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'Unlayering' Historical Yerevan for the sake of History: The Imminent Demolition of 'Moscow' Cinema's Open-Air Hall

A useless, ghostly, worn out shell of cement is being torn down in Yerevan. A familiar enough sight in a place where many a building has 'miraculously' been wiped out under the mantle of a single night. But this particular disappearing act is causing a lot of havoc and noise than is normal. Architects are aghast, the Church is voicing its 'rights', while the government is busy drafting various justifications for yet another act of cultural vandalism. The 'concrete shell' in question is a building in a city that had somehow forgotten about its existence, outgrowing, outsmarting its once noble function - to show cinema.

But a city like Yerevan, which operates more as a tableaux vivant or better yet a 'living theater' that would terrify even the glassy-eyed "Magus" from John Fowles' eponymous novel - obviously has no need for the safe dangers of cinematic fiction which can be quietly experienced in a movie theater. The visceral thrills of fiction have spilled onto the street making most Hollywood films pale in comparison.

In fact, out of nearly forty movie theaters that operated throughout the city up until 1991, Yerevan currently has only two commercial cinema houses left - one of which barely operates these days. Which leaves us the 'Moscow' cinema. Built in 1934, it was the first grand movie 'palace' in the capital and has unquestionably remained the favorite film-viewing venue for the locals up to this day. It shut down briefly during the mid 90s due to Armenia's economic meltdown and re-opened in 1997 to a tired, exhausted and in many ways indifferent population that had quickly learned to drown its sorrows in an endless cycle of Latin American TV serials.

By cleverly turning the architecturally beautiful complex of the cinema into a central hub of social networking, the new, capitalist managers had succeeded in slowly luring back the audiences into the theater - despite the abundance of pirated DVDs, illegal TV screening and now, internet downloads.

However, this enterprising beginning did not extend to the open-air Summer hall of the complex that has remained generally unused and shut off from the public for two decades. It is this 'useless' appendage of the Moscow cinema complex that has been put on the chopping block. The Government published its decision on February the 25th, announcing that the management of the 'Moscow' film theater has decided to give this territory (without any monetary compensation) to the Holy Seat of Ejmiatsin, which plans to reconstruct a 17th century church that once stood in that same area.

The announcement generated an large-scale outcry from architects, historians and the general public alike. This must have come as a shock to the parties concerned as the building in question didn't have nearly the same kind of public profile as numerous other now demolished buildings in Yerevan (most striking example of which was the enormous Youth Palace which was dismantled a few years back despite being one Yerevan's significant architectural calling cards).

A bit of back story:

The current site of the 'Moscow' theater used to be an extremely important area of historic and archaeological significance. The central structure of the site was the 17th century St Peter (Surb Poghos-Petros) church, which was built upon the ruins of an earlier, 5th century church that was destroyed during the enormous earthquake of 1678. The entire surrounding territory was heavily built up over the years with quite significant public structures (a large mosque, bathhouses, shops and the like) which in itself constituted an irreplaceable cross-section of medieval Yerevan - now forever lost. After the arrival of Soviet power in 1921, the local government took active steps towards 'rebuilding' of the little 'oriental' town into a modern city worthy of a Soviet capital. This effectively meant the total destruction of the medieval architectural layer - including most of the churches, the mosques, the ruins of the Persian palace and over 90% of traditional houses.

Alexander Tamanian's general plan of the city grafted an entirely new grid-like composition upon the tightly woven, irregular structures of the ancient city. Which meant that everything that stood on the way of the wide, long streets with their sidewalks would have to go. To be fair, Tamanian was very sensitive to the issue of architectural heritage and was closely involved in the study, preservation and restoration of numerous architectural monuments throughout the country. And he did try to save what he considered to be the heart of historic Yerevan - the Abovyan street axis - from significant destruction. Neither are we to suppose that he agreed with the utterly senseless vandalism that resulted in the disappearance of so many of the city's valuable historic buildings. In fact, the demolition of the St Peters occurred AFTER Tamanian's untimely death in 1936. But the fact remains that the great architect planted the seed of rather blind practice of 'renewal' and 'modernisation' and a incomprehensible prejudice against anything 'old' that has plagued Yerevan for over 90 years now.

