A guide to Soviet modernism in the Armenian capital

Architect Tigran Harutyunyan picks Yerevan’s 10 most interesting modernist buildings.

Modernist architecture has dominated Armenia since the 1960s. Industrial cities, giant residential areas, factories – after the collapse of the USSR, the country has not yet managed to implement projects at the same scale. So modernism in Yerevan is not just an architectural period, but an important part of its cultural identity.

Recent years have seen an increased interest in this architectural heritage. In 2012, an exhibition in Vienna dedicated to Soviet modernism was promoted with a photo of the Lake Sevan Writers' House. This year, a week-long conference on modernism was held in Yerevan, and recently the publishing house DomPublishers released an architectural guide to the city, which gave a lot of attention to the second half of the 20th century. The style has become a means of self-identification and the pride of Armenian architecture. Despite this interest, Armenia’s modernist heritage is not going through the best of times, with many buildings threatened with destruction.

The buildings selected for this guide are not as widely known as, say, the Karen Demirchyan Sports and Concerts Complex, the Rossiya Cinema, or the already iconic canteen of Lake Sevan Writers’ House, but they will help illustrate the character of Yerevan’s urban space.

ARMENIAN SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH INSTITUTE OF CONSTRUCTION AND ARCHITECTURE

Architect: Martin Mikaelyan

Years of construction: 1957-62

Address: 3 Avetis Aharonyan Street

The architecture of the scientific research institutes were the first examples of applying modernism in its classical form – solid, clean surfaces, prefabricated panels, and new concrete walling, with pronounced linear aesthetics.

One of the first of these buildings was ArmNIISA (Armenian Scientific Research Institute of Construction and Architecture). The complex has a symmetrical composition and consists of five buildings, with the main building in the middle containing the central entrance, assembly hall, and administrative offices. The structures flanking the main building housed the laboratories. As seen in the early modernist residential buildings, clean forms are largely expressed in the masonry of the walls. The construction of the central complex was one of the first to use a masonry panel that covers the entire wall with a characteristically decorative mosaic depicting the development of construction in Armenia (by artist A. Khachatryan). At the base, the volume is supported by oblique tuff pylons.

With the collapse of the USSR, the institute’s space began to be leased for business and offices. And today the complex is in a semi-abandoned state.

CARDIOLOGY CENTER

Architect: Jim Torosyan

Years of construction: second half of the 1960s

Address: 5 Paruyr Sevak Street

Jim Torosyan, who was named the People’s Architect of the USSR and was associated with the development of the national Armenian architectural school of the late Soviet period, showed himself to be a master of modernist architecture even in his early years. This building is a unique example of the hospital architecture of this period, where the entire hospital complex is concentrated in one volume.

The elegant rectangular plate of the center maximizes the purity of the forms. The whole volume is underlined by uniform vertical strips of light felsitic tuff, and oblique balconies lined with dark basalt give the front of the structure a special effect. The architect also designed the area in front of the building, though the design of the landscape is almost entirely unpreserved.

RESIDENTIAL BUILDING AT THE INTERSECTION OF MASHTOTS AVENUE AND SARYAN STREET

Architect: Armen Zaryan

Year of construction: 1964

Address: 7 Mesrop Mashtots Avenue

Many original modernist buildings were concentrated along the main avenue in central Yerevan,  Mashtots (formerly named after Lenin, of course). In particular, this apartment building is the only building that was not designed by a graduate of the Yerevan architectural school. Armen Zaryan, a native of Istanbul, was educated in Venice, Rome, and Paris. In the 1960s, he moved back to his historic homeland with a solid knowledge base and having implemented projects in Italy and Vienna.

The five-story residential building was built in 1964 – one of the first modernist residential buildings in Yerevan. On the ground floor there is a museum of modern art.

This innovative building created a new aesthetic of modernist architecture while using a traditional material – pink tuff. Both the protruding balconies and the long linear balconies, along with the restrained decorative techniques on the planar surfaces create a bright, dynamic image for this rectangular modernist building.

The building has still not endured any major modifications. In the 2000s, however, a shopping pavilion was built on a coveted vacant site in front of it, thus destroying the whole picture.

THE ORBIT HOUSE 

Architects: L. Balayan, M. Tovmasyan

Year of construction: 1973

Address: 15 Amiryan Street

Various adaptations of standard panel housing can be found on the same avenue. One of them, at the intersection of Mashtots Avenue and Amiryan street, is noteworthy, and is commonly known among the townspeople as “the Orbit.” With its elongated form, this building was designed to emphasize the relationship between the avenue and the street and connects these spaces with the nearby Republic Square.

The symmetrical building of panels lined with brown tuff highlights the white balconies on the four sides of the building. The building was built on a stylobate, the corners of which were resolved by being made into concave, open corners, a popular method for this period.

THE HOUSE ON ISRAYELYAN STREET

Architect: A. Aleksanyan

Year of construction: 1979

Address: 37, 43 Israyelyan Street

This residential complex is located just a short distance from a canyon and carries on a dialogue not only with the surrounding city space, but also directly with the natural environment. The ensemble consists of two separate structures that sit quite close to one another and that span over three and four blocks, respectively.

These are interesting, fragmented rectangular volumes, with a striped texture of orange tuff and bright felsite across the entire perimeter of the buildings. This design stands in stark contrast with the dark gray canyon, while simultaneously acting as the first brushstrokes that introduce the picture of the city.

MODERN ART MUSEUM

Architects: D. Torosyan, G. Aramyan

Years of construction: 1980s

Address: 7 Mashtots Avenue

The composition of five cylindrical windowless forms located disjointly along Saryan street has been nicknamed “the barrels" by locals. Against the backdrop of three multi-story residential towers, the barrels stand out by their scale, restrained style, and geometrical cleanliness, which also comes across through the material of the building's facade – travertine.

The museum was founded by the famous art critic Henry Igityan and became the first institution in the USSR specializing in contemporary art. Today, the building houses the Hay-Art Cultural Center and the Eduard Isabekyan Gallery. The Modern Art Museum has since relocated to the first floor of architect Armen Zaryan’s home.

SUMMER HALL OF THE MOSCOW CINEMA

Architects: S. Kntekhtsyan, T. Grigoryan

Year of construction: 1968

Address: 18 Abovyan Street

This site is one of the most unique examples of modern Armenian architecture and is characteristic of the innovative spirit of the 1960s. The building is located inside the courtyard directly behind the main part of the building of the Moscow Cinema. The screen is located at the southern end of the courtyard and behind it, in the direction of Tumanyan Street, an asymmetric trapezoidal volume in the shape of a bowl is projected at an angle, which is almost invisible from the street. The effect of the composition can only be seen from an elevated vantage point. Initially, the structure had a floating stylobate, deployed along Tumanyan Street; however, it was demolished during the Soviet years, having been deemed inappropriate from an aesthetic perspective. This decision was rather controversial as the construction with the stylobate seemed to be the better option.

It is the summer cinema that represents the most tangible success of a society preserving their architectural heritage. In 2009-2010, the Armenian Apostolic Church intended to use the site to rebuild a church, which was destroyed in 1931 near the cinema. Prior to this, in the early 2000s, the area adjacent to the cinema building was intended to become a multifunctional business center. This project was rejected by the city authorities. And even earlier, in the early 1990s, the architect himself, Spartak Kntekhtsyan, developed a design for a hotel intended to soar above the cinema, leaving the unique structure intact.

While the building is in a semi-deserted state, it is stilljust barely functioning and, as the experience off preserving architectural heritage in Yerevan shows, it will still need to defend its right to exist.

KHACHATUR ABOVYAN HOUSE-MUSEUM

Architects: L. Sadoyan

Year of construction: 1978

Address: 4 2nd Street, Kanaker

The current iteration of this museum came into existence due to the reconstruction of an existing one-story historical building, which was the family home of the great Armenian writer Khachatur Abovyan, built by his grandfather in the nineteenth century. In 1938, a house-museum opened here. Later, a new building was constructed: a two-story modernist monolith lined with orange tuff that hangs over the historic house, completely covering it.

The approach of the house-museum is reminiscent of many memorial buildings in the USSR, although this project has no ideological component.

MARSHAL BAGHRAMYAN METRO STATION 

Architects: S. Kntekhtsyan, A. Zurabyan

Year of construction: 1981

Address: Baghramyan Avenue and Lovers’ Park

The metro in Yerevan was opened in 1981 and has only one line with ten stations. So, unlike the Moscow Metro, Yerevan’s has only one architectural style – modernism. 

The lobby of Marshal Baghramyan station is made entirely of glass and steel, and its image directly references the New National Gallery in Berlin by Mies van der Rohe. It is located in Lovers’ Park and, due to its transparency, naturally blends into the surrounding landscape. From Baghramyan Avenue you can only see it as it floats atop a massive slope made of composite sections. The volume of the lobby is symmetrically divided into two parts by an intermediate bridge. It connects the park and the avenue, and is located directly along the central axis of the presidential house, thus creating a contrasting dialogue between modernism and classicism.

REPUBLICAN CADASTRE BUILDING

Architect: Armen Agalyan

Years of construction: 1970s

Address: 35/2 Komitas Avenue

This building is on the left side of Komitas Avenue and can be seen from almost any point along it. It is a rectangular, elongated volume that was placed across the avenue and is apparently assembled from openwork panels and placed on a conventional stylobate, where the entrance is located. 

The grey, linear building is softened with orange accents, which adds some brightness to its ascetic. The volume of the stylobate has an elongated, horizontal, and rectangular shape that no longer crosses the avenue, but runs alongside it. 

Text: Tigran Harutyunyan
Translation: Maxwell Koopsen