“A mirror of history after the genocide”: on the streets of the Armenian capital, Yerevan

Mother Armenia. Image: Mosinyan/Wikimedia Commons.

In her wonderful essay The Eyes of Yerevan, Taline Voskeritchian writes of the Armenian capital’s “post-Soviet frenzy to erase from the urban landscape traces of the empire”. Writing in the period immediately following Armenia’s independence from the Soviet Union, Voskeritchian evocatively identified the defining characteristic of Yerevan: the city’s tug-of-war with the past.

Yerevan exists in a permanent state of flux, intimately connected to its history but, like the country at large, caught in permanent uncertainty too. In Armenia, the past isn’t a foreign country. It’s everywhere, all around you, its weight oppressive and inescapable.

It’s just gone 7:30am when my companion and I groggily haul our luggage off the clattering Soviet-era sleeper we’ve taken from Tbilisi, and emerge out of the central train station into the Yerevan morning sunshine. Taxi drivers in battered Ladas and newer imported German cars compete to take advantage of our unfamiliarity with the local exchange rate; the July Caucasian sun is already beating.

The rich history of Armenia makes itself felt here. The architecture of the train station, an imposing building erected in the mid-1950s, takes its cues at once from the socialist realism en vogue at the time, neoclassical Saint Petersburg grandeur, and Armenian traditional architecture. Like every important building in Yerevan, it is clad in the beautiful pink tufa stone, native to Armenia, which gives the city its soft pastel hue.

The pink tufa stone of Yerevan. Image: Ido Vock.

In the square in front of the station stands a handsome statue of David of Sassun, built to impress upon visitors the resilience of the Armenian national character. In An Armenian Sketchbook, Vasily Grossman wrote that the monument is “huge, full of movement and strength,” an impression which reflected the view he came to form of the Armenian nation. He saw them as proud and hardy people, who had suffered innumerable injustices – reading his book, it is difficult to imagine that Grossman did not consider Soviet subjugation one – yet retained enough sensitivity to generally not fall prey to the crude nationalism he so despised.

The train station is a microcosm of post-Soviet Yerevan. Whilst the Armenian heritage of its rosy tufa is undeniable, it is clearly a Soviet and Russian edifice too. And unlike the vast majority of buildings in Yerevan, the station hasn’t been scrubbed of its most overt Soviet influences. A five-pointed star still looks down on the Kond, old Yerevan, from the tip of a huge spire, flanked by twin signs in Armenian and Cyrillic scripts.

Yerevan, to a greater extent than most other cities anywhere in the world, exists with the burden of history on its shoulders. Reminders of the Armenian people’s lengthy history of hardship and dispossession, from the 1915 genocide to the republic’s uneasy transition from communism to shaky democracy, permeate the urban environment.

Soviet era apartment blocks. Image: Ido Vock.

Nothing makes this more obvious than the towering silhouette of Mount Ararat, which frames Yerevan, a low-rise city. The mythical birthplace of the Armenian people, Ararat looms over Armenia, alluring and inaccessible in equal measure, like a precious vase locked inside a museum glass case. Voskeritchian describes it as “opaque and impenetrable, removed from my reach, yet visible”. The fabled mountain lies just across the border with Turkey, now closed, in one of the twelve provinces of Western Armenia ceded to Turkey by Lenin with the 1921 Treaty of Kars.

Mount Ararat’s snowy peak taunts Yerevantsis, forced to gaze upon this ubiquitous symbol of Armenian nationhood, but unable to easily visit it. Yerevan without Ararat is more than Paris without the Eiffel Tower: in its spirituality and centrality to the Armenian national consciousness, a closer parallel is perhaps Jerusalem without the Western Wall.

Indeed, the city found its modern form around Ararat. Under the Soviet Union, Yerevan was transformed from a provincial town of perhaps 30,000 into a capital city over a million inhabitants, largely according to plans drawn up by the Russian-trained architect Aleksander Tamanian. His 1924 masterplan formed modern Yerevan, orienting the city as a huge “semicircular amphitheatre” which opened up towards Ararat, as the academic Diana Ter-Ghazaryan puts it. In his Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino dreamt up Perinthia, a city orientated precisely in accordance with the position of the stars. Yerevan is a real-life Perinthia, aligned not with the heavens but with the earth.

We amble along the amphitheatre, past the expensive cafés lining central Yerevan’s boulevards, before arriving at the foot of the Cascade, a monumental edifice of pale amber tufa. It stretches nearly 120 metres up a hill almost directly facing Ararat. The Cascade was built in the 1970s, although it was included in Tamanian’s original plans as a means to link the centre of the city with the northern Monument district, situated on much higher ground.