Ashkharhabek Kalantar (1884-1942) - a pioneering Armenian archaeologist - left an invaluable historical study of Yerevan that gives us a bitter picture of the immense loss of our patrimony in the hands of the Soviet government. His description of the St. Peters' dismantling is particularly heart-breaking (see here). It was done on the spur of the moment, without any preliminary studies or the presence of archaeologists. As a result most of the buildings inscriptions, frescoes and valuable architectural details were lost to posterity. Moreover, during the deconstruction works, many, much older (and more valuable) historical layers came to light, including the well preserved foundations of what appeared to be an extremely large pagan temple. The presence of pagan burials around this structure as well as the discovery of two well preserved Ionic capitals (only a photo of which survives alas) testifies to this exceptional archaeological find that now lies forever buried under thick layers of concrete.

But the deed was done and soon enough the current structure of the Moscow cinema by architect G. Kochar - a handsome and beautifully realised fusion of Bauhaus, Social Realism and Art Deco - was built in the exact spot of the church. The architectural harmony of the small semi-square formed by the cinema and the neighboring hotel Yerevan (designed by another classic of modern Armenian architecture N. Buniatyan) resulted in one of the most perfectly formed corners of the New Yerevan. It was immediately embraced by the public and praised as a complete architectural success all over the USSR (no major overview of Soviet architecture has so far failed to mention this stunning ensemble).

In mid 1960s, during a particularly heightened period of cinema-going in Armenia, a whole slate of new movie theaters were going up all over the city. A very popular mode of film-viewing were the open-air theaters that operated during the summer months in all the major cities of the country. Yerevan to my knowledge had no major structures of this kind and plans were put in place to construct such a hall directly behind the main building of 'Moscow' cinema. The job was given to architects Spartak Knteghtsian and Telman Gevorgian. Both of these architects were proponents of high modernism that was taking a strong foothold in Yerevan during those years. Inspired by the works of such prominent Western figureheads as Sol le Wit, Miers van der Rohe, Asplund and others, Knteghtsian and Gevorgian designed a building that was radically, almost indignantly opposed to the predominant paradigmatic notions in Armenian architecture of the time.

Their hall was poured in concrete, white, cleanly modulated in the simplest of forms, utterly devoid of decorations (aside from mosaic lobby interiors by Hovhannes Minassian and Nikolay Kotanjian - artists who were active proponents of modernism in Armenian painting) and ... most shockingly of all, hardly visible! In short, the building was a stupendously successful example of cutting-edge minimalist aesthetics that was fundamentally different in formal qualities from their surroundings yet seamlessly blended and reflected the more 'extroverted' structures it was called to complement. The hall was not only a small architectural masterpiece (as testified by numerous fellow architects like Jim Torosyan and Albert Zurabian - see here) but also a triumph of urban planning. It turned what used to be a very ugly, empty backyard in the center of the city into a fully functional, modern cultural 'temple' (the building purposefully recalled a Greek amphitheater).

The Hall served its purpose successfully for the next twenty odd years, until the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequently of Armenian economy forced the shut-down of the 'Moscow' cinema in 1992. It has not been in use since, despite the increasing demand for more cultural venues that can accommodate the numerous film, theater and music festivals that have sprung up in Armenia in the last decade. The failure of the 'Moscow' cinema's current management to utilize this unique structure in a constructive fashion is particularly puzzling considering the presence of the major international film festival 'Golden Apricot' that is held in Summer and which it hosts, as well as the enormous festival of theater arts 'Hayfest' (held in September), which is always in desperate need of appropriate venues for its ever-expanding program.

