Why Do We Fail Monument Conservation
Sarhat Petrosyan, Architect, Urban Planner, urbanlab Founder
During meetings within this holiday season one could not possibly avoid the topic of ongoing construction in the territory of Haypethrat complex, designed by Mikayel Mazmanyan and Hovhannes Margaryan. The topic has been actively discussed on different platforms over the past weeks and many see this as an illegal construction. And again we are facing the same question – why do we constantly fail to adopt a clear approach towards our heritage, and, in general, why do we fail to properly develop our villages and towns, the roadsides, and why does every mand-made intervention eventually become problematic?
Without intending to give a final answer to this question I will try to point out the main reasons in several points and suggest certain solutions, which have been repeatedly raised by specialists from different fields by means of various formats throughout these years.
In historically shaped environments where we are facing the issue of development apposite to heritage conservation and in line with current requirements, we are unable to exercise proper tools for the purpose of reaching the best solutions, as;
- Within the context of an earlier period, particularly the medieval religious heritage, we constantly underestimate the heritage of 17-20 centuries.
- Within the circles of professional community, we lack a comprehensive consensus and principles towards heritage preservation and sector policy.
- We lack traditions and algorithm of decision-making in both local or urban levels (particularly for Yerevan) of political system for centralized decision making, and therefore, decisions relating to tangible and non-tangible heritage are not met with proper attention within management system on local levels.
- Public administration lacks value system and priorities they lead to, as well as long-term thinking, as a result of which we view heritage preservation as a burden, rather than an opportunity for economic development.
I believe everyone will agree that the overestimation of dominating heritage of an earlier period can particularly impact the heritage conservation of urbanized territories of the recent period or late medieval period, as well as the new period. It is especially obvious among nations or in the countries where there has been a gap between these periods. The best example of this is the current state in Greek towns (note: not rural settlements), Athens out of which is considered a textbook example on how one cannot built in a historically formed city. In case of Italian cities we have a diametrically different state, as thanks to continuance statehood they have managed to preserve their historical cities at best, and together with French specialists defined heritage preservation structures on an international level.
The best example of the above mentioned we have is the research of medieval era, conducted by means the state issued to professional circles during Soviet period. However, the research was directed towards 70-80’s and towards the period that could serve as part of current urban development issues; in a word, towards the preservation and development of urban environment and lifestyle. By all means, we have experienced tangible changes in the past 1.5 decades, and different organizations are currently carrying out research of urban heritage issues, but only with the impetus from the public, which in its turn makes a tiny impact on public and professional community.
The developments in Athens mainly took place during the last decades of the 20th century, while in Yerevan they were during the first decade of the 21st century, and unfortunately, today it tends to continue in the same way. I am almost confident that today these exact approaches cannot be prevailing even in Athens, although we still keep on experiencing them. The change in this thinking is possible and can easily be changed top-down through setting principles and reaching a consensus – within ruling circles or professional community.
Unfortunately, since 2000’s the professional community, I cannot tell luckily or unluckily, has been formed around architecture community and has not made any progress. It is unknown yet who is in charge of pointing out solutions to obvious issues, and in what manner and status they can do so, since there is still no distinct division between architecture, spatial planning, heritage managing, monument restoration, urban design, landscape design and others, moreover, they lack a proper interaction with relevant disciplines. So, which of the above mentioned shall be the main driving force in any major investment process, and how it should attract different engineers, economists, environmentalists, sociologists, anthropologists and lawyers into decision- making process?
However, there have been some revolutionary measures to this end, among which of special importance is the creation of Chamber of Architects of Armenia, and the distinction between “architecture” carriers and restoration architects and spatial planning specialists.
The series of articles through which back in 2018 I attempted to remind the new government about the management issues in our sector, did not have its logical continuation, and I did not manage to share my suggestions in terms of heritage management. Over the past two weeks the discussions over Haypethrat complex issue with state administration colleagues suggested that we still have rooted problems here. I will try to briefly introduce several groups of general management issues in the sector, each of those, after thorough analyses, can later serve as basis for reforms.
As a starting point let’s accept that interventions in historically formed areas of public perceptions first of all require caution, and any decision should first of all provide professional, and secondly public (local) inclusiveness. The change making process in similar environments should be hard and slow, which is the only option to reduce the risk of making mistakes. Of course, all these should not be at the initiative of any official, rather it should be regulated by legislation.
It should first of all be noted that the Law on Preservation of Immobile Historic and Cultural Monuments and Historic Environments, in short, the Law on Monuments, that is regulating main relations, was adopted in 1998 and has since then undergone episodic changes (one article for each), and I am “to blame” for one of them. This is a vivid example that there has not been a political will to carry out global changes in the sector for the period of over twenty years now, and this has resulted in absence of professional capacities.
By all means I can find at least two cases when an attempt was made to circulate a bill on changing the law, however they have been manifestations of modification to the existing law and did not tend to lead to fundamental and long-term changes.
We have the same sad experience in subsidiary legal (regulatory) field. Let me bring in one example: almost all possible processes relating to monuments are conducted through a single unified order. Even though we do have frequent changes in this order, there are still numerous problems here, some misinterpretation of law, unreasonable regulations in regard to responsibilities, as well as a chaos of terms – a thing that is pertinent to the whole sphere.
The most widely discussed public regulation relating to monuments is naturally the list of monuments that are protected by the state, particularly the list of monuments in Yerevan adopted in 2004. Many believe that it has serious problems, as a result of which it has been monopolized for years by being interpreted in a subjective manner by officials of different caliber. For instance, the protected monument Haypethrat complex on Teryan street has three addresses – 91 Teryan Street, 28 Isahakyan Street, 4 Gevorg Kochar Street, moreover, the footnote reads that the building also hosts Dramatic theatre located on Isahakyan and Kochar streets.
