01 August 2013, 15:26
2698 |

The Architect of the Twelfth Capital

History is made in a single attempt; it cannot be rewritten but only revisited. The physical history of Yerevan in the 20th century was written with a bold signature in a swift line and with a new vocabulary, without mistakes or scribbles. First on paper, and then in stone. The author of this new visual narrative was the architect Alexander Tamanyan. He developed the new master plan for the capital city of postwar Armenia, and it’s because of him we have a modern national architectural school as well as the buildings that have become the landmarks of Yerevan.

Right time, right place 
Until the 20th century Armenia had eleven capitals. They varied in terms of the length of their status as a capital, and in their significance in the political and cultural life of the region. However, they all had one thing in common – the best architects and builders of their eras were involved in their construction. When Armenia once more became an independent state, it was evident that the new capital should again be built by the best of the best. 
In May of 1918 on a small patch of Armenia’s historic territories, the Republic of Armenia was born. In spite of the war, economic hardships, and an endless inflow of r efugees from West Armenia, it was an independent state – the long-awaited dream of generations of Armenians. Thus, there was a state, but the capital could not live up to the status of a real city, since the Erivan of 1918, was distinguished only by a couple of dusty streets and shabby clay dwellings. This was the Twelfth Capital. 
In fact, the new Armenian state was very fortunate – it appeared at that same time period when there was someone who was able to undertake the task of creating a new capital. The Armenia of the 20th century co-existed with Alexander Tamanyan and their meeting, in retrospect, seems pre-destined. 
For many decades the official history claimed that Tamanyan arrived in Erivan in 1923 at the invitation of the government of the Soviet Armenia. However, the reality was somewhat different. Alexander Tamanyan moved to Armenia in 1919, during the years of First Republic. At the age of forty-one he already was a professor of architecture, an accomplished and talented architect who had a promising career ahead of him in Russia and Europe. However, his preference was to remain in the broke and devastated Armenia. He was appointed the main architect of the country, and in 1920 he presented a project plan for the reconstruction of Yerevan to the government. When political power was seized by the Bolsheviks in November of 1920, the political crisis forced him to move to Iran and settle in Tavriz. 
Nevertheless, the new Armenian State was twice-blessed, because Alexander Tamanyan was not only a distinguished architect, but also a person who was completely devoted to his nation. Soviet or otherwise, the fact was that Armenia had appeared on the world map, and the construction of its new capital could not be taken off the agenda. The Armenian government guaranteed his family’s and his personal safety, and in 1923 they returned to Yerevan. Ahead of him was a search for new ideas, moments of despair and inspiration, years of hard and intense work, and, finally, world recognition. However, in 1923 his journey to fame was just beginning.

I will live and build in Armenia 
Alexander Tamanyan was born in 1878 in Yekaterinodar and received his elementary education there. He moved to Saint Petersburg in 1897. It was Saint Petersburg, its magnificent squares, palaces, and parks that inspired the budding architect. In 1904 Tamanyan graduated from the Saint Petersburg Academy of Arts and became involved in professional activities. Many of his designs were built in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Yaroslavl, and many other Russian cities. In particular, he received wide recognition for his complex of the Yaroslavl Agricultural Exhibition – the pavilions, built in the style of Russian Wooden Architecture, not only recreated the traditional forms, but were functional and responded to their own time period while preserving the splendor of the traditional Russian architectural vocabulary. The implementation of national traditions in the design of contemporary buildings became one of the hallmarks of Tamanyan’s work.
In 1908 at the request of Nikolai Marra, who was conducting archeological excavations of Ani, Tamanyan sketched a design for a museum in the capital of medieval Armenia. The first encounter with the Armenian architecture of the past did not pass unnoticed, and it awakened in Tamanyan a vivid interest in Armenian architecture. According to his sister, Magdalena Tamanyan-Shaussen, Tamanyan was in St. Petersburg looking through an album with plans and photographs of the Armenian architectural monuments, and he said to his friend, the architect Shreter, “You will see, I will live and build in Armenia.” As it happened, these words were prophetic.
Upon his moving to Armenia, Tamanyan began studying the architectural heritage of his nation. Tireless and constantly seeking – that’s how he was characterized by all who knew him. In spite of his vast professional expertise, he was never satisfied with his knowledge, and always found time to study ancient Armenian buildings. He traveled frequently to the sites of ancient ruins in Armenia, where he supervised the reconstruction works along with Toros Toromanyan – the prominent Armenian architect-historian. He made innumerable measurements, plans, and sketches of these sites; and Armenian medieval architecture became the foundation of Tamanyan’s design of many buildings for the new capital. Armenia captivated and taught him, but also required stamina – there was a huge amount of work ahead. Tamanyan had such an authority that in February of 1926 he received the title of the People’s Architect of Armenia. This title did not exist before; it was especially created for Tamanyan! 
Thinking that Alexander Tamanyan had a prosperous and comfortable life in Erivan would not be fair. His living accommodations were substandard, and his friends continuously petitioned to the government to solve this problem – Tamanyan himself was too modest, and never asked anything for himself. In spite of the strained circumstances, the Tamanyan family was very hospitable. Besides their fellow architects, they often entertained prominent Armenian artists, poets, and musicians – Avetik Isahakyan, Martiros Saryan, Alexander Spendiarov, Romanos Melikyan, and many others. One could also find many famous visitors of Erivan in the Tamanyan home. It was Erivan’s most popular meeting place of the creative intelligentsia.
If matters of personal comfort were unimportant for Tamanyan, the problem of having a normal workshop-studio was crucial. Besides the large volume of projects, the problem was deepened by the fact that Tamanyan’s eyesight worsened as he aged. He needed assistants. However, the one who implements is not the same as the creator himself. His inability to complete his projects discouraged and constrained him. He often had to compromise and even simplify some of his plans because of his inability to carry them out personally.

