State Buildings in New Armenia and their Symbolic Roles

Sarhat Petrosyan, architect, urban-planner, urbanlab founder
Հայերեն տեքստն հասանելի է այստեղ

Today as we seem to be approaching the final stage of the formation of the new executive branch of government and the new parliamentary elections are not far behind, I think it is time to start a discussion of the arrangement of public administration buildings and their symbolic role in urban landscape, a topic which might be unimportant at first sight, but, in fact, from the point of formation of new political traditions and given long term perspectives, it becomes a cornerstone issue, in terms of viewing it as firm political positioning tool, as well as  state property management tool on national level, and at the same time as the manager and carrier of content for civic value system.

Back in 2000s, when Armenia was striving for the reputation of "the most organized" state in the region, given the “tiger” development of the, for the purpose of boosting private investments, buildings of several ministries in the centre of Yerevan were alienated, by merging several ministries.

Those buildings included the Ministries of Culture, Education and Science, Health, Labour and Social Affairs, and the Ministry of Environmental Protection, which moved to the third government building, and today, with the exception of the first two ministries, the rest of them are still seated in same building. For the years to come, similar solutions were applied towards the buildings and structures of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Transport and Communications, Emergency Situations and the Ministry of Defence.

These parade of rearrangements might have a positive impact at first sight, considering it from the point of increasing efficiency (current term optimization) or from the point of using public property as an economic incentive, but here we have subordination of visual and symbolic role of state buildings during this crucial undertaking to set and preserve traditions of independent Armenia.

However, today we have what we have, and we need to examine the mistakes of the past, we need to make a professional and political assessment of them and formulate our own vision for the future as a society and a state.

Therefore, through this article, I will try to circulate some ideas that reflect my professional thoughts over the years, as well as the recent political reality, which I think are worth to be raised and discussed.

I think it is well known to us that the building of Republic of Armenia President’s former Administration – that is 26 Baghramyan, is well recognized and has a highlighted role serving as number one building for both presidential and semi-presidential Armenia, in other words it is Armenian White House.

At the moment, there seems to be a political decision that the building shall for some period serve as seat to the Prime Minister, as the head of the country, and in the future it can become the seat of current President’s Administration, the seat of which, given the recent government changes has been changed to the former Reception House, located on Mashtots Avenue, near Matenadaran.

Well, the Reception House is not accustomed to serve for mainly ceremonial duties of the President, but I think it can be fully accustomed to current requirements of President’s Administration, which, by the way, shall make 1/3 of the previous Administration.
Taking into consideration also the change of President’s role, given the political and again symbolic roles foreseen in the new Constitution, it would be desirable not to have any associations with tradition and symbols of the former Presidents.

Thus, we can conclude that in today’s Parliamentary government system, it is not desirable to deploy current President’s Administration in the residence used during former Presidential system.

It was highly welcome and also logical to have Government building (located at Republic Square) as the working residence for the Prime Minister, which again, in both symbolic and political term, highlights the fact of Prime Minister being the head of the state, and perfectly expresses the logic of parliamentary state.

In particular, taking into consideration that the author of the building, Alexander Tamanyan’s primary wish and the democratic concept of the building,  and the fact that the building is located in number one administrative square of the country, it is totally fit for the status of number one administrative building of Armenia.

It should be well noted also, that the legislative branch of the government, seems to have best associations with the current building of National Assembly, which previously served as headquarter of Central Committee of the Communist Party, which during the post-independent period is well perceived as iconic structure of democracy.

By the way, it is noteworthy that there are some public requirements towards the accessibility of the building, in particular, many think the gates and the front park should be open and turned into public space.

Well, I am hopeful that by realizing this requirement, the current fences shall remain intact, since the building and the front park is subject to protection as a single value.

Thus, we are facing a question what should be done with the former President’s Administration building located on 26 Baghramyan Avenue, which was previously used as the seat of the most powerful wing of the country.

Given the change in political reality, which implies reevaluation of the third branch – the judicial one, I would suggest presenting the building on 26 Baghramyan Avenue to Judicial Council.

Mainly, the newly established Supreme Judicial Council of Armenia and the restructuring judicial department can be deployed at the former President’s Residence, thus strengthening the role of judicial power in the public life and in the country in general, along with a number of other reforms.

The problem here has a more symbolic nature, since if a decision is made to have Court of Cassation seat here, or any other major judicial department, then again we can consider our problem solved, and proposal accepted.

Let’s note that today the Court of Cassation is located at the backyard of Prosecutor’s Office, which is unacceptable, while the Court of Appeal is located outside the administrative centre of the city, does not look like an administrative building at all.

Today, with the purpose of allocating a new building to the Supreme Judicial Council, with a series of violations of cultural heritage norms, constructions works are underway on 15 Koryun Street, within the territory of former dormitory included in the list of Protection of Immovable Historic and Cultural Monuments of Yerevan.

I think, given the current requirements to the judicial system, as a result of action including elements of vandalism, the provision of the building to such an important body, is not so rational.

This proposal does not strive to become a final solution, although I think that the transitional government should attempt to make decisions on the basis of comprehensive image of the issue, which will exclude the revision of those decisions in the future.

In my continuous thoughts on relocations and reusage of buildings, during the opening of “Golden Apricot” International Film Festival the other day, I happened to have a glimpse of the old logo of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which reflected the former third Government Building located on Republic Square. In fact, the building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has served as symbol of independent Armenia’s foreign affairs for so many years, currently has a vague future and is under the threat of being replaced by a hotel or offices of private organizations.

