“They took you and divided you within their family, they decorated you with alien colours, and forgot your past.” Neoliberal Urbanism, Socioeconomic Issues and Historical Heritage Protection in Yerevan

The last fifteen years of infrastructural “development” process in Kentron, the centre of Yerevan has produced various forms of destruction, often followed by some kind of protest. Many of the demolishing and construction projects are classical examples for De Cesari’s and Hertzfeld’s description of neoliberal urbanism: how “socio-spatial reorganization with a rapid diminution of state and municipal responsibility for social services” [1] can be achieved. My aim is to show how this is realised through the major examples in the city centre of Yerevan, and how protesters attempt to protect endangered common urban spaces.

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A typical view of the Northern Avenue

 

In many cases such construction projects have led to the result that theoretically only the wealthy locals, Armenians from the diaspora or expatriate foreigners can get access to (especially lodging) space in the city centre. In practice, though, not even they benefit from this. The result of the first such project, reshaping the Northern Avenue in the beginning of the 2000s resulted in huge residential buildings. They still stand almost completely empty besides their ground floors, where expensive shops offer the products of western luxury brands. The shops again do not offer any benefits for the vast majority of locals, who live on an average monthly salary of roughly 370 Euros (gross), while tourists can buy goods from such shops anywhere around the world.

In case of the Northern Avenue, despite their protests, the original inhabitants were moved to one of the most undesirable districts of Yerevan, or got minimal financial compensation for moving from their flats. For the same reasons buying new apartments, others than offered to them for free, could be only achieved by the inhabitants with other additional sources of income. The old blocks of flats were demolished, and huge buildings were constructed in their place. Inhabitants of the neighbouring streets, still face the same fate, and protest silently with banners, flags and graffitis.

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Flags with SOS signs and the Armenian national tricolor show the protest of the inhabitants of a building to be demolished near the Northern Avenue (2010)

 

They demand their right to stay in their homes, and time to time organise street protests to protect themselves from processes similar to those of Northern Avenue. In this case inhabitants simply claim their right to their original place of residence and standard of living. They can only use the latter argument to achieve their aims, as they live in simple Soviet blocks of flats, not representing privileged historical heritage. While inhabitants of the Northern Avenue were not successful in blocking the investment and the destruction of their homes, the European Court of Human Rights obliged the Republic of Armenia to pay satisfactory compensation to those original inhabitants who appealed to the court.

Another iconic transformation was that of the central Market Hall (Pak Shuka). As the media widely reported, it had been also on the list of state protected architectural monuments.[2] It was bought by a member of parliament[3], and closed down in the beginning of 2012. Besides the main façade, the whole building was demolished and reopened as a shopping centre. News from the beginning of 2012 informed that the construction was done without any permission.[4] Concerning the person of the owner, this implies state involvement in not making anybody responsible for obviously damaging a piece of officially recognised architectural heritage. The whole process triggered again massive protest. In this case nearly two hundred sellers lost their major or only source of income. They complained on socioeconomic grounds. In addition, protesters also raised concerns regarding the building as a heritage site.[5]

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The remarkable broze gate of the Market Hall

 

Beside the above mentioned transformations, another, often less visible process is also going on in Yerevan. This is the destruction of the pre-1920s architectural heritage of Persian and tsarist Russian rule. The former had been built between the 17th and the 19th centuries, the latter from the early 19th century until the 1920s. The demolished buildings often give space to very similar infrastructural investments as on Northern Avenue.

One iconic site for such destruction is the district of Kond, founded under Persian rule, in the 17th century. The district is only a few steps away from the very heart of the city. Due to their age, many buildings are in very poor condition, and in Kond the inhabitants often lack running water or have to take their waste to containers in the surrounding streets.[6] Similarly to the case of Northern Avenue, as some local inhabitants claim, they are offered and payed very little amounts of compensation, which is not enough to buy new apartments. The government labelled Kond a ‘Public Eminent Domain’[7], and obliged locals to make contract with involved construction companies, which also could provide them lodging instead of financial reparation. Many of the inhabitants had accepted the contract hoping for better circumstances. For several years though, constructions have been stopped, therefore those who opted for new apartments instead of financial reparation, have not got any compensation for their abandoned buildings, either. Therefore they keep protesting.

One may think that such protests could lead to some results. If not on socioeconomic grounds, then at least for Kond’s historical value, especially as it is formed of several streets, and creates a single unit within the city. In contrast to such expectations, the city council of Yerevan privileges the heritage of the bronze age, when the city traces back its roots. The institution also prioritises the architectural heritage of the early Soviet-era, when Yerevan was turned into the capital of Armenia out of the small provincial centre of the Russian governorate of Yerevan. This was the time when the architect Aleksandr Tamanyan was commissioned to plan a city centre for Yerevan. This map of the centre, still an emblem of the capital is represented among other places on the pedestal of Tamanyan’s statue .The architect also designed buildings in the centre and in the newly established districts. In many cases this architectural style was followed when constructing buildings later in the Soviet period. (See slideshow below) Buildings of this style represent Armenian historical heritage in the use of architectural schemes and ornamental motives. For these reasons, the chances of preserving Persian-founded Kond in its historical form based on heritage claims are quite low.

