Saturday, August 18, 2007

Armenia’s Architectural Language: Getting Lost in Translation

Armenia’s Architectural Language: Getting Lost in Translation

An Interview with Jane Britt Greenwood, AIA

By Khatchig Mouradian and Jason Sohigian
(Joint Exclusive: Armenian Weekly/Hetq Online)
April 16, 2007

WATERTOWN, Mass.—Jane Britt Greenwood has seen some of Armenia's struggles first-hand. An associate dean at the College of Architecture, Art, and Design at Mississippi State University, Greenwood and her husband went to Armenia after the earthquake of 1988 to assist in the establishment of the American University of Armenia (AUA).

After leaving Armenia, Greenwood began looking for ways to be involved in the reconstruction of the country she had come to love. As an architect, the rebuilding of Armenia's infrastructure interested her, but she was disappointed to find that the new buildings generally lacked the traditional Armenian character.

Working with the environmental organization Earthwatch Institute, Greenwood is now organizing four 11-day architectural research expeditions that will take international volunteers to Gyumri in June and July 2007.

Volunteers will identify and document the historical architectural elements and patterns in the historic districts, which will contribute to a database of architectural information that can be accessed by planners, architects and designers in Armenia.

For more information about this project or to join as a volunteer, visit:

The following interview with Greenwood was conducted by phone on April 4.

Armenian Weekly/Hetq—How did Earthwatch Institute become interested in the Armenia expedition?

Jane Britt Greenwood—I proposed a project to Earthwatch a few years ago in Haiti related to vernacular architecture. They were interested in that project, but there was a coup in Haiti so it was put on hold. My program manager for that project knew about my interest in Armenia, and he asked me for another proposal that dealt with architecture.

Earthwatch gets a lot of proposals for projects that do things like work with endangered species like turtles and manatees, but they don't have many projects that deal with architecture. When Earthwatch tries to promote sustainability and the environment, they recognize that architecture is a part of the issue of sustainability, so they asked me to write another proposal that dealt with vernacular architecture. Since my interest has been in Armenia for so long, I wrote a proposal for this Armenia project.

AW/H—What specific observations do you have about Armenia's architecture? What are the traditional features and what is being built today?

J.G.—From a scholarly point of view, the information that is being been written has been mostly about churches. That is part of the cultural identity of Armenia, but there are other smaller structures that have just as much to do with establishing the identity of this country. People often don't see the value of smaller buildings such as houses and municipal buildings, but they have a lot to do with placing a country within a context of social and political issues.

In recent years there has been an economic boom in Armenia, especially in Yerevan, and I have seen a homogenization that is taking place within the architecture there. Near the Opera, the buildings are like a mini Times Square where you have billboards that are illuminated and you've got these modern office buildings going up with the horizontal ribbon windows. And when you take photographs of them they could be going up anywhere in the world.

My fear is that—and this is typical for many cultures that are trying to move forward from an economic point of view and trying to position themselves on the world stage—they look at what is being built in other parts of the world and they think, “We need to build glass boxes, we need to be like everybody else.” While that is certainly good, it causes people to not understand the value of their history and their architectural history and heritage.

From my point of view, a lot of that heritage in terms of housing has already been destroyed in Yerevan—you just don't find it anymore. In Gyumri, in the Kumayri Historic District and the old Alexandrapol area, there still are existing examples of Armenian architecture from the early 20th century. And I haven't seen anything like that in other parts of Armenia.

In the long term, I would like to see this project branch out into other areas, because I think Goris has great a vernacular cave typology, and Dilijan has a different type of housing typology. You start to see that the architectural structures are really specific to a location and the different regional influences of the community and the people. From an architectural point of view and a research and an academic point of view, that is information that needs to be documented and preserved.

It would be a terrible shame for Armenia to lose that part of their culture and history.

AW/H—In some historic parts of the U.S., you can't even paint your house a certain color. Yet in a place as old and historic as Armenia, it seems like you can build just about anything. What is going wrong with architecture in Armenia?

J.G.—There are a few factors, from a housing point of view, and at least in Gyumri. People fundamentally want shelter, and they want shelter that is safe, dry and comfortable. In Gyumri, a lot of people are still living in domiks, or in one or two rooms of a house because the rest of house was damaged in the 1988 earthquake. Many of these families don't have the resources to repair the houses, or when they do they are not as concerned with maintaining this sort of historic character. It's not a high priority—and I certainly understand that.