A recently held week-long festival of rock music which finally made use of the open-air hall was an immediate success with the young public who crowded the 'abandoned' amphitheater making it come alive once more. Hopes were raised that this occasion would mark the rebirth of hall. But all these illusions were shuttered when the government and the city council announced its plans to demolish the building and build in its stead a small replica of the St Peters basilica. The ludicrousness of the decision is underlined by the same provincial stupidity that governed the attitudes of the ruling bodies back in 1930s. The senseless destruction of the cinema is called above all "an act of historic justice" (see here) through which the mistakes of the past are somehow going to be redeemed. The proposed new church, aside from its obvious religious function, obviously can not restore any sense of the historical or architectural heritage that has been irrevocably lost. It can not even be an exact replica, since the exact measurements of the old St. Peters don't exist and the exact spot of the structure is taken not by the summer hall (which is much too small) but by the main building of the 'Moscow' cinema.

As a result, if the proposed plan goes ahead, Yerevan will become devoid of a truly unique architectural marvel, not to mention one of the very few working cinema halls still in existence only to gain an unquestionably hideous, ill placed, ungainly symbol of cultural backwardness and religious fanaticism.

The supporters of this ghastly plan argue that the hall has lost its significance and is not a major monument - despite its being placed on the national architectural heritage list (from which it was promptly taken off just prior to the announcement) - and that the city's growing population is "in need for more places of worship" (again, see here). This statement, made by the press secretary of urban development beggars belief, when one considers that barely a kilometer down the street, another large building (the Institute of Languages) was demolished to make way for the Yerevan residence of the holy Catolicos - together with a new, enormous church. Besides, with at least four churches in the small center of Yerevan, it can hardly be argued that there is need for more places of worship in what is quickly becoming a business and shopping district. Whether Yerevan and its population needs more churches is in effect, besides the point. These can be of more use in the immediate outlying suburbs where there have already been successful examples of new temples (such as the church in the suburb of Bangladesh that has helped to humanise the hitherto monstrous conglomeration of ugly high-rise concrete panel buildings). The prerogative is to stop making the same irrevocable, unpardonable crime of ignorance that we've been committing for the past 90 years.

The constant, I would say rabid 'stripping' of Yerevan's historic layers has resulted in a 2800 year old city which has no history to speak of. In the last twenty years especially, we have a lost a more or less architecturally formed city with a distinct aesthetic character and gained a unfathomable Frankenstein monster composed of unclassifiable, idiotic architectural bric-a-brac poured in concrete and thinly covered in a stupefyingly random rainbow palette of tufa stone. Perhaps this latest attempt by the government and real-estate speculators has finally cut down to the bone of the rather passive and apathetic community that had been blankly watching the vanishing act of their city for the last twenty years. The almost unanimous outcry by architects against the cinema hall's demolition, led by the head of their union was echoed by the numerous voices of other intellectuals (from which the filmmakers were somewhat conspicuously absent) and the general public at large.

In a country that is notorious for the severe embargoes placed on free speech, the sound of protest is being loudly heard on online blogs and social networking sites such as Facebook. Initiated by architects Sarhat Petrosian and a group of fellow activists the Facebook group 'Save Cinema Moscow Open-Air hall' attracted over 2000 supporters in just two days. Social activism of this scale (especially in regards to cultural matters) is considered to be unprecedented in Armenia and is getting wide-spread media attention who are closely monitoring the escalating debate surrounding every development in this controversial project. It is hoped that the official appeals sent to the President, the Prime Minister and the Holy Catholicos by a large group of intellectuals will somehow prevent this travesty from becoming a reality.

While the founders of the Facebook group have stated that they're not campaigning against the church (see here), but simply against the demolition of Yerevan's architectural heritage, the unfortunate side-effect of the debacle is that it has pitted the cultural elite against the church. Thus the 'battle' has quickly spilled into a somewhat trite discourse on culture vs religion - an arena where the unquestionable heavyweight is the Mighty God.

Whatever the consequences, it is heartening to see that social activism can make a difference and can make itself heard through the last bastion of democracy we call the Internet.

By Vigen Galstyan March 2010.


Anonymous said...

Thanks! good and very well written article

Arsen "Shur" said...

Great job! Thanks!