The twelfth
The national idea of the Armenians about the restoration of their independent state and the return to Ararat was realized in Tamanyan’s general plan – a city in the foothills of Ararat, facing and reflecting its magnificence. The works of Erivan’s reconstruction, interrupted in 1920, were restarted in 1923; and in April of 1924 the general plan of the capital city was approved by the government. Later, in 1929 and 1932, Tamanyan revised the plan, but the main ideas, the basic concepts remained the same. Tamanyan completely changed the historic structure of the city – it was easier to create something completely new, than to improve the existing city plan. Besides, now there was a possibility of implementing the modern concepts of urban planning, to create a new kind of city, convenient and comfortable for all its residents.
It should be mentioned that there were many innovative ideas in urban planning at the beginning of the 20th century. The Englishman Ebenezer Howard offered the concept of a “garden-city”. It called for the creation of new towns of limited size, planned in advance, and surrounded by a permanent greenbelt of undeveloped land. The Frenchman Tony Garnier’s ideas included the separation of spaces by function through zoning into four categories including leisure, recreation, industry, work, and transportation.
Tamanyan creatively rethought these and other new trends, he filtered them through the prism of the Armenian cultural tradition, and implemented it in combination with the “classical” rules of architecture into his general plan of Erivan. According to his design, the city was divided into zones – “administrative,” “university,” “cultural,” “industrial,” and “museum”. Each of these zones had an independent planning model with its own center, parks, and boulevards. All the zones were connected by the shortest possible roads. The independence of the zones made the city into one living organism. The central points of the new plan were two city squares – Lenin’s and the Theatrical, which should have connected by the Northern Prospect. The wide Main Prospect, like a diameter of the ring of boulevards passed through Lenin’s Square. But the greatest advantage of the new city was the magnificent panoramic view of Mount Ararat, upon which many architectural solutions were grounded. Tamanyan’s General Plan accommodated a population of one hundred and fifty thousand, but even today, in a city with a population of a million, it has not lost its functionality and has remained a basis for all further concepts of growing and developing cities in Armenia.
However, the plan was just one of the ingredients of the broader task. Tamanyan was designing not only a new city, but the capital of the new Armenia, one that had to reflect the continuity of the Armenian experience. It also had to serve as the symbol of national integrity of Armenia, of the uninterrupted Armenian history. The residents of the city must not only know and feel, but also should be able to see that they are the successors of the Armenians of Tigranakert and Ani, Dvin and Artashat, Van and Armavir. This called for buildings that conveyed the spirit of ancient Armenia, and were also modern, functional, and comfortable. Tamanyan accomplished this with all his talent and professionalism – the courage and innovation of his ideas in the designs of the new buildings were combined with a careful and accurate use of the Armenian cultural patrimony. The study of all components of the mastery of the medieval architects and its revitalization had a special significance to him. Tamanyan revived the trade habits of builders of the past, and the most ancient building material, stone, was again used in contemporary Armenia. Tamanyan carefully examined each detail and got into conversation with the construction workers and master builders at the construction site. The pillars, arches, and capitals were not simply copied from the ruins of Zvartnots and Ani, but were reinterpreted. Tamanyan was able to preserve the most essential attribute of Armenian architecture – its individuality, as reflected in the artistic perception and attitude towards life of its people, concepts that transcend time.
Alexander completed his works with incredible speed. In 1925- 1932 he designed the Medical, Gynecological, Physiotherapy, Veterinary, Chemico-Physical (later Polytechnical), Scientific- Research Institutes, children’s clinic, observatory, public library, School of Agriculture, and much more. One of the most significant examples of his work was the Government Building on Lenin’s Square (presently the Republic Square) – a notable model of a work with historical material. The aesthetics of ancient architecture were brilliantly translated into a modern architectural language by Tamanyan. This strikingly beautiful building later became the starting point for the development of modern Armenian architecture. However, a creative person is constantly searching and trying to reach the highest, large-scale ideal, implementation of which requires his entire creative potential. For Alexander Tamanyan such an idea was the People’s House.

