Monday, January 21, 2008

Preserving Armenia's architectural memory...

Working with the environmental organization Earthwatch Institute, Jane Britt Greenwood is leading a series of architectural research expeditions that will take international volunteers to Gyumri, Armenia. An associate dean at the College of Architecture, Art, and Design at Mississippi State University, Jane and her husband Allen went to Armenia after the earthquake of 1988 to assist in the establishment of the American University of Armenia.

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. In a recent article in the Armenian Weekly, Preserving Architectural Memory, Greenwood describes the Earthwatch expedition as well as the work of the Heritage Conservation Network and Historic Armenian Houses.

“The reminders of who we are and where we come from are inherent in the architecture that surrounds us, yet we often do not realize it until those reminders no longer exist,” writes Greenwood. “When it comes to issues of conservation and preservation, the need to restore small-scale residential architecture is often overlooked in favor of maintaining those structures perceived as having more important civic and/or religious value.”

“There needs to be an understanding of how residential architecture in Armenia evolved so that architectural memories of the past can be re-interpreted to create new memories for the future. Without these efforts, cultural identity associated with Armenian lifestyle will be lost,” cautions Greenwood.

During the summer of 2008, research activities will be in the second of a three-year project funded by Earthwatch. The project, Armenia’s Architectural Heritage, involves the documentation of houses constructed between 1840 and 1920 when Gyumri was known as Alexandrapol. “The residential architecture from this time period is currently at risk of being destroyed due to economic development and to years of neglect in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in 1988,” notes Greenwood.

In 2007, three teams of volunteers documented oral histories while they measured, drew, and photographed five dwellings in the Kumayri Historic District of Gyumri. Greenwood plans to use the information to develop a “visual vocabulary of the elements and components of residential architecture that produce diverse and unique regional characteristics,” which can be used to guide the future growth and development of Gyumri while preserving the quality of its architecture.

The Heritage Conservation Network workshop aims to document the buildings through a process of de-construction and re-construction. Greenwood reports that arrangements are being made with USAID for this project to serve as a job training exercise for masons, with a workshop “to help bring life back to the historic stone residences representative of Gyumri.” Heritage Conservation Network is a non-profit organization located in the US that utilizes the skills and efforts of volunteers to help save the world’s architectural heritage.

One of the goals of the workshop is to demonstrate how preservation can be a cost effective and sustainable process, creating jobs related to restoration and re-construction, and increasing regional income through “heritage tourism.”

Finally, Historic Armenian Houses was formed in 2004 to research and preserve the historic houses of Armenia. “Whether rebuilding in the wake of natural disasters or in response to economic development, there is an urgent need to design and construct in a manner sensitive to the memory of people and places,” writes Greenwood.

“Disseminating information that documents the process used for the Kumayri Historic District will provide a prototypical methodology that can be applied to other Armenian cities and towns looking to construct and design neighborhoods reflective of their national heritage,” she emphasizes. “Identifying vernacular neighborhood, architectural, and landscape pattern languages will provide a guide for designing and building structures consistent with the unique and distinct traditions inherent in Armenian culture.”

For more background and information about this work, an extensive interview with Jane Britt Greenwood published by Hetq Online and the Armenian Weekly is available here (and here in French).