This definitely states by government decision that we have a monument that is located on an area adjacent to three streets. In the meanwhile, another departmental act approved by the Minister of Culture and the passport for the monument drafted in 2019, reads that the only part of the monument under protection is the one on Teryan street. Here we explicitly view the inaccuracy and “approximate manner” of hierarchy’s work in monument preservation.
Even though the title includes the term “historic environment”, there are rare historic environments in the whole country, that are really being protected. In case of Haypethrat, instead of preserving one single complex situated on adjacent streets, the monument has been divided and only maintained the façade on Teryan Street. And this is when the complex has all possible layers of the 20th century, among them Stalin era (1930’s), “Thaw” (ottepel) era of 1960’s, as well as manifestations of “Stagnation” era (1980’s), let alone inner spaces which still partly maintain printers, thus serving as best examples of industrial heritage.
So, the main change of legislation development should start with switching from preservation of each building to preservation of environments, including preservation of inner spaces.
In similar cases, by all means, we often mainly focus on issues prevailing in urban environments, yet we should take into consideration the rarely preserved rural neighborhoods and numerous public structures (clubs, factories and so on) that have been existing for over 70 years.
The regulations do not also clearly state the criteria based on which a decision should be made on the appropriateness of preservation of a given monument. They are very abstract and can be interpreted in many ways and do not contain measurable criteria, for instance time component. As a result of survey conducted by us in 2013, we decided to establish a 50-year benchmark, that is every structure built more than 50 years ago needs to be included in the list of monuments to be preserved. Naturally, there is a misconception that no changes actually can be made to the structures after being included in the list, yet the professional circles possess different layers of intervention. Given purposeful and accurate use of the latter, we can reach a favorable outcome – beneficial for the monument.
The presence of two commissions – scientific-methodical and expert commission within the ministry (of culture) is also unreasonable in the regulation. One of the abovementioned commissions provides protected status to structures, while the other presents professional stance over the changes in designated areas of monuments. And since the circle of experts engaged in the sector is quite small, they often end up being comprised of the same individuals. By all means, the logic of appointing members of commissions should become a separate topic for discussion – increasing their transparency and most importantly exclusion of conflicts of interest. In terms of conflicts of interest, specific measures should be taken, since there are numerous cases of presence of the same small professional communities and discussions of projects implemented by them.
Coming back to heritage preservation in both rural and urban areas, the picture is much worse. Cultural heritage is planned to be preserved through legislation, as well as Historical and Cultural Justification Plan popular within the frameworks of professional community. My viewpoint and the current state of spatial planning document system in our country are well known to many and because of its shameful illogical structure and hierarchy it is unable to solve any problem at all, thus
historical and cultural justification plan adjoining heritage preservation and spatial planning cannot sufficiently ensure heritage preservation.
It is important to note that all these is not merely aimed at heritage preservation only, but rather at ensuring sustainable economic development through valuing heritage. If back in 2000’s the professional circles viewed the development in the context of social, economic and environmental issues, then today culture comes to serve as the fourth pillar.
While putting down these lines I glimpsed Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s instruction given in Tavoush region – to consider the feasibility of paving streets with stones in some settlements to ensure the “local flavor of the town”. Let’s imagine what the outcome there can be if the paving is done with special stones specific to the region. The image of “Florence” Restaurant and old Gyumri streets, heated topic on social media platforms recently, could have become bright example of this in case “Florence” was restored in a proper way and the streets were paved with local historic stones, rather than with stones from other settlements. Why do we highlight the importance of this, because, let us say, the cheap granite from China can be much cheaper than the granite from Vanadzor, which will eventually be used in our historic settlements, or for instance the local tile in Dilijan and Ijevan can be replaced with metal tiles, a practice we have already experienced in Goris.
These can sound secondary at first glance, as it once seemed in case of the restaurant built in Noravank Monastery’s territory, or at Tatev Ropeway Station (next to the Tatev Monastery Complex), and now at the territory of Holy See Ejmiatsin as well.
The first two sites fail to be included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List, while the third one, given the intensive ongoing construction in the territory of the Holy See over recent years, it is much likely to be excluded from the list or Armenia can receive a warning. The sites included in this list have a great impetus for tourism development, particularly for cultural tourism, while, as you know, it is cultural tourism that gives Armenia a competitive edge.
These are deep-rooted issues and they can only become long-term and short-term decision-making algorithm on national and local levels only in case of developing a proper spatial planning system and policy based on it.
By all means, it is also important to establish an integrated spatial data collection system for heritage (discussed for years and never managing to acquire a final image)– Cadastre, integrating it with other cadastral sectors.
In this context it is also important to introduce limitations against property rights of structures that have a status of a monument in the system of real estate state register. Today as one acquires a property, they should first of all bear in mind that most part of monuments protected by state is in the hands of private bodies. They announce this not as part of estate rights, but as limitation against construction processes.
Summing up, let me once again highlight that in the light of emerging “Caucasian tiger” expectations, as well as taking into consideration the real estate market and tourism development share in it, we should immediately revise the policy in this sector. It will be too late afterwards, since part of our problems today come from the mistakes of 2000’s, and if we add to it the increased tourism flows, then it becomes obvious that by advertising our nature and cultural heritage in such manner, we lack the potential to protect and develop the corresponding nature and heritage, and we are only good promoting our heritage and preserving them properly.