The house that the master built
The thought to create a theatrical building of a new type came to Tamanyan long ago. The beginning of the 20th century was a period of active search for new, unexpected solutions in theatre directing and scenography. One of the bravest and most innovative experimenters was German theatrical director Max Reinhardt, whose theatrical group toured in Moscow and Saint Petersburg in 1911. The version of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, which was staged not on a theatrical stage, but in a circus arena, left a strong impression on Tamanyan. It was then that Tamanyan started thinking about an idea of an entirely new type of a theatrical building. His personal notes dated December 31, 1911 stated: “I would like to build a theatre. Classical. A strict facade, like a temple. The performing hall resembling that of the Palladievsky Theatre, without the usual ceilings, meaning the ceiling should belong to the theatre, should be supported by the external walls of the building. The walls should be the outer cover of the auditorium, which would be a special, classical temple without a roof, and the entrances into the foyer would be designed in the form of classical temple porticos…” This note was illustrated by a sketch, resembling the single-hall variations of the People’s House plan.
At the end of 1925 Tamanyan brought up a question to start the project of the People’s House in Erivan. It had to be a completely new kind of theatre – a theatre for the masses. The January 1926 Session of the Central Executive Committee of the Trans-Caucasian Federation approved the construction project, mainly because Erivan did not have a large theatre, or any other building which could accommodate a large audience. The work began. The artistic intelligentsia of Armenia took an active role in discussions about the project. Martiros Saryan emphasized that the architecture of the new building should be profoundly Armenian. But there were also opposing opinions as well. In architecture, just like in all other areas of life, the political circles had an important influence. However, Tamanyan had already made his choice – to create a new Armenian architecture based on national and international classical models.
The contest for the best project of the People’s House announced in 1926 did not bring any results – in spite of many rewards, prizes, and many interesting proposals, there wasn’t any noteworthy project for a monumental building which would set the tone for the whole city. Tamanyan’s task was to find a solution to this problem. The People’s House project worried and exhausted, but simultaneously inspired Tamanyan. For years he made sketches, only to reject them and begin anew. He changed the project many times and was never satisfied. What came out on paper did not match the image he created in his mind. Additional difficulties included regular attacks by critics and ideological bureaucrats. Finally, after multiple changes and improvements the project was ready.
Its solution was non-traditional: two semi-spherical spaces, resembling classical amphitheatre halls (summer and winter), together formed an oval, in the center of which was placed the common stage, elevated above all other parts of the building. If the need arose for larger gatherings, the stages would combine into one, and the audience hall would accommodate three thousand spectators. The building was equipped with mechanisms, allowing for the rotation of both stage and seats, which made it possible to implement various stage effects during the shows. According to Tamanyan’s design, the summer hall did not have external walls, and was framed by an archway of pillars open to the adjacent theatre garden.
In the process of work, Tamanyan constantly had to defend the correctness of his concept. It was particularly difficult to preserve the national style of the facade of the building. After multiple “improvements”, after they “optimized”, “simplified”, and cut the expenses, the approval was given to start the construction works. The Committee of the Trans-Caucasian Federation left the approval of the facade design for the consideration of the Armenian government. Fortunately, the government of that time wasn’t lacking in national principles, and Tamanyan’s version was implemented.

