style Should We Built?”

[7] Rober Venturi: “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture”

[8] Greg Lynn: “Animate Form”

About the Author

I am an architectural researcher/Ph.D. Candidate at Aalto University.
You can get in touch with me on LinkedIn, Medium, and Facebook.

Researcher and Ph.D. Candidate at Aalto University. My research interests include Architecture, Mathematics, Geometry, Information Theory, and Computer Science

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