Magazine Fall 2008 The Architect of the Twelfth Capital

24 August 2008, 16:29
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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.

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