Yerevan: The capital in Motion

Interview of Sevada Petrossian, Founder of urbanlab Yerevan with Azad french magazine. You can download the final version in French here

Interview by: Eric Artiga

Sevada Petrossian, how professional are you and what does "urbanlab Yerevan”?
Let me begin with the second part of the question. UrbanLab Yerevan (full name is UrbanLab Yerevan- Institute for Democratization of Urban Planning) is the result of long term collaboration between me and my partner Sarhat Petrosyan. A collaboration that started in the final year of our study at Yerevan State University of Architecture and Construction. That included not only professional aspect, but also civic activities focusing on preservation of urban heritage in Yerevan and advocating democratization of urban planning processes. After years of being involved in both our profession and being in the center of civic initiatives separately, we decided it’s time to bring both under one roof. UrbanLab Yerevan is a multi discipline/research based design and consulting organization, aimed to help having a more conscious approach towards the built environment, advocating the democratization of the creation the built environment by ensuring public involvement in such processes. Since its establishment in late 2011, we’ve organized different kinds of events such as series of lectures or simply meetings with leading and/or interesting architects and other people involved with creation of our built environment, also we’re involved in few alternative educational programs. Besides organizing events we initiated a project for rehabilitation of Kond district (one of the oldest in Yerevan that reached us from 17-18th centuries, almost intact), a decision to prove that we’re not only about to complain and actually are keen to work and face issues. UrbanLab Yerevan has a long way to go and we still in process of evolving, but I think in the very short time of its existence it has already proved to be a new serious force in Yerevan scene.
Now back to the first part of the question. I am very professional!!! (If it was a live audio interview I would be laughing right now). But in a serious tone, I don’t really know if I understand the question correctly... It all depends on how you define a “professional”. I earn my living by doing what I studied and also I’m trying to do it with quality and reason. If we’re talking about visibility of my work in the city, there are some, not as many in quantity that I would liked to, but that has its reasons. It’s not very easy to be a young and independent working architect in Yerevan, but it’s possible and that’s where my partners and I are heading to!

Today, what is the place of Yerevan as a city across the Caucasus and the wider geographical context of a local (southern fringe of Russia, near the near and Middle East)?
It’s not very easy to say, because Yerevan’s status also depends on the political and economic situation in the region. It certainly is not an important economic center as Baku is (because of its oil production) or it is not the biggest tourist destination in the region, but it has its unique status. First of all it’s a destination for many Diaspora Armenians and it makes Yerevan a pretty cosmopolite city. Especially during the past 10 years it was also hosted many expatriates from around the world who came here for different reasons but decided to make Yerevan as their (almost) permanent residence, because of Yerevan’s lifestyle which is not as fast paced as other major cities, but in the same time is pretty active and relatively low cost. On the other hand Yerevan serves as a link between Armenia’s southern and northern neighbors, Iran and Georgia and also gateway to the unrecognized state of Republic of Gharabagh.
Yerevan also stands out among the three major Caucasian cities with its urban structure. All three cities had similar history of development (of course with their own detailed differences), they have been influenced from each other and also from the Iranian, Russian and Ottoman empires that ruled the region in different periods of time, but starting the early 20th century Yerevan “chose” a different path. Yerevan was the only city in the region and went through a complete “remodeling”! With Tamanian’s plan Yerevan’s city structure and architecture dramatically changed, gave it a unique feeling (whether we like it or not) it made the city very different from what it was and what other cities feel like in the region.

If you were to make a remarkable portrait, what words would you choose to identify your city?
I think it would be the lifestyle of the people here. One of the first things I noticed in Yerevan years ago when I moved here (and it’s still like that) was that people “live” in the city! what I mean is that the communication, the contact between people were happening outside their houses, in the public and semi-public spaces of the city; in backyards, public squares, small cafes and on the surface of the city in general. The intensity and the form of that lifestyle have changed in years, but the main thing is still present and in my opinion that’s what defines Yerevan more than anything, the people and their lifestyle. That also has its own effect on the form of the city and vice versa.

What are your views, urban issues for the Armenian capital in 10, 20 or 30 years? (5) What are the priorities? Is it housing, transport, etc.? What is the urban strategy?
Like any other city of the size and status, Yerevan also faces many technical challenges, such as migration (from and to), transport and traffic, environment and ecology, urban fabric renewal, infrastructure, etc. Yerevan started to undergo some major changes as land development became a very profitable business about 10 years ago and the economic state of the city started to improve. But the changes were happening faster than the city authorities could come up with regulations. There was a master plan for the city, but it was outdated and wouldn’t comply with the current needs and trends. Yerevan started to develop without any regulations, based on individual needs and ignorant to some important urban issues and even though a new master plan was imposed later, the damage was done. In the future effects of this unregulated development will be more problematic for the city, especially in a case that no major efforts are made by the authorities to regulate the current situation.
But in my opinion the main challenge we are facing is not a technical one. It’s more ideological and social. It’s about the concept of governing the city. Currently citizens are not involved in the decision making process, even though that’s required by the law. Almost every decision concerning the city is made by a small group of officials (mostly corrupt) and based on short term profitability of the developments. Even any kind of public acknowledgment and discussions held, are done strictly formally and without any real outcome. Changing that is the main priority here. By having a more transparent and democratic decision making process, other issues could be faced more efficiently. A small group of decision makers cannot be aware of all the problems... and most of the times they’re ignorant towards some major issues.
The official strategy reflects in the current master plan of Yerevan. It basically deals mostly with transportation and traffic and land regulation to provide new opportunities for future developments. It doesn’t not offer any radical and efficient solutions; rather it is aimed to soften the current chaotic situation. Its future perspective is set for 20 years, but with the current trends even in a few years we will be facing problems that are not even considered in the master plan.

