Culture, Travel & Sport

In Armenia, a Soviet era gem deserves preservation

Interest in the Lake Sevan Writers’ Resort remains high in comparison to many avant garde buildings that have not reached the status of landmarks, but its long-term future is nevertheless in doubt.

Balanced atop a single concrete leg anchored in a waterfront rock formation, the curving glass of the pod-shaped Lake Sevan Writers’ Resort lounge offers scenic views of one of Armenia’s most beautiful natural wonders from what could perhaps be a spacecraft from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Its interior design remains largely unchanged from the 1960s, leaving guests to assume that little besides Wi-Fi has been added since the likes of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre stayed there in 1972.  

While its design is timeless, this oft-photographed Soviet avant-garde icon—which has graced the covers of books on 20th century architecture in the region—has sadly seen better days. Its concrete exterior is concerningly cracked, its paint is flaked, and it risks falling into disrepair unless it is restored soon. 

A story of peninsulas and purges  

The building’s history is inseparably intertwined with many of the dramatic state campaigns that defined Armenia under Soviet rule.  

The location of the writers’ resort is intentional. When the four-storey futurist accommodation building was constructed in the mid-1930s, it was on a small island in Lake Sevan—the largest body of water in the Caucasus and one of the largest in all of Eurasia. The island was home to the ninth century Sevan Monastery, which had long been a destination for poets and writers seeking isolation. 

The resort’s residence has circular windows and curving balconies, and its lower levels are built into the lakeside’s rock, as its architects Gevorg Kochar and Mikael Mazmanyan sought to marry local topography and nature with a communal-utopian, rationalist vision of modernity.  

Kochar and Mazmanyan championed the “Standard” Armenian communist avant-garde group in opposition to Stalin’s preference for historicism—Classicism with national characteristics. In 1937, two years after the accommodation building was completed, the architects were arrested for alleged participation in a Trotskyist nationalist organisation and banished to a gulag in Norilsk.  

During Kochar and Mazmanyan’s 15 years in the Arctic Circle, massive irrigation projects to supply water to the Ararat plain and hydroelectric power production to support Stalin’s rapid industrialisation campaign depleted 40 per cent of Lake Sevan’s volume. As the water level fell, the island housing the writers’ resort became a peninsula.  

After Stalin’s death, the architects were released from exile and rehabilitated during the Khruschev Thaw. Kochar was commissioned to oversee the reconstruction of the accommodation building and the addition of a lounge in 1963. With access to new technology in construction, he designed a space-age masterpiece to provide a communal space and café with panoramic views of the turquoise lake waters for writers in need of creative inspiration both social and natural. 

While almost no maintenance work has been done since the fall of communism and it now shares the lakefront with informal settlements and many tourist developments, the resort has lost none of its charm. Even in neglect, its popularity has afforded it a fate better than so many other architectural gems across emerging Europe and Central Asia that have already been demolished. 

Lake Sevan Writers’ Resort

Flattening heritage 

The architecture of the Soviet Union spanned time, cultures, and artistic movements. While it evolved from avant-garde to Stalinist to post-war modernism then post-modernism, there was still considerable diversity within and discord between these schools. Architects, like other artists, displayed their individual creativity in the face of censorship, ideological restrictions, and purges. 

After the Soviet collapse, many citizens of its successor states were eager to move past its authoritarianism and saw the structures it erected as physical vestiges of its political system. Avant-garde and columned Stalinist buildings alike were reduced to their Sovietness, deemed bleakly utilitarian and dreary.

Even as the works of Soviet-era writers and composers remained celebrated, the works of architects were dissociated from their individual artists and assigned solely to the state that commissioned and built them.  

As conflicts raged from Moldova to Tajikistan, many works of 20th century architecture were damaged then destroyed. In peacetime, palaces of culture and theatres were demolished to make way for the new communal spaces: malls. 

Buildings are razed every day, growing cities need more housing units, and the Soviet Union itself was far from above tearing down historical architecture. But while there is now widespread awareness of the cultural and historical value of, say, Art Nouveau buildings, fewer see Soviet constructivist and neoclassicist buildings as worthy of the same resources and preservation.  

Now filled with shiny new developments and coloured glass domes, many of the best Soviet-era buildings are already gone forever from Dushanbe, Ashgabat, and increasingly Tashkent. Although not all see the tragedy in the loss of the structures that had defined these cities for decades, others are fighting to expand recognition of Soviet-era architecture as part of countries’ artistic, cultural, and historical heritage.  

The Moldova-based Bureau for Art and Urban Research (BACU) documents unique socialist architectural works throughout Central and Eastern Europe in hopes that they can be added to lists of historical monuments, and the City Research Centre in Gyumri offers architecture walking tours to support its work researching and preserving the city’s architectural heritage. Locals have protested the demolitions of beloved buildings around the region. 

Still, as many buildings slide into ruin, there is little indication that the funds needed to restore them are on the way. Interest in the Sevan Writers’ Resort thankfully remains high in comparison to many buildings that have not reached the status of landmarks, but even its long-term health is in doubt. So visit and appreciate it and other Soviet-era gems while they still stand. 

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