While there is the Ministry of Culture and there are some entities that deal with preservation, I don't know how well standards are enforced. It really has to occur at the local, municipal level, but a lot of people are still struggling with the day-to-day issues of living and surviving, so these issues really aren't in the forefront for them right now.

AW/H—What are you expecting to get out of this expedition? What could it lead to?

J.G.—It is fundamentally an educational process, it's a way to educate citizens of the value of historic structures. There is value in the long term. There can be tourism value, if it can be promoted so people will travel to Gyumri to look at the houses in this historic district.

But we also have to be careful. Through the development of a “pattern language,” I would like to be able to establish design guidelines and a strategy for growth. When people want to build in this area, it's not that everyone has to build like historic Alexandrapol. But there are qualities and components about these buildings—in the way windows are designed, for example—there are sustainability issues that need to be maintained. There is a lot that we can learn from these structures that will help the planning of the future of Gyumri.

If and when the border of Kars and Gyumri opens up, there is going to be a big economic boom in Gyumri. So, that historic district is at risk of being destroyed through this whole notion of economic development, and if we go through this process of education and documentation and look at restoring some of these structures, we can get a foothold in helping people recognize the value of what they have.

AW/H—What are the prospects of getting work done on the ground in terms of implementation? Is there a framework for future suggestions for approaching the government or municipalities?

J.G.—One of my long-term goals is to purchase one of these historic structures and actually go through a preservation/restoration process. This is a way to create jobs in the area, because there are a lot of skills in masonry and ironwork.

Gyumri has a rich history of artists, so there is an artistic culture and crafts culture that is being lost. It's a way to create jobs for people, to create a niche in the country for creating these kids of artifacts, returning to ironwork, stonework, masonry work, and educating the public and educating people with specific skills. Through that we can approach the government, if we can show that we are creating jobs and creating an environment that is becoming pleasing for people.

I think Gyumri is a welcome relief from the heat and smog of Yerevan in the summer. It is a matter of trying to sell the vision of what Gyumri could be. I'm just one architect with these ideas—all I can do is start with my project. And with awareness at the grassroots level people will become more interested in this and we can see where it goes.

The politics in Armenia are very complex and I'm not the person to get into that, but through this project and by raising awareness maybe someone can work from these ideas and help move the government, or at least the Gyumri government, toward these ideas. I know it is not going to happen overnight—it is a very complex problem from a political point of view—but as an architect all I can do right now is try to document, preserve and gather oral histories from people about their lives in these houses, what has been important to them about these houses, what is the social structure of family life as a result of these houses.

AW/H—There is pressure on people if they speak out about these matters and say, for example, that construction projects are destroying the heritage of Armenian cities. The atmosphere in Armenia is difficult in that respect. Do you have local partners in Armenia that are helping you with this work so you can be successful?

J.G.—I have been working in Gyumri with the City Research Center. Over the past 5-6 years, they have been developing a digital database of the buildings—they have been photographing and cataloguing the buildings, which has been great. But they have not been analyzing the buildings, looking at trends, and looking at it from a social behavioral point of view. So my research is trying to take that to the next step. But I have heard that it is difficult if people try to speak out, so all I can realistically do is document it.

AW/H—Are the construction projects in Armenia following any guidelines or do you think they maintain the heritage of the country?

J.G.—My impression is that there are some guidelines but they are not being followed. But it is the complexity of the political system and the building codes. And you find that in the U.S. as well, so it is not something that is specific to Armenia. Even developers in the U.S. know there are rules but they try to get around them, and it really depends on how strong the entity is that is trying to monitor it. If you don't have a strong municipal government or preservation group, you really don't have a way to find out if the preservation guidelines are being followed.

Quite often money speaks louder than anything, especially in a country that has been deprived of economic development for so many years. And it is hard to argue with that—I understand that. So it is a matter or trying to take one step at a time so we can document this. These buildings could be destroyed by earthquakes—and a lot of the buildings have been damaged by water over the years. There may be a point where someone says it is not financially responsible or feasible to maintain the buildings. Even in the U.S. when they look at restoring a structure there is a financial bottom line.