Chapel of gethsemane
One of the most painful questions during the construction of the People’s House was the problem of the Chapel of Gethsemane, built in 17th century. It was named after the Bible’s famous Gethsemane Garden. The chapel was located on the land that was given for the construction of the People’s House by the general plan, and it was impossible to build around it. It was 1929. At that time, Moscow celebrated a blasphemous event – the Temple of Christ the Savior was demolished to clear the land for the monstrous monument – the 415-meter Palace of Soviets with Lenin’s statue on top. Tamanyan, on the other hand, along with other titles, was the President of the Committee for the Preservation of Historical Monuments. He could not possibly allow demolishing the chapel –so it was decided to relocate it. After the stones of the chapel were carefully numbered, it was deconstructed, with the intent of its later reconstruction in a new location. However, because of the constant delays of the construction funding, the reconstruction of the chapel was postponed as well. When, as a result of political intrigue, Tamanyan was fired from the construction of the People’s House in 1932, the irreversible happened – the new person in charge of the construction ordered the stones of the chapel to be used for the construction of a house for workers on Byron Street. In spite of the objections of Tamanyan, the architectural monument, raised in 1679, was lost forever to future generations. And so, as throughout the Soviet Republic, old Gods were replaced by new ones…

That what remains
The approval of the People’s House project was only the beginning of its history. The most important part – the funding of the construction – was continuously postponed. Bureaucrats in Tiflis (where the governing organizations of The Trans-Caucasian Federation were located) and in Moscow were not in rush to provide financing for the construction. Finally, construction started with Armenia’s own scanty means. Later, in 1935 the People’s House was included in the list of sites which should had been financed by the Soviet government, but the sum that was set aside to complete the project was just 500,000 rubles, instead of the necessary 31.5 million. But even that funding periodically stopped, and the construction process was uncertain with frequent delays, many specialists refused to continue working, and there was a catastrophic shortage of professionals. In 1936 the funding of the construction of the People’s House and the Government Building in Erivan was withdrawn. Tamanyan himself altered his project, in order to get some means for the completion of the construction. He offered to postpone the construction of the summer hall and got rid of the mechanisms of the stage and the granite refinishing of the facades of the stage box. It goes without saying how difficult it was for him to agree to these concessions. Nevertheless, Moscow refused to give money anyway. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Tamanyan put his whole life into it – completely, with nothing left to it.
Even during the construction works of the People’s House, Tamanyan’s dream was to see his best friend, whom he met back in Saint Petersburg, Alexander Spendiarov’s opera Almast in the grand opening of the building. But the two friends would not live to see that day. Spendiarov passed away on May 7, 1928, and Tamanyan – on February 20, 1936. The architect of the new Armenia did not see his project built. Nevertheless, his project has received the highest recognition: the project of the People’s House received the Grand Prize and the Gold Medal of the World Exhibition in Paris in 1937. It is also significant that until this day the Theatre of Opera and Ballet carries the name of Alexander Spendiarov.
The construction works of the People’s House in a much-altered version lasted much longer – in 1939 the theatrical part of the building was opened for opera productions, and the completion of the building as one enclosed structure and the construction of the philharmonic hall was concluded only in 1963. Neither then, nor after the complete remodeling works of 1980 and 2003, was the original project implemented completely – the mechanisms of the stage were installed only partially, and the outer facing of the facades was limited to the two lower tiers.
The genius ideas live longer than their creators. Not only the People’s House project, but practically all Tamanyan’s projects were not completed in his lifetime. The Central Square and the Government Building, the Boulevard Ring, the Main Prospect, Northern Prospect, many buildings and structures – all were built over many decades, with the Northern Prospect still under construction. Many of Tamanyan’s ideas, like those of most great architects, have never been realized.
At times, it seems that Tamanyan’s projects have existed for many centuries, even millennia, and simply were transferred from the past to the streets of today’s Yerevan. In Republic Square there is a feeling that one is in the very heart of Ani, and the Opera Theatre would be totally in place somewhere in the center of Tigranakert. No one would even think of calling Tamanyan’s Yerevan “Soviet”, although the master created it in the “Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic.” Times and the governments change, only truth remains. Yerevan and Tamanyan stand.

Yerevan Magazine, Fall, N2, 2008

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