This post may seem overly negative – but I wanted to capture the huge contrasts that Armenian people live with everyday. I haven’t been able to tell positive personal stories about Armenians, because they are mostly from people at school, and I don’t want to publish details about my co-workers. In the absence of these stories, then, I am given to contemplate architecture, and the role it plays in Armenian consciousness.
There couldn’t be a greater contrast between the deeply spiritual and kind Armenian people and the alien imposition they are made to endure in the form of Soviet apartment blocks. In a way, the city is just coming out of the shock of disaster, first in the earthquake of 88, then the war with Azerbaijan in 89, and finally the collapse of the Soviet Union in 91. Through the brutalism of 80s architecture, they are made to endure more pain. My goal in this post was to make it to the top of one of these behemoths to see what it actually felt like… if only for 20 minutes.
The walk itself in 20 degree weather and clear skies was pure Prozac. First came the adrenaline, then the vertigo, and finally the sheer panic and claustrophobia. My psychic drama was watched over by a clear and serene Ararat, like Mt. Olympus, presiding over chaos.
I was confident that a 30 minute walk from my flat in Ajapnyak suburb would reveal enough high-rise depression for one day. Three hours later, I found myself in a frenzy of disoriented horror on the 15th floor of the concrete brutalist holy of holies – a set of 8 visual cataracts placed side by side, so that from a distance it looked looks like an entire city block had been sent to Valhalla. If the sublime is meant to make a man shudder at his insignificance, this would indeed classify as a spiritual experience. Certainly one that I would not attempt again without gravol.
Welcome to Yerevan, at the junction of Ashtarak highway and Fuchik:
But first I will show some of the charming downtown buildings, and prove that even Bolsheviks were human enough to enjoy ornamentation and a sense of scale in their everyday life. Artistically, the early Soviet period from the 30s to the 50s was incredibly humane in comparison with the 80s. It reflects the optimism that Soviet republics would respect national heritage and embrace all peoples in a language they could understand. Thank God for Yerevan’s architect Tumanyan and his utopic vision of a walkable downtown. It was better that the old city be destroyed for this purpose, than to be laid waste by the new “international” style borne from concrete specialist Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus school.
Let’s start with Republic Square, built in the 50s, and one of the finest squares in any Soviet Republic:
Next, let’s look at some of the detail and ornament from surrounding buildings down the road:
OK – this post is supposed to be about ugly buildings. In Yerevan, they’re always around the corner, peering over things and messing up your view.
Most early suburbs of Yerevan were built by Kruschev, trying to mimic the downtown tufa stone construction:
Perambulatory behaviour in Yerevan is a joy and a privilege. The decent looking blocks are the Kruschev-era tufa stone, when there was still the faint glimmer that the architect at least wanted to add a roman arch or an ornament or two, but didn’t have the money. Then in the 60s and 70s, it was as if Brezhnev saw the new international style in America out-doing the communists in the soul-numbing apartment competition, and dreamt of eclipsing the sky with concrete. The further out from downtown you get, the buildings get taller and uglier:
Our taxi driver says that early Yerevan architects knew what they were doing, and then suddenly “it was like they had to look on the internet for how to build an apartment.”
The hunt for the ugliest Soviet apartment building in Yerevan is not difficult at first. Then, it becomes an ordeal, as row after row of monuments to pre-meditated soul-destruction reveal new and hideous possibilities, drawing you further into a madman’s dream.
Which photo is better? This one:
The types of buildings begin to take on a family and clan aspect – a cluster of hideous multi-coloured pastel and rust panelled megaliths huddle at one end of the street, and then the same award winning design from the red-starchitect appears a couple blocks later.
Perhaps each perpetuates its individual epigenetic traits in each tribe of inhabitants? Just being around the “Rusting Pastels” has me pining for some Kalashnikov vodka. They make me smile in disbelief.
Wait…. are these actually nice looking? Or do I just remember the previous building?
Let’s make more of them:
At least there is some organic texture on my walk:
Before I come to this:
I’m inspired to see what it’s like inside. Who lives there? How do they get in?
The first thing you notice when you walk up to these beasts is #1. I am going to be crushed to death. #2. I will probably get crushed to death if I stand long enough underneath these protective nets:
This doorway to the “foyer” does not inspire me. Actually it is less inspiring than the sight of the Soviet official and the train. Perhaps because it looks like the steel door on the side of a freight car?
I waited for about 5 minutes for the elevator to arrive. A young couple (blazingly in heat) were pawing at each other (it was Easter Day) while another jealous couple arrived with a cheap bottle of wine to bring to a party. This is where we spent 7 minutes:
My other option was 12 floors of this, only without the flash:
Hmmm. I wonder what a view from the 12th floor looks like?
I am standing here:
Time to go back down:
Moonshine anyone? Wait… is that windshield washer fluid too?
Starting to get a little more civilized: