Part of the USSR for more than 70 years, Soviet-style architecture is everywhere in Armenia. Many of Armenia’s Brutalist and Modernist buildings incorporate local influences and materials. Volcanic stone called tuff was used in the construction of many of Yerevan’s buildings, giving rise to its nickname “the Pink City”. Here are ten of my favourite buildings in Armenia.
1. Sevan Writers House - Architects: Mikael Mazmanyan & Gevorg Kochar, 1930s
“Perched on a rocky shelf on the shore of Lake Sevan is a writer’s retreat that’s now a hotel. It’s seen better days. Much better days.” In the 1930s, the Writers’ Union of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic commissioned a writer's retreat to be built on Sevan Island.
Armenian architects, Mikael Mazmanyan and Gevorg Kochar, both designed the boxy four-tiered concrete building overlooking Lake Sevan - a striking expression of the Soviet avant-garde. In the early 1960s, they were commissioned to design a lounge and cafe wing for the same retreat they’d designed 30 years earlier. With all the hallmarks of Soviet modernism, the second protruding rounded wing sits harmoniously beside the boxy hotel from an earlier architectural epoch. With its curved glass front, the building cantilevers out towards the lake, supported by one thick concrete leg. Read more
2. Yeritasardakan Metro Station - Architect: Stepan Kyurkchyan, 1972-81
Launched in 1981, the Yerevan metro stations are not very deep, unlike most former Soviet rapid transit systems. Meaning “Youth” in Armenian, the Yeritasardakan Metro Station is known for its distinctive angled tube above the station’s entrance which lets light onto the passenger escalators below.
3. Greenhouse of Yerevan Botanical Garden, 1944
In the early 1940s, a 610 square metre greenhouse was built in the Yerevan Botanical Gardens. As well as being a place of relaxation, tropical house plants were grown in the greenhouse which were then distributed to schools, factories and government buildings in order to beautify them and contribute to the people’s wellbeing.
By the 1980s, the greenhouse had more than 1240 plant species. After the fall of the USSR, funding for the gardens dried up. In the early 90s, the newly independent Armenia was plunged into an energy crisis after it shut down the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant after the 1988 earthquake. With a severe lack of electricity, many trees in the gardens were cut down and used as firewood for heating. Today, the greenhouse is in desperate need of repair.
4. Brutalist Apartment Building Yerevan, 2013
From the ashes of Brutalism rises a new apartment building bearing all the hallmarks of a bygone epoch. Completed in 2013, these apartment buildings bear a striking similarity to the Gates of Chisinau apartment buildings in Moldova.
5. Orgov Radio-Optical Telescope, 1975
Two hours by car from Yerevan, nestled amongst grazing cattle and the farmers who tend to them, is the abandoned remains of a telescope which once searched for signs of life beyond our world.
In 1975, the Soviet state started construction of the 54 metre Orgov Radio-Optical Telescope. Operational in 1986, it captured a radio-flare on the Etta Gemini star within its first few minutes of operation. Once considered one of the most powerful radio telescopes in the world, it fell into disrepair after the collapse of the Soviet Union due to lack of funding. Read more
6. National University of Architecture and Construction of Armenia - Architect: Armen Aghalyan, 1975
With its concrete clover windows and ornately carved scenes in red stone, the National University of Architecture and Construction is one of the most striking examples of Brutalist architecture in Yerevan. The inside is just as beautiful, although if you wander aimlessly through the halls taking photos, the security guards will come and politely escort you off the premises.
7. Gladzor Sanatorium, 1980s
Famous for the bottled water company which takes its name, Jermuk is a throwback to the heyday of the USSR where sanatoriums were all the rage. Sanatoriums first came to prominence in the USSR in the early 1920s, when a labour code was introduced which guaranteed each worker at least two weeks of leave per year - with the recommendation that that time be spent at a sanatorium.
Perched at the top of a canyon overlooking the city, the Brutalist styled Gladzor sanatorium is part abandoned and part apartment building. The caretaker kindly showed us the unused bathing facilities in the basement, then we were left on our own to explore the abandoned top 12-15th floors of the building. At the bottom of the canyon overlooking the river is the best restaurant in Jermuk - well worth a visit.
8. Republic Square Metro Station - Architects: Jim Torosyan & Mkrtich Minasyan, 1981
Called Lenin Square when Armenia was part of the USSR, Republic square was renamed after the fall of the USSR - the station of Lenin was also removed. The sunken entrance to the metro station features a stunning flower shaped concrete foundation.
9. Cascade Complex - Architect: Jim Torosyan, 1971
The 572 steps of Cascade make for a steep climb in 38 degree heat, but the view is definitely worth it. Architect Alexander Tamanyan conceived of the steps at the turn of the 20th century in order to connect north Yerevan with the city centre. Construction began in the 1980s, however the project was abandoned after the 1988 Armenian earthquake. The breakup of the USSR soon after meant the steps lay unfinished until a wealthy Armenian expat, Gerard Cafesjian, stepped in. The steps were finally finished in 2009 - protip: there is an escalator beneath the stairs, but good luck finding the entrance.
10. Institute of Communication - Architects: Armen Aghalyan & Grigori Grigoryan, 1976
Formerly the Automatic Long Distance Telephone Station (AMTC), the Institute of Communication is ironically now home to a Beeline cell phone and wireless store.
Special Mention: Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant, 1976
In the shadow of Yerevan is the most dangerous nuclear power plant in the world. Built on a fault line, the plant started operating in 1976 without a containment facility which would prevent radioactive substances from escaping in the event of an accident.
In 1988, a 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck the heart of Armenia killing thousands. The power plant was quickly shut down. Just a couple of years later, the USSR collapsed. The newly independent Armenia entered its “cold years” - a debilitating energy crisis where most citizens had just 1-2 hours of electricity each day. With no other option, Armenia reopened the plant in 1995. “Observers termed it a “reckless gamble” with Armenia's future and the lives of millions of people living in the surrounding countries. At the time, the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington, D.C. said in a report that Metsamor is not in line with Western-style safety standards, comparing it to Ukraine’s collapsed Chernobyl reactor.” Today, the plant generates almost 30% of the electricity used in Armenia.
Architecture Across the Ages takes travellers to some of the most important – and most often overlooked – architectural sites across Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Visit Uzbekistan’s towering turquoise mosques, see how Georgia shook off Soviet rule with cosmic-inspired superstructures, and witness the rebirth of Turkmenistan with its audacious white marble city.