What new trends emerging in the Armenian capital? Just like what we perceive the past three or four years in different countries (Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Georgia and among the CCEE (Countries of Central and Eastern Europe), the architectural quality it is a major concern guide projects emerging in Yerevan?
Unfortunately the architectural quality is not satisfying here. The major (and official) trend is a poorly revived neo-classic/post-modern style which does not completely reflect either the taste and needs of the society or the requirements of our times. On the other hand there are some who try to be in pace with the current trends of architecture in the world, but the results are mostly unsuccessful due to lack of  social environment for that kind of architecture. The main reason for such poor quality (in my opinion) should be traced back to the educational system in our only Architecture school in Armenia. Also there should be some work done to inform the society about the contemporary trends and issues of world architecture.
In the same time, the economic situation of Armenia and mismanagement of the city authorities, doesn’t allow for Yerevan to be an attractive work environment for foreign architects. While we see in other east European and Caucasian cities works done by world leading architects, in Yerevan has been just one or two examples of work by a foreign architect.
I think the solution to this problem is in alternative education and (again) in making major reforms in city management.

If common trends are illustrated, is that it suggests possible connections? Renovate the city, which naturally involves many aspects of the life of the city (city policy but more broadly in regional development policy, economic, social, etc.), Can be synonymous with cross-border partnerships despite geopolitical difficulties and geographical constraints?
I think communication and collaboration proved to be very efficient means of progress, but in the same time it could cause difficulties, due to differences between people and miscomprehension. But as I said before, I believe that many problems could be solved within a society which is aware of other people’s achievements and challenges. 

Like many cities in the world, "gentrification*" threat does the Armenian capital? Beyond this example, what are the risks to Yerevan in the future if urban developments there not rhyme with consultation and sustainability?
Gentrification had disastrous effects especially in downtown Yerevan where the historic core is (was) located. A complete layer of urban fabric was destroyed and people were literally forced to relocate from where they lived for generations. A new and unnatural form of urban environment surgically imposed over big parts of the old town, without having any concern about the consequences. But unlike other cities in the world, this process in Yerevan took place as a plan, a few peoples ambitions based on and having the excuse of an outdated idea by Alexander Tamanian. This trend still continues, in different parts of the city but mainly targeting historic layers of the urban fabric. The official excuse is that those layers are over worn-out and need to be renewed, but instead a total destruction of the urban structure and replacement with an alien environment is the result. It brings forth many problems, including social, economic, environmental, cultural and urban issues.
This is not just simply a mismanagement problem; this is planned strategy which disables the city from its natural development and sustainability. Yerevan virtually did not have rich or poor neighborhoods, because the communist society would not allow so. But after the independence, things changed in a very fast paced manner. Now this kind of strategy leaves the future generations a more complicated net of problems, which is unique to the Armenian society and so we have to come up with unique solutions.

Finally, for the architect and urban planner you are what are the cities that influence your thinking? What are examples of urban development that seem to inspire positive changes in the Armenian capital?
I think there’s something to learn and like in any city. I cannot come up with specific names, but I can say that I see things and get influenced by them from radically different places. From highway nets of Los Angeles to labyrinths of medieval Venice, from a small town in remote ends of Armenia to the crazy mega-police of Tehran. Cities are marks left on earth by humans’ conscious and unconscious bio-activities. They show us the past and give us signs about the future. They’re the only places where the good and bad co-exist next to each other in harmony. It doesn’t matter how well or pretty a city is, or the opposite, it doesn’t matter how boring or dirty they can be. You can get inspired by observing the marks human life can make and learn from that to make you own environment more habitable and pleasant.
There’s one special thing happening now in Yerevan that will help the city to grow in a better way. That’s the sudden social consciousness of the residents of the city towards the urban developments in Yerevan. I cannot say whether it is influenced by other developments somewhere else or is an internal fermentation. Hopefully that will lead us to changes in the governance of the city and that in its turn will result a positive change in urban quality.

At a time when in France, the eco-neighborhood becomes the key sustainable development operation in terms of planning, thereby improving the quality of life, in order to adapt to the city for future challenges: conserve resources and maintain the landscape, with an objective, creating a supply of housing meets the needs of the population, is it reasonably possible to see such an initiative launched in Yerevan?
In my opinion we still have some years to head towards that direction, for different reasons. But I hope that we won’t be too late. In recent years environmental consciousness has grown in Armenia. There are many active individuals and organizations work hard for environmental causes. But having such planned strategy is years ahead of us... We still have to learn to be an organized society and how to govern ourselves efficiently. We also have to learn from the experience of others, why not the French experience in the eco-sustainability of cities.

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