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Inside Armenia’s Soviet cinemas and the fight to save the country’s film heritage

Inside Armenia’s Soviet cinemas and the fight to save the country’s film heritage
Yerevan’s Moskva Cinema in 1946. Image: Ruben Arevshatyan

Armenia’s capital Yerevan was once home to an array of architecturally-striking cinemas, as well as a vibrant film industry. With that heritage under threat from neglect, what lessons should the post-Soviet and post-Velvet Revolution generation take from these old pleasure palaces?

16 August 2018

Shortly before his death in 1990, perhaps the greatest Armenian director explained that he had not one but three motherlands: “I was born in Georgia, worked in Ukraine, and I’m going to die in Armenia.” Sergei Parajanov, Armenian cinema’s iconoclastic and much-loved father figure, was right in his prediction — his tomb is located at Komitas Pantheon, in the Shengavit District of Yerevan, the nation’s pink-stoned capital city.

But this grave is not the only built legacy of Soviet-era film in this corner of the Transcaucasus region; stray beyond the multiplex in Armenia and you’re certain to find yourself in the shadow of a century of cinematic and architectural innovation. But like any shadow, it is insubstantial — and at risk of disappearing in the blink of an eye.

Despite being the country’s best-known director, Parajanov received harsh and unrelenting treatment from the Soviet authorities in both Georgia and Armenia. His is a story of censorship, repression and convoluted lies (which were often explicitly homophobic — the director was bisexual). Parajanov would spend four years in prison during the 1970s — a public campaign, spearheaded by such luminaries as Andrei Tarkovsky and Yves Saint Laurent, agitated for his release — and again in 1982. This campaign of humiliation and censorship would later be reversed by the Armenian government who, belatedly recognising his talent, and feeling the winds of change brought about by glasnost, funded the building of the Sergei Parajanov Museum in 1988. Due to the earthquake that struck Yerevan not long after, the site remained incomplete until 1991. By that time Parajanov was already dead, and the regime that censored him was also coming to an end.

Alongside the celebratory articles, honorary awards, festival screenings and a fiercely cultic fanbase, the surest sign of Parajanov’s ascendance is the continued existence of the Museum, located — however precariously — in the city centre. And by precarious I mean that the route to the museum is not exactly ordinary. The building, a converted house surrounding a shadow-dappled courtyard, sits on the precipice of the chalky ravine that cuts the ancient city in half. The Hrazdan river, paired with a shallow canal, bends and yaws beneath you. On the day I visited, the horizon was swarmed with heat haze. A delicate balcony of iron fretwork reaches toward the distant Tsitsernakaberd hill (or Swallow’s Castle).

While Parajanov’s reputation has been fully rehabilitated, the same cannot be said for the wider physical landscape of Soviet-era cinemas; that species of profanely civic architecture where ordinary Armenians consumed untold hours of Soviet-approved cinema for over 70 years.

The precipitous and unloved structure of Parajanov’s museum has come to represent a kind of cultural dismissal of the cinematic history of Yerevan

The Armenian State Committee of Cinema was established through government decree on 16 April 1923, following on the heels of Lenin’s statement in 1922 that “of all the arts, the most important for us is the cinema.” In 1924, the first properly Armenian film studio, Armenfilm, was established in Yerevan. Each district, town, and city had its cinema, often to daring, experimental designs and as part of more expansive cultural complexes housing libraries, nurseries, dance halls and community kitchens. Since 1991 many of these centres have closed down, victims of demolition, neglect and the changing sands of public and free-market opinion.

The keystone of this flush of architectural development was the building of the Moskva Cinema in 1936, which was realised close to the site of the Saint Paul and Peter Church, demolished to make way for this atheistic temple to culture as part of a wider anti-church redevelopment in the city’s centre. Opening on 12 December 1936, its first screening was the Soviet-Armenian film Pepo, a tale about a plucky proletarian fighting against his treacherous bourgeois boss.

While the Moskva — designed by Tiran Yerkanyan and Gevorg Kochar (who also built the glamorously sleek Sevan Writers’ Resort) — was the largest civic movie theatre in Armenia at the time, it had its precursors. The Nairi cinema was one of the first properly Soviet cinemas in Yerevan. It would later be moved to another site, and is still in use today. Others included the “Godless”, a cinema that occupied the building of the former Saint Grigor Lusavorich church, which was in use until 1940. The Proletarian theatre (formerly the Apollo) had been one of the first cinemas in Yerevan, but was graced, during the 1920s, with a fittingly Communist name.

The more functional, modern design of a later cinema, the Aragats, reflected cinema’s ideological and utilitarian purpose. Aragats was one of the first projects of the team made up of Artur Tarkhanyan, Spartak Khachikyan and Hrachik Poghosyan, who the architectural historian and curator Ruben Arevshatyan describes as “the famous architectural group that would later design the most iconic modernist buildings in Yerevan, including the Rossiya Cinema, Youth Palace and Zvartnots airport. The Aragats was a standard design for a cinema theatre that was later used in nearly all regions across Armenia.” Indeed, while the 1936 Moskva was aggrandising and upfront in its desire to impress, the Aragats — and all of the standardised cinemas that followed its design — was a streamlined structure intended, simply and plainly, to show film.