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The same reasons lead also to the difficulty of protecting many buildings of the tsarist Russian period as a part of cultural heritage as well. Besides, a local geographical feature of buildings of the era is that they are scattered in the city centre. Therefore demolishing these buildings may even seem to be less visible. One area, where I could observe the process since 2012, was between Mashtots Avenue and Abovyan Street. Many of the buildings affected by this process represent the period when Armenian nationalism evolved in the Russian Empire. As a consequence, houses of wealthy or influential intellectuals, or occasionally formerly significant institutional buildings or cultural and intellectual meeting places are being destructed. It may be shocking that sometimes only two streets away from Republic Square, a very popular place among locals and tourists as well; the architectural heritage of this culturally and politically very active period is annihilated.

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Interestingly, the buildings newly constructed in the place of the demolished ones, at least in some of their ornaments or arches, attempt to follow or imitate Tamanyan’s style. (See the one on the right.)This can be interpreted as an attempt for symbolic legitimisation of the investments.

According to Diener and Hagen, after the protests for the Northern Avenue the Victims of State Needs NGO which organised the defence of the rights of the local inhabitants, the organisation started to concentrate also on the neighbouring areas, which nearly coincide with the area I am describing.[8] The the protesters claimed that the construction projects are done without permission, or that legal constraints are not taken into attention at all. Besides such demonstrations the Armenian band Reincarnation dedicated also a video clip, Yerevan to the preservation of tsarist Russian architectural heritage. It shows a building, the Afrikyans’ house a meeting place for 19th century Armenian intellectuals at 11 Teryan Street, very close to the Northern Avenue. The protest for the building has been the first, partly successful one so far, as the government has promised not to demolish, but to relocate it.

Most ‘victims’ of destruction of historical heritage are however, annihilated for good, sometimes even not respecting their historical significance. Eventually very strange hybrid solutions also exist: keeping the façade of the building considered as a monument, and constructing the modern one around it. The song Yerevan by Reicarnation also mentions the role of investors in this process, and similarly to the Market Hall, also the most probably corrupt authorities: “Someone had taken you and divided you within their family.”

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In conclusion, each case demonstrates how the spatial deconstruction takes place in the city, and what aspects of local life it deprives the inhabitants of. This can range from deteriorating social conditions to limited access of locals to urban space in the centre. Besides the Afrikyans’ house the state has not made any effort to highlight the responsibility of the owners or construction companies’ and/or to sanction them for often unauthorised construction and demolition works. Protesters can attempt to protect the urban space by raising socioeconomic or cultural heritage claims. While the former resulted in a verdict favouring the underprivileged inhabitants of Northern Avenue, and the latter in the relocation of the Afrikyans’ house, destruction and pointless construction does not stop in the city.

A banner resembling Tamanyan-style facades was pulled over of many construction sites in the city centre last year and called for “A more developed Yerevan”. It remains a question whether this “development” can be stopped – if not by soft means, than – by the market which has not showed massive – rather any – demand for the brand-new lodging buildings in the centre.

By Éva Merenics

References:

The quote in the title of this post  is cited from the song Yerevan, lyrics by Roland Gasparyan. Own translation.

[1] „We define neoliberal urbanism as a relentless speculation and socio-cultural reorganization with a rapid diminution of state and municipal responsibility for social services.” 171-172 pp. in DeCesari, Chiara; Hertzfeld, Michael „Urban Heritage and Social Movements” in Lynn Meskell (ed.) Global Heritage. A Reader. (John Wiley and Sons, 2015.) 171-195 pp.

[2] See eg. http://www.panorama.am/am/news/2016/11/05/%D5%B0%D5%B8%D6%82%D5%B7%D5%A1%D6%80%D5%B1%D5%A1%D5%B6-%D5%AF%D5%A1%D5%A4%D5%A1%D5%BD%D5%BF%D6%80/1672601 last accessed: 02 December 2016 11:54 http://www.aravot.am/2012/03/09/292093/ last accessed: 02 December 2016 11:58 http://armtimes.com/hy/article/41188 last accessed: 02 December 2016 12:01

[3] http://www.asparez.am/news-hy/pak_shukahy/ last accessed: 02 December 2016 12:23

[4] http://www.aravot.am/2012/03/02/291626/ last accessed: 02 December 2016 12:30 http://www.panorama.am/am/news/2012/03/02/closed-market/802044 last accessed: 02 December 2016 12:34

[5] http://imyerevan.com/hy/society/view/1760 last accessed: 11. December 2016 22:42

[6] http://www.tert.am/am/news/2015/05/18/kond/1678299 last accessed: 11. December 2016 23:06

[7] http://www.tert.am/am/news/2016/09/08/kond/2127910 last accessed: 11. December 2016 2016 23:07

[8] Diener, Alexander C. and Hagen, Joshua: From Socialist to Post-Socialist Cities: Cultural Politics of Architecture. (Routledge: Oxon; New York, 2015) 96 p.

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