7  22.02.16 - Bernard Khoury - architect
Dangerous interpretations of history and loss of identity in new buildings

Bernard Khoury:

Dangerous interpretations of history and loss of identity in new buildings

PanARMENIAN.Net - Well-known Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury recently paid a visit to Yerevan. Khoury is famous for his modern architectural solutions, innovative and non-standard approach, which repeatedly led him to be called the bad boy of architecture. Khoury’s works can be seen all over the world – in Dubai, Italy, Beirut, Mexico, Kuwait, Venice, New York, among many other locations. There’s a tribute to Khoury’s mastery in Armenia as well: the architect authored Tumo Plaza, the internal design and square of the Tumo Center for Creative Technologies.

Khoury has been visiting Yerevan for already 10 years, and, as he says, is pretty familiar with the city. The architect believes the Armenian capital to have a “high level of complexity”; despite its respectable age of 2797 years the city looks really young for its age, he said. Very soon, Khoury will make a close acquaintance with Gyumri as well. The architect will use his unique style on one of the oldest and most beautiful buildings in the city – the theater building, which, after remodeling, will house Gyumri’s Tumo.

PanARMENIAN.Net spoke to the architect about the Armenian capital – its appearance and specifics, its missing and excessive traits, as well as Gyumri theater’s “revival” project, with Pan Photo documenting his stroll around the disappearing Yerevan.

Traits that Yerevan Lacks

It’s important that your city lacks. It has to lack, because perfect cities are boring. Who wants to be in a city that lacks nothing. That gives you things to do.

There are visible things in your city in terms of the lack: I’m seeing quick disappearance of very intricate, very important part of the city which is the old fabric, buildings that are being replaced by higher, more dense structures. Not that I’m against density, but unfortunately most of the constructions we see around Yerevan do not translate the more contemporary, more interesting culture of this place. I see new buildings that have an identity problem. They try to superficially replicate the architectural features of the old buildings, but I’m strongly opposed to superficial reproductions of history.

These superficial reproductions are simplistic, dangerous interpretations of history. When you’re no longer capable of translating your present culture onto your territory in a true, contemporary and honest way, you tend to erase and dangerously censor your culture.

So as much as most of your historical buildings are the reflection of your rich cultural background, I’m worried that most of the present constructions do not do that.

My advice is to avoid turning a building into a mummy and try to assume your intervention in the present, because everything happens in the present. Your take on history in always through the present and your projection of the future is always through the present.

I’m very suspicious of those architectural works that you see reproduced around different cities. That is unfortunately the same job of the so-called star architects. There’s always a visually recognizable syntax, aesthetic to these buildings. I think I have a problem with that today. I don’t believe in the blind reproduction of a recipe anywhere you go. Every time I intervene somewhere I want the place to have serious influence on my behavior, the way I would do things.

I find that a desperate attempt to become local is in fact a part of a very global phenomenon – you end up producing generic, global kind of situations, and the contrary most often is the truth.

Strangely, the most specific places that produce the very specific sense of place are most often the product of very spontaneous acts, acts that are not worried about identity complex. Spontaneity produces very specific, very honest places that become very singular.

The Generics of the Northern Avenue

Well, we have a lot of generics here, on Northern Avenue. This whole avenue is very generic.

The old buildings around here, being demolished to make room for new ones, represent a phenomenon that I see in many cities, involving buildings of a certain age, which don’t have any obvious references to a relatively recent past that the consensual history wants to glorify or remember.

So these “fresh cadavers” are being wiped out, annihilated, censored, put in the trash bin of history. That is unfortunate because it’s very dangerous to be in denial. Because one can produce relevant meaning out of this recent history by having a pertinent take on it.

This might be one of the reasons why you see many of these buildings disappear from your cityscape. Another reason why your see those buildings disappear, is because the city gets denser. When you have a building that is 3 stories high on a plot that today by more recent regulation can take a building that is 7 or 8 stories high, it’s a normal conclusion that the owner of a plot will demolish the 3 stories to build 8 stories because there’s a financial reality here.