One open air cinema has become an animated site for ongoing debates about architecture and the Soviet past in modern-day Armenia

However, it was an extension to the Moskva built in the more reserved 1960s — what became known as the Open Air Hall — that proved the most daring and controversial piece of cinema architecture in Yerevan. It has become an animated site for ongoing debates about architecture and the Soviet past in modern-day Armenia. Fundamentally, this hall is an outdoor cinema: a bold, neo-Constructivist creation from architects Spartak Kndeghtsyan and Telman Gevorgyan. The site, which Ruben Arevshatyan dryly describes as a “constricted backyard between two buildings” has become a cleverly articulated series of volumes that, in sweeping concrete, make the most of the unusual location while fitting in all of the functions you need to entertain a crowd. The amphitheatre fans out to accomodate a large audience, while the foyer underneath was once a very active cafe whose concrete was softened by the trees that peeked through on the sidewalk. Today, the route up to the screen and its red plastic seating is a rather sad affair; a dark and unloved space where pools of grubby water collect, reflecting the cars that now use the space for parking.

In 2010, the government removed this iconic and challengingly modernist structure from the list of the city’s architectural and cultural monuments, deciding to demolish the building in order to hand over the land on which it stood for the reconstruction of a church that had been destroyed during the 1930s. As Arevshatyan points out, “since the middle of the 90s these specific spaces have been vanishing from the urban environment, either by being destroyed or corrupted beyond recognition.” The precipitous and unloved structure of Parajanov’s museum, and the under-threat open air hall, have come to represent a kind of cultural dismissal of the cinematic history of Yerevan, and Armenia more widely. Arevshatyan has described it as a “violent reshaping of the city’s buildings and districts,” with the radical architecture of the 1960s having been “almost completely swept away, or distorted beyond recognition.”

But attitudes have begun to change. A wave of popular support and direct activism campaigned to save the Open Air Hall from demolition. Public discussions and local actions were arranged, while a signature campaign gathered over 26,000 names. This year, in the aftermath of Armenia’s Velvet Revolution (known as #MerzhirSerzhin, or #RejectSerzh), the Ministry of Culture moved to recognise a series of buildings, including Hall and other of the city’s modernist cinemas, on the list of protected heritage sites. The free market enthusiasm which held sway before 2010 is being replaced by a more cautious and ultimately respectful attitude not only to these buildings, but to the wider social project that architectural modernism represents.

These architecturally daring cinemas point back to a time when architecture had a social purpose

The Cinema Rossiya was another of those buildings selected for protection after May’s Revolution. The structure, completed in 1975, is one of the country’s greatest monuments to Soviet-era cinematic architecture. Designed by Spartak Khachikyan, Artur Tarkhanyan and Hrachik Poghosyan, the structure is a sweeping pair of concrete sails that reach out over the streets, surging out from the base of a massive platform, whose design was intended to reflect the lower and higher peaks of the nation’s revered Mount Ararat. Abandoned during the 1990s, it later became home to market sellers. Today, it has been haphazardly converted into a shopping centre.

Across the square, seen from the road, the structure is as surprising as it is unlikely. It conveys a strangely Constructivist confidence not present in the Moskva. More surprising still is its interior, where shining metal plates like UFOs or cymbals are set into a honeycomb of hexagons that lattice the ceiling. The building’s central atrium brings a further shock: a stairwell with boldly cantilevered staircases and a central space whose windows consist of irregularly sized stained glass panels set into a heavyset concrete frame. The ensemble gives off a whiff of Le Corbusier at his most footloose. Like the Open Air Hall, the same atmosphere of faded grandeur fills the air — a sad reminder of what once was, and a hopeful promise of what, under the right conditions (and money, of course) could be. With the recent U-turn towards the protection of such buildings, the Rossiya’s future is looking up.

Today’s architectural and social disarray — coupled with the rueful “forgetting” of the modernist cinemas and what they came to represent, both culturally and socially — seems typical of a time when overarching political narratives have been cut loose. These architecturally daring cinemas point back to a time when architecture had a social purpose. The carefully balanced geometry of the Open Air Hall stands in stark contrast to the undulating plastic of the modern Kinopark. And while the former once housed a café — a place for no-strings-attached socialising — the latter is located in a mall.

Ruben Arevshatyan is optimistic, albeit cautious, about the fate of Yerevan’s 20th-century cinemas. Not only has Armenian society recognised filmmakers like Parajanov as essential to the nation’s post-Soviet national identity; it has also begun to recognise Soviet Modernism and its cinematic architecture as having played a part in shaping contemporary Armenian culture. The salvage of the Rossiya and the beleaguered Open Air Hall symbolise a wider shifting attitude toward the past: a willingness not to erase the collective memory of Armenia’s 20th century. Arevshatyan describes the process as being “like Lacan’s mirror,” with Armenian society at the point of recognising itself in the bright glass of its recent history. In this sense, saving Yerevan’s cinematic heritage is a refusal to erase that past.

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