It is worth to be noted that the current building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is also reflected in the Ministry’s new logo, although the main element that stands out is the gigantic (and totalitarian) arch – an entrance to a number of ministries, which does not meet the requirement of its iconic role which has been pointed out so vividly,  and is in no way associated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of an independent country.

I think that it was a mistaken approach form the very beginning to build such a combined type of administrative building, which makes it impossible to have proper spatial rearrangement opportunities, nonetheless, they have made a progress in the second government building.
I would not like to refer to the many incomprehensive solutions available in the newly built administrative building, e.g. several  departments of the Ministry of Education are located on the first three floors of the Ministry of Culture, and during hot summers and cold winter the staff of the ministries have to visit each other’s offices by leaving the building and crossing to the next one, or e.g. the staff of right wing of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has to walk up several stairs to meet their colleagues form the left wing, and many other similar problems.

I do not even intend to touch upon major issues that are available in the masterplan, e.g. the building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that is left behind the scenes, which has a more secondary role, than the substation located nearby, let alone the few spots in the parking lot. Of course, some may say that an underground parking lot is foreseen to be built beneath Shahumyan square, at the expense of underground archaeological site, yet it still remains unacceptable and a question rises when and at what expenses it should be built.

I think, summing up all the above stated, it is necessary to take measures to return the old building (second government building) of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and later, supposedly, view several other relocations for the everyday functions of the government, which shall have reorganized and reduced ministries in the future, by keeping in minds the role and historical significance of the buildings.

I think, especially, in case of returning the old building to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the state can draft an interesting proposal to the owner of the building Mr. Eurnekian, find solutions by returning the latter to new Armenia, for the sake of its somewhat revived exterior image.

When we speak about the symbolic importance of state buildings, many imagine only the external solutions of those buildings, yet the inner spatial organization and formation is of no less importance, since they are the ones that make a clear symbolic role and influence. For instance, several years ago, the National Assembly hall entirely changed, and the new wall decorations with alleged historic wooden and golden elements were added to the square shaped meeting hall furnished in the spirit of the 80s. I am sure that many people think this is the way that brings us closer to other parliaments that have a rich parliamentary past, yet it completely slips their minds, that those parliaments reflect the stylistic solutions and aesthetics of the times when they were built ang generally, given that we are I the 21st century, there is no need to recreate a false imitation of parliaments from the 19th or early 20th centuries.
For instance the ultra-modern and transparent halls of the German Reichstag, or even Turkey’s parliament halls that are somehow tasteless, yet are equipped with modern solutions, better reflect the contemporary aesthetics and worldview of those countries, rather than our, sorry for the wording, “rabis” (pompous working class taste) halls, which have recently made their way to government as well.

If I am not mistaken, quite recently, the ballroom and two small halls located on the second floor of the government building were “restored” during Hovik Abrahamyan’s administration. Luckily, they have preserved the government meetings’ hall, the furnishing of which (supposedly that from the 80s) has been kept intact, and you cannot see any excess lavished and unpleasant elements, although there are still some issues in regards to the order of seats of the main cabinet members and adjunct bodies.

I think we shall still need to get back to this issue following the next elections.
To be fair, I must mention that I have noticed two positive exceptions from the series of alterations in interior design of the buildings.

One of them is the solutions in the new building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they have used cheaper material probably because of tight budget, yet they refrain from any “tangled or rococo” solutions, which can be seen in many ministries. The second exception is restoration during Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan’s Administration, where everything seems to have been painted white.

It is a pity, that during this period, the 3 dimensional topographic map of Armenia that was covered with a semi-transparent curtain, located right behind the Prime Minister’s desk, which existed during Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan’s administration, was destroyed or covered.

By all means, this fake obsession with history has deep roots. It started in the 80s, through the simplest reevaluation of new national architecture, which was gradually transferred from suburban houses of former “working class” (Tsekhaviks) to downtown Yerevan, and to state bodies. The same can be said about Northern Avenue, the new gigantic pink building (former territory of the Ministry of Ecology) built on Moskovyan Street, the new building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the new building on 26 Baghramyan Avenue. Not having the intention to decipher the basis of them, my only wish is to make all the efforts to preserve the wholeness of both the interior and exterior solutions of all existing buildings, while making all additions by using material and solutions applied in the 21st century.

And finally, along with the so many wishes, I think that given the new political roles, it is necessary to rethink the solutions of government building located on Republic Square, by adapting the latter to new working regime filled with ceremonial challenges.

By all means, it becomes necessary to conduct a feasibility study in the near future to understand these ceremonial requirements and attempt to rearrange the everyday work of the government within the capacities of the existing building.

It is important that the new managers with new mindsets, in times of transitional reality, should bring in new culture into the government not only through new approaches in their work, but also into the working environment, which can later have a huge impact on architectural perceptions in in general, thus help Armenia get rid of “military-patriotic” or let’s say “national-liberational” architecture.

All these suggestions require serious studies, but there is one thing that remains certain; judicial power should have its main symbolic place and role in our urban image. Several other options can be discussed, e.g. Presidency building of National Academy of Sciences (for special emphasis, not to be stoned, I want to highlight the Presidency building only) or any other option. Yet by simply deploying it in a random building is unacceptable and wrong. Or if we take into consideration that by moving the present President’s Administration to the former President’s Administration, the latter might conceive new wishes, then turning the building on 26 Baghramyan Avenue into the residency of judicial power, shall become one of the most important and symbolic steps in the new Armenia.

///// Creative Common / 2009-2017 //