It would be unfair to hold the owners of this building responsible for its disappearance of these traitors of the past. If anything, it’s up to the governmental or the institutional bodies to regulate this by compensating those who’re allowed to build more in some financial way. And there are mechanisms to do that – many cities exercise air rights, rights for a virtual space the owner of the building in one area can sell to a different area that the city decides to densify. So, at the end of the day, density is not a bad thing as long as it’s done in a controlled manner.

About Tumo

The collaboration with Tumo started 10 years ago and it’s a very interesting story because I came in at the very beginning and I don’t think anyone of us knew how far Tumo was going to go. So I witnessed the genesis at the beginning of the Tumo phenomenon which is really a fantastic story. Tumo is a very unprecedented model; from educational and cultural viewpoints it's very unique, very heroic.

What I mostly enjoyed about it relative to my role was the fact that as Tumo in my opinion is an invention – I’m talking on an educational and operational levels - we were very keen on inventing even the architectural instruments that would contribute to the development of this phenomenon. So my role in TUMO was that of a mechanic –I was one of the mechanics that was assembling and putting together the machines that were necessary for this system to operate with the help of the whole team. Think about it like a Formula 1 team – there’s a mechanic, there’s an engineer, there are pilots, there is a promotional team – it’s a teamwork. Everything had to be thought of in terms of ultimate performance – think of the ceilings, think of the workstation, think of the power cords – every single component had to be the result of a very specific task it was supposed to perform. Tumo is a very Armenian phenomenon. And it’s very much in the present. Think of Tumo as the result of the best of what modernity has to offer for an architect.

Gyumri’s Tumo Construction, Preserving an Old Building

The work on Gyumri’s Tumo will be an interesting intervention on a building that has history and is loaded with memories. But we’re certainly not planning on turning the theater into a mummy. Nor will we reconstruct the theater as a kind of a transvestite of the past. We will be preserving its fantastically solid walls, but our interventions will consist of very recognizable layers that we add to the existing structure, layers that are assigned very specific tasks and performances, and this will materialize in a very honest way. Any added layer would assume its status as an added layer. We will not produce fake imitation of parts that would supposedly be replicated, we will not replicate any missing parts or parts that are subtracted from the construction. Remember, we don’t produce fakes. We don’t produce fake body parts. If anything, we’ll be adding to the building the missing prosthesis, marvelously fantastic prosthesis that act in complete and a very distinct contrast with the existing recuperative elements. I think this is the biggest respect that you show to what you call history by refraining from diluting an ingredient with its fake reproductions.

About a Ministerial Building Constructed in the Location of a 1930s' Sevan Hotel

The relationship of buildings to temporality is drastically changing. There was a time when we perceived construction of institutional buildings as eternal structures – think of governmental buildings that were built on national level. But as the cities are becoming more and more in the hands of the private sector, buildings now are more conceived with the idea of amortization. When a developer builds a hotel, this hotel has to perform around a certain span of time beyond which the building has no importance for him beyond its financial performance. This is very different from the public agenda when it keeps a traditional, conventional approach to a building that is institutional and that’s about leaving a trace of a specific political regime.

But it’s important to remember that now, the majority of the territory of cities, urban fabrics are in the hands of the private sector and no longer in the hands of the public sector. Therefore, the majority of the buildings today have, to a certain extent, a predictable life span. But one thing is for sure – this replica here, this fake superficial take on history probably won’t survive beyond a limited number of decades. I’m convinced that it won’t produce any relevant meaning that would be worth registering over the long term. Because, as an optimistic person, I want to believe that at the end of the day, history will filter out and will get rid of irrelevant manifestations of the territory. So let us believe that intelligent buildings will survive and let us believe that the meaningless ones will disappear.

Mane Yepremyan, Diana Janinyan/ PanARMENIAN.Net, Vahan Stepanyan/ PAN Photo