"I have defined my approach to the city as poetic epiphany": Yerevan in the eyes of an architect Andrey Ivanov
In 2014 architect, urbanist and researcher Andrei Ivanov was presented a book "Ierevan. Etudes about spirit of the place." These kinds of books written by an architect are very uncommon. We offer you to read Andrei's interesting interview about his personal view on Yerevan and its athmosphere.
– Andrei, usually the architects tell about the monuments, sights, particular places of cities or town planning stories. And first of all I would like to understand why you chose the psycho-geographical approach to tell about the city?
– I learnt about this approach after I started to write the book, but neither back then nor now I do not master the so called psycho-geographical approach. Even more so, the situationists have worded it in a more complicated way. But I read it and I was curious how this unintentional coincidence happened… Most likely, it is explained by our common attitude towards the city. However I have defined my approach towards the city as poetic epiphany; one of the chapters of the book is entitled the same way.
– It is well known that the situationists headed by Guy Debord in their drifts around the city could go after, for example the scents. There are many photos and quotes from different books at the same time in your book. What led you in Yerevan?
– Most likely my visual impressions were my guide. I always carry my camera with me – I can't do without it. And the older I get the less I shoot trite plots, and look for things that are in keeping with the way I see the city: through details, surfaces, fragments that are similar to the tactual level of a person. You are lucky when people get in the shot of the camera, but it is very hard and it does not always happen. Therefore I take photos of things that do not disappear before your eyes, things that you can look at and grow accustomed to the new area. And, besides architects are well informed about the professional town planning stories, creating myths about Yerevan as a Soviet city. But this city is much more complicated. And you want to know what is going on in this city familiar from the schoolbook. The key person for Yerevan was Aleksandr Tamanyan; an outstanding and important architect in many ways. He is talked about as "the founder of our city, the father of Yerevan", but I was thinking all the time, how this was possible if Tamanyan was working during the 20-30s of the previous century and Yerevan would be soon 2800 years old. I wanted to understand if the great Tamanyan founded the city from scratch or there was a pre-Tamanyan history there and what happened to it. I wanted to find real living pieces of it and study them.
– Did you retreat from the position of psychogeography to archive?
– In Yerevan it is easy to find things that interest you. For example, you are walking with a local and he tells you: "This is Kond. We do not go there, there are only slums there." But you look and find out that it is interesting there! Five minutes from the center you start wandering and find for example a former Persian mosque. Today it is a courtyard built up with 5-6 apartments and all these under the brick domes overgrown with grass, there is a small fountain in the middle of the courtyard and the plastic windows are inserted into the pointed-arched gaps… So far not many people know about this Yerevan, but in the last three years since I have been going there people have already noticed this part of Yerevan, more often they take photos of the old houses, windows and gates. People living there are special, too. And they have planned to demolish this district long time ago, since Tamanyan. The author of the general plan of Yerevan has drawn in the place of Kond a regular circular range, split into pigs like an orange and said that we will have a small museum town here. Indeed the landscape of Kond is a round hill, but the planning structure is different: complicated and twisted. There are three or four main streets and between them lanes, stairs, ups and downs, dark alleys, shacks; everything is intertwisted. But there is no way one can imagine the regular circle and lined radius!
– You said "special people"? What kind of people are they?
– These people live there for generations; they have their own micro world. Both ten years ago and five years ago the developers intended to build a huge amount of expensive real estate in this place, close to the centre, speculating that people live poor here. Indeed poor, but they do not want to leave it. They live in historical and reconstructed houses stacked up on each other and highly likely not fully legalized as property due to the ban on its renewal. Kond like some other vernacular districts of Yerevan fall under the so called system of state needs: it is very simple to alienate a non-expensive property here. It is like to lay a highway through the forest in our country. The upshot is people live on the fence about and undoubtedly, it leads to depression… Although lately in Kond I have seen renovated houses; it means that wealthy people have settled here.
– There are situations when we suddenly "get emotional". Does Yerevan allow sensibility?
– Unambiguously it is a warm city in all literal and figurative senses. As to the sensibility – it is not easy, but it is warm and friendly for sure! Sometimes people speak Armenian around the table, but this should not be perceived as impoliteness, it is natural and easier for them. And you will need to change your role from a participant to the role of an observer and take the challenge: will you be able to understand and get through? As a mononational city Yerevan is not entirely transparent.
– Then how to define the parameters of its friendliness?
– It is the aura of the city. It is 100 percent safe: I have never heard any criminal announcements (except for the news of the demolition of monuments, but it is another case). Despite the ignorance of the language, you feel comfortable; it is not Brazil, where it is very dangerous in favellas! Here people sit in the cafes, walk till two o'clock in the morning, make dates. This kind of mutual trust is very rare. For instance you are taking a photo of someone's house, they greet you, they offer to go into the house, they show you the basement with ancient arches, then they treat you with a huge branch of grapes, invite you to have a cup of coffee, and one cannot refuse it not to upset the owners of the house. Further probably you will be offered to taste homemade vodka or wine, and then the neighbor will come and say that he also has something to be photographed. And all this is very pleasant, the only fear is that there will be many such meetings; you will be passed from hand to hand. The abovementioned is unlikely to happen in the new districts, but in the old districts there are still lacunas of traditional life.
– How did you make it to Yerevan for the first time?
– It was in 1984, in summer. I was working in the Central Scientific Research Institute for Patent Information of town planning and was sent on a business trip to Hrazdan. The research topic was "improvement of architectural-artistic image of the new towns." We were based in the capital. I heard that the concept "Golden Century" of Yerevan is aligned with the 60-80s of the previous century; the capital of Armenia successfully developed and prospered on the background of many cities of the USSR. Later on even a book was written about this time: "Civilization of Yerevan." During my first visit I felt that it was an unusual city, there was a concentrated creative environment there. Even the first official museum of contemporary art in the USSR back then was opened in Yerevan… I wanted to go back there. And when I managed to return in 2011, I started to visit Yerevan often. The first article "Northern Avenue leads to Kond" was published on Archi.ru. The following publications were in the magazine "Yerevan" but I did not even think about writing a book back then.
– Does this mean that the literary quotes that open each chapter of your book already evidence your passion for this city and Armenia?
– Yes, I began to write the book later when I had new plots and impressions.
– There are a number of stories in the book. Are they the keys to the city?
– Basically there is one story; my comprehension of the city, the one that I consider my personal Yerevan.
– That is why it is Ierevan? Does it derive from your last name?
– Of course not. I unveil the secret of the name at the very beginning of the book. The external analogies are not suitable here. For example, the website iyerevan.am invites the citizens and the municipality to a dialogue to improve the life of the capital. But I am not striving to improve my real city. The "i" is mostly the otherness, inconstancy, disappearance, invention, intertextuality and Jerusalemite of the city that I write about. One can make an unplanned drift with my book by reading from any part, from any plot.
– How do you think your reader looks like?
– First of all, he/she lives in Yerevan. I share with him things I managed to discover in the city. And I have talked with many people who are happy with their perception of the city that has become habitual. And who will be the readers in other towns I don't know.
– You have strong "baits": Paradjanov, Saryan, cognac, Zvartnots…
– If the "bait" works.
– May be we recalled Guy Debord in vain here. All the more he has never been in Yerevan.
– All the more no one has been in Ierevan yet? Come in!
Translated by Anna Movsisyan