By Gayane Danielian
A group of renowned Armenian architects are ringing alarm bells over the few remaining old buildings in central Yerevan that seem to be disappearing in a construction boom which is rapidly changing the city center.
In a joint appeal to Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, they called for the Armenian government’s “immediate intervention” in what they see as an illegal destruction of the country’s historical and cultural heritage.
They listed in particular a dozen buildings dating back to the pre-Soviet period that were supposed to be protected by the state but have been torn down by private developers over the past two years. All of those buildings were included in December 2004 on a government list of over a hundred properties that are not subject to demolition.
The list was meant to regulate a massive redevelopment in central Yerevan that began in 2002 and is now in full swing. Hundreds of mainly small and decrepit houses have since been controversially torn down to give way to modern high-rises offering luxury housing and office space.
The letter’s signatories led by Varazdat Harutiunian, a veteran member of the Armenian National Academy of Sciences, believe that the process is threatening to wipe out what remains of old Yerevan. They are particularly concerned about the fate of a famous building that was constructed in 1905 to serve as the headquarters of the regional governor of what then was the Russian Empire. It later housed the government of an independent Armenian republic that existed from 1918-1921.
Karo Ayvazian, a Culture Ministry official in charge of protection of historic monuments, confirmed reports that the government has sold the building to Hirair Hovnanian, an U.S. businessman of Armenian descent. Hovannisian plans to radically remodel the three-story building by adding two more stories and preserving only its ornate façade, he said.
The remodeled building will house the Yerevan office of the Armenian Assembly of America, an advocacy group sponsored by Hovnanian, and private firms. “The historical value of the building will be preserved,” the office director, Arpi Vartanian, told RFE/RL.
But Artsvin Grigorian, another prominent architect who signed the letter to the Armenian premier, disagreed. “They say the building won’t be damaged because they have no idea of what a historical monument is,” he said,. “A monument can not be redesigned or reshaped.”
Mkrtich Minasian, chairman of the Armenian Union of Architects, took a similar view: “Surely, a monument loses its significance when it is torn down or moved. It ceases to be a monument and becomes a mere decoration.”
Minasian also shared widespread criticism of the government’s handling of the ongoing redevelopment. “As a result of these policies, we have been all but deprived of buildings constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” he said.