On the day we visit, the Cascade is deserted, but kept spotlessly clean and well-maintained by a silent army of gardeners and cleaners. The greenery lining the hundreds of steps steadfastly refuses to wilt, even under the crippling 40°C heat. The detailing of the stark socialist architecture is sublime. During the evening’s last hour of sunshine, lengthening shadows soften out the structure’s harsh angularity, the rosy hue of the Armenian stone heightened under the sun’s golden glow. As Grossman wrote in his magnum opus, Life and Fate, “the light of evening can reveal the essence of a moment”.

A sweaty walk away from the top of the Cascade, on a hill overlooking the city, stands the statue of Mother Armenia, the Armenian nation personified. The effigy she replaced was that of Stalin, nearly 60 metres tall, and it shows. Statues of this scale are not built to commemorate but to intimidate. Grossman described the likeness of Stalin as embodying “a power so vast that it can belong only to God”. It was built to tower not only over Armenia but over the rest of the Soviet Union too, its domineering gaze conveying the unmistakeable message that “Stalin and the state are one and the same.”

Today, the statue of Mother Armenia no longer watches over the Kazakh steppe and Black Sea, but its scale and steely looks awe all the same. The dissolution of the Soviet Union was messy in Armenia, which remains locked in conflict with its neighbour Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, under de facto Armenian control.

Soldiers hold a flag during the Constitution Day march. Image: Ido Vock.

At an Armenian Constitution Day march, the region’s flags, a pixelated enhancement of Armenia’s, are everywhere. The procession is headed by ordinary people on their own bikes, and has an endearingly amateurish feel. At one point, irritated by the rally’s delayed start, the brass band put their instruments down in the middle of the road and pause for a smoke.

The following day, we make our way to the Cathedral of Saint Gregory. The cathedral, erected in 2001, is perhaps the best embodiment of Yerevan’s fraught post-Soviet urban environment. It sits in a neighbourhood almost exclusively made up of identikit Soviet apartment blocks, which originally may have been a pale pink imitation of tufa but are now monochrome, caked in grimy Yerevan soot. The Yerevan TV tower peeks out from behind the blocks, giving the area its slightly unnerving 80s SSR feel. As we wander, a passer-by notices our pale English complexions, makes an erroneous assumption, and shouts, “Russians! Nice!” at us.


Yet the feel of the cathedral itself could not be further from that of the area in which it is located. It is a stark, unadorned building, quasi-Brutalist in the unpretentious honesty of its materials: entirely tufa, of course. It is unassuming but strikingly beautiful, and not only in comparison to its surroundings. The cathedral manages a deft balancing act, nodding both to Armenia’s past, its domes and swooping arches recalling the hundreds of small monasteries which dot the country; and to the future, with its scale and modernist looks. The very presence of a place of worship among so many ashen Soviet fossils is a statement, a break with the state atheist past, in the country Armenians are so proud to remind foreigners was the first in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion.

Armenians are not a subdued people, who passively wait for their urban environment to evolve as élites erect cathedrals and tear down statues at their leisure. Yerevan has a rich history as an unusually active seat of political insubordination. In 1965, it saw the first large-scale anti-regime demonstrations in the Soviet Union, demanding the construction of a memorial to the Armenian Genocide on its fiftieth anniversary. (The Communist Party, initially reluctant to indulge gestures which might encourage nationalist sentiment in individual Soviet republics, conceded the construction of the excruciating Tsitsernakaberd, erected two years after the protests.)

It is in the fabric of the capital city that an official narrative is most readily conveyed. The city’s architectural styles, the symbolism in its statues, the name of its squares and streets… With these, governments – and peoples – choose alternately what to glorify and what to forget. Modern Yerevan is a mirror of Armenian history after the genocide. More than a simple administrative centre, Yerevan had to “become the embodiment of the rebirth of a nation, which was on the brink of disappearance,” in the words of the architect Karen Balyan. Yerevan would be “a city that would save the nation”.

In a moving passage of An Armenian Sketchbook, Grossman describes attending a wedding in a small village, far outside Yerevan. The groom’s mother embraces Hrachia Kochar, whose clunky novel Grossman has travelled to Armenia to translate – despite not speaking Armenian – before the two collectively break down in tears. As merry flutes and drums sound to celebrate the wedding, they weep for the loss and suffering of the Armenian people, for the lost twelve provinces, “because they couldn’t not weep for relatives of theirs who had perished during the massacres of 1915”.

And yet, as they weep, the drummer plays on, a smile on his face. “In spite of everything, life would go on, the life of a nation making its way through a land of stone.”

 
 
 
 

“A story of incompetence, arrogance, privilege and power”: A brief history of the Garden Bridge

Ewwww. Image: Heatherwick.

Labour assembly member Tom Copley on a an ignominious history.