AW/H—You mentioned earthquakes—is it true that some of the new buildings going up begin to crumble before they are even finished? Is the new construction being built to withstand earthquakes?

J.G.—It is my understanding that things are supposed to be built to meet earthquake standards, but whether or not they are, I can't answer without speaking to architects and building inspectors there. But that's what I find interesting about these historic buildings. A lot of the buildings in the Kumayri Historic District have withstood two earthquakes, while those built after the Second World War didn't. There are a lot of things we can learn about the way those buildings were constructed—there are thermal qualities to those buildings, and there are a lot of lessons we can learn from that to help guide us in the future.

AW/H—How is this expedition being promoted in the international community? How are you trying to recruit volunteers for the trip?

J.G.—Earthwatch has an aggressive marketing strategy for all of their projects. They are contacting people like yourself and other Armenian media, promoting the expedition among their own volunteer networks internationally, and there is information about the expedition on their website, In Armenia, we are going to distribute material at hotels around Gyumri and Yerevan, and we are hoping to do a TV spot when we get there in the summer.

AW/H—If this trip is successful, is there potential for other Earthwatch expeditions in Armenia?

J.G.—Absolutely. There are plenty of archeological areas that could be investigated. Earthwatch has expeditions that document flora and fauna. From my point of view, Armenia has some beautiful flowers and wildflowers. There is a lot of opportunity for Earthwatch to be involved in Armenia—it is just a mater of finding other individuals like myself who are interested in trying to do something like this.

AW/H—How did you get interested in Armenia?

J.G.—My husband and I were living in Boston and he was teaching and saw an ad in the Chronicle of Higher Education about an American university [American University of Armenia] that was being initiated by the Diasporan community in California. His background is in business and engineering, and those are two areas in which they were starting programs, so we went over in 1992.

The Armenian government had given AUA some property in Abovian to build a new American style university, and they hired me to be the university architect. So I was the liason with architects from the University of California.

There were a lot of changes. The original site we looked at was a munitions storage area, and the site literally blew up the day after I went to look at it, so we spent a lot of time looking for another site. My final recommendation was that they stay in downtown Yerevan because transportation was an issue for people and no one knew what the future would look like.

Being there for a year and a half, I found the people to be very warm and everyone makes you a part of their family. It is a beautiful country, with so many different facets—it is so small with a varied landscape. I really fell in love with it and was fascinated with it, and I was looking for some way over the years to get involved architecturally with what was going on there.

I left in 1993 and I didn't return until five years ago, and I have been going back every summer since then to develop partnerships and look for projects. And I finally connected with the City Research Center in Gyumri ( I have a real passion for the country and the people and I am interested in learning about the culture that built this architecture.

AW/H—In the Earthwatch Institute's catalogue you say, “Join me on this exciting expedition to Armenia—it will truly be a life changing experience.” How do you think people's lives will change if they participate in this expedition?

J.G.—They will have a better appreciation of another country and they will learn a lot about themselves. Going to Armenia was a life changing experience for me at many levels—I realized I was stronger than I thought I was both emotionally and physically, and I think other people will find this as well. It is still a hard life in Armenia, and people will understand from a sustainability point of view that, for example, you don't need to take a shower for 15 minutes and use that much water.

Those sorts of life experiences are what I mean—and with architecture we talk about sustainability, green design and waste—but when you can experience another culture that really does so much with so little, then people will understand that you can do a lot with a little, and there are a lot of things we can cut back on in our lives in the U.S. or in the UK or Australia or wherever you are from, and you can still have a rich and fulfilling life.

Volunteers will learn about themselves from this experience, and they will learn about Armenia and architecture. It will make them look at their environment in a different way. It will make them realize they can make a difference in their own environment. Any time you have an educational process, if you can reach one or two of your students each semester, you have done a good job because they can go and reach other people. Whatever little progress we make will be a big step toward change somewhere down the line. I may never see it, but someone else might see the work we are doing and carry on from there.

You have to start somewhere, and I think this is that start.

Khatchig Mouradian is the editor of the Armenian Weekly (
Jason Sohigian is deputy director of Armenia Tree Project (


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