Errord Mas, Yerevan: A quarter for the working class

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Susanne Fehlings explores the almost forgotten constructivist heritage of Yerevan’s former working class district.

Susanne Fehlings explores the almost forgotten constructivist heritage of Yerevan’s former working class district.

The contemporary city of Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, is mainly the product of Soviet urban planning. In 1924 the architect and city planner Alexander Tamanyan designed a master plan for Yerevan’s reconstruction, which utilised Ebenezer Howard’s concept of a ‘garden city’ (gorod sad). The centre of Yerevan, which is based on this master plan, therefore consists of a rectangular web of streets confined within a circular main street and is surrounded by several so-called ‘rural belts’.

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Yerevan, a Soviet ‘invention’.

Alexander Tamanyan, who held the official title of the ‘city’s chief architect’ (glavnyj architektor goroda), is still considered the ‘father of Yerevan’, a symbol of national pride, and even a national hero in Armenia. He grew up in Russia and received his professional training in Saint Petersburg. Following his ethnic roots, he came to Yerevan and, according to Soviet propaganda, ‘devoted all his knowledge and virtue to building the new socialist way of life’ (Arutyunyan et al., 1968: 92). Tamanyan’s architecture was characterised by a combination of Russian classicism, traditional Armenian iconography (inspired by Medieval Armenian religious architecture), and socialist ideas of urbanisation and modernity.

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Contemporary Yerevan – still a garden city. Photo: Johanna Pruessing.

Despite some criticism from Tamanyan’s contemporaries, his construction of Yerevan was considered a masterpiece from the beginning. It was a model city of Soviet construction, which anticipated, for example, the circular map of Moscow of the 30s. The ‘Tamanyan-style’ became an archetype for following generations, and still serves as a model today – even for the design of Yerevan’s downtown skyscrapers. However, because Tamanyan is so celebrated, pieces of architecture that belong to different traditions and styles are often ignored.

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Entrance of the ‘Kirov’ chemical factory. Photo: Susanne Fehlings.

An example of this almost forgotten architecture is the former working class neighbourhood of Errord Mas, which I visited several times during my fieldwork in 2009 and 2010. It was planned and built in the constructivist style by the architects K. Kotchar, M. Mazmanian, N. Makarian and S. Safarian for the workers of the Kirov chemical factory in the early 30s. In the following years, Errord Mas became an almost autarkic settlement that was meant to foster a ‘collective identity’. Errord Mas was designed to integrate rural newcomers, an emerging working class, and people from other backgrounds coming to Yerevan – for example, repatriates – into the city. Yet the people living there had an ambivalent reputation. On the one hand, they perfectly fitted the ideal image of the hardworking Soviet worker. On the other hand, they were seen as less cultivated than the inhabitants of the city centre.

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Sketch of a residential unit in Errord Mas, 1930-1932.

Errord Mas included residential houses, courtyards, open spaces for parks and fountains, shops, public schools, sports fields and a so-called ‘house of culture’ for ‘cultural activity’ (Ter Minassian 2008, 107-118, 123-126). Some of my interview subjects grew up in this quarter of Errord Mas and were very nostalgic about it. Despite the run-down appearance of many of the houses, courtyards and parks, the closed shops and the dry fountains, there are still some impressive remains of the neighbourhood’s Golden Age. For instance, Errord Mas is home to some of the few examples of constructivist architecture in Yerevan. In contrast to the Tamanyan style, these buildings’ aesthetic is based on clean lines and geometrical forms.

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Typical building in the style of constructivism. Photo: Susanne Fehlings.

Today, the concrete of the buildings is crumbling and many of the windows are broken. In the inner courtyards of the housing units, the ravages of time are even more visible. The pools, located at the centre of the patio, are empty. Temporary constructions, rusty carports, chaotic balconies, and the inhabitants’ laundry hide the original design. The public areas are in a similar condition. The former ‘house of culture’, which included a theatre hall and served as a ‘social condenser’ for the population, currently houses the television channel ‘Shoghakat’, sponsored by the Armenian Apostolic Church. Above the new signs and fancy windows, one can still see the emblem of the chemical factory (SK).

Fountains in Errord Mas. Photo: Susanne Fehlings.

The public fountains – remembered by many of those I interviewed as paddling pools for children during hot summer days – are out of water. Once perceived as a symbol of life, the abandoned fountains now serve as a reminder of the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the inhabitants of this area lost their jobs, their prestige, and part of their identity. But things change fast in Armenia. Maybe the fish and frogs of the fountain are already spouting water again.

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About the author: Susanne Fehlings is a lecturer at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Tuebingen (Germany). She is specialised in urban anthropology in post-Soviet Eurasia, with a particular focus on Armenia. To find a list of her publications, see academia.edu.

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