The publication last week of the final bill for Boris Johnson’s failed Garden Bridge has once again pushed this fiasco into the headlines.

As well as an eye-watering £43m bill for taxpayers for this Johnsonian indulgence, what has been revealed this week is astonishing profligacy by the arms-length vehicle established to deliver it: the Garden Bridge Trust. The line by line account of their spending reveals £161,000 spent on their website and £400,000 on a gala fundraising event, amongst many other eyebrow raising numbers. 

Bear in mind that back in 2012, Johnson promised that the bridge would be entirely privately funded. The bridge’s most ardent advocate, Joanna Lumley, called it a “tiara for the Thames” and “a gift for London”. Today, the project would seem the very opposite of a “gift”.

The London Assembly has been scrutinising this project since its inception, and I now chair a working group tasked with continuing our investigation. We are indebted to the work of local campaigners around Waterloo as well as Will Hurst of the Architects Journal, who has brought many of the scandals surrounding the project into the open, and who was the subject of an extraordinary public attack by Johnson for doing so.

Yet every revelation about this cursed project has thrown up more questions than it has answers, and it’s worth reminding ourselves just how shady and rotten the story of this project has been.

There was Johnson’s £10,000 taxpayer funded trip to San Francisco to drum up sponsorship for the Thomas Heatherwick garden bridge design, despite the fact that TfL had not at that point even tendered for a designer for the project.

The design contest itself was a sham, with one of the two other architects TfL begged to enter in an attempt to create the illusion of due process later saying they felt “used”. Heatherwick Studios was awarded the contract and made a total of £2.7m from taxpayers from the failed project.


Soon after the bridge’s engineering contract had been awarded to Arup, it was announced that TfL’s then managing director of planning, Richard de Cani, was departing TfL for a new job – at Arup. He continued to make key decisions relating to the project while working his notice period, a flagrant conflict of interest that wouldn’t have been allowed in the civil service. Arup received more than £13m of taxpayer cash from the failed project.

The tendering process attracted such concern that the then Transport Commissioner, Peter Hendy, ordered an internal audit of it. The resulting report was a whitewash, and a far more critical earlier draft was leaked to the London Assembly.

As concerns about the project grew, so did the interventions by the bridge’s powerful advocates to keep it on track. Boris Johnson signed a mayoral direction which watered down the conditions the Garden Bridge Trust had to meet in order to gain access to further public money, exposing taxpayers to further risk. When he was hauled in front of the London Assembly to explain this decision, after blustering for while he finally told me that he couldn’t remember.

David Cameron overruled the advice of senior civil servants in order to extend the project’s government credit line. And George Osborne was at one point even more keen on the Garden Bridge than Johnson himself. The then chancellor was criticised by the National Audit Office for bypassing usual channels in order to commit funding to it. Strangely, none of the project’s travails have made it onto the pages of the London Evening Standard, a paper he now edits. Nor did they under his predecessor Sarah Sands, now editor of the Today Programme, another firm advocate for the Garden Bridge.

By 2016 the project appeared to be in real trouble. Yet the Garden Bridge Trust ploughed ahead in the face of mounting risks. In February 2016, despite having not secured the land on the south bank to actually build the bridge on, nor satisfied all their planning consents, the Trust signed an engineering contract. That decision alone has cost the taxpayer £21m.

Minutes of the Trust’s board meetings that I secured from TfL (after much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Trust itself) reveal that weeks beforehand Thomas Heatherwick had urged the trustees to sign the contract in order to demonstrate “momentum”.

Meanwhile TfL, which was represented at board meetings by Richard de Cani and so should’ve been well aware of the mounting risks to the project, astonishingly failed to act in interests of taxpayers by shutting the project down.

Indeed, TfL allowed further public money to be released for the project despite the Trust not having satisfied at least two of the six conditions that had been set by TfL in order to protect the public purse. The decision to approve funding was personally approved by Transport Commissioner Mike Brown, who has never provided an adequate explanation for his decision.

The story of the Garden Bridge project is one of incompetence, arrogance and recklessness, but also of privilege and power. This was “the great and the good” trying to rig the system to force upon London a plaything for themselves wrapped up as a gift.

The London Assembly is determined to hold those responsible to account, and we will particularly focus on TfL’s role in this mess. However, this is not just a London issue, but a national scandal. There is a growing case for a Parliamentary inquiry into the project, and I would urge the Public Accounts Committee to launch an investigation. 

The Garden Bridge may seem like small beer compared to Brexit. But there is a common thread: Boris Johnson. It should appal and outrage us that this man is still being talked about as a potential future Prime Minister. His most expensive vanity project, now dead in the water, perhaps serves as an unwelcome prophecy for what may be to come should he ever enter Number 10.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.