Interview with Lilly Djaniants, Architectural and Urban Designer

Why did you decide to become an architect?

I became an architect quite accidently.  I knew I wanted to be a designer, but I could not decide on a major when I was accepted to the College of Design at the North Carolina State University.  I was fascinated by graphic design, product design, architecture, landscape architecture and fashion.  When I started looking through my sketchbooks, which I had kept every year since the age of 14, I realized that amongst fashion and product designs, I had most of all drawings of plans and elevations of buildings and even cities.  I was not consciously aware that I was already aspiring to be an architect, it felt incredibly natural, and I decided then to become an architect.

As a woman, what was the likelihood of your achieving success in this profession?

In the US, my generation of architects was well balanced in regards to gender.  I never felt that I was treated any differently to my male counterparts, not in the office or on the construction sites. In Armenia it is quite different, I am consciously aware that I am a woman.  None-the-less, I do not think that these are reasons why you could not aspire to achieve great success as an architect.  I think the drive and ambition has to come from within – because I see myself equal to the men in my profession, I am therefore perceived as equal by male colleagues. 

How did your career as an architect begin? Can you recall the first project you designed?

My career as an architect started in 2002 in New York City.  I worked on the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site post 9|11.  It was one of the most incredible opportunities, and I knew how lucky I was to be part of such legacy.  Our firm worked closely with LMDC and NYNJ Port Authority to gather the necessary architectural and urban data for the rebuilding of the WTC site.

What was the reason you decided to come and work in Armenia?

I wanted to come here to learn more about Armenia, but I was not interested in coming solely as a tourist.  When I learned that there were organizations such as Birthright Armenia and Armenian Volunteer Corps, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to come to Armenia and share my professional expertise while at the same time exploring the countryside, learning the Armenian language, traditions and culture. After two months of volunteering with NCFA where I developed feasibility studies for various touristic attractions, and with the construction of the Tumo Center for Creative Technologies, I decided that I wanted to stay and contribute further.  I found the work I was doing in Armenia not only incredibly rewarding but also contributing to nation-building.  I stayed in Armenia for almost two years working as a construction manager on-site building the Tumo Plaza. Afterward, I moved back home to New York to pursue a masters in Architecture and Urban Design at the Columbia University. Once I graduated it was clear to me that I wanted to continue in contributing in the development of Armenia and I immediately moved back to Yerevan, where I currently work for Tim Flynn Architects and the IDeA Foundation.

What would you consider to be your most meaningful work?

I learned so much professionally from every architectural practice I’ve been a part of that greatly contributed to my career growth.  The work I do now with the IDeA Foundation is in many ways contributing to the development of Armenia.  I am currently developing the master plan for Dilijan, but simultaneously contributing to other projects within the foundation that go beyond my role as an architect and urban designer. We are considering tourism development, branding and marketing, community development, and economic development as part of a holistic and synergetic approach to city planning.

What are the main gaps in the current Armenian architectural environment in your opinion?

In many instances it seems that architects in Armenia lack a sense of responsibility, to the environment, to communities, and to preservation of local heritage.  A lot of new development is out of context and out of scale from its surroundings. The architect fails to educate the client on how to approach the site differently, and I find that to be one of the biggest challenges in development. I may speak to a group of architects and in theory we come to the same understanding for solutions, but when I look at the product they deliver it seems completely detached from the theoretical discussions we’ve had.  I am sure any architect would agree how important to educate yourself outside of the classroom or an office, and much of that education comes from your ability to travel and see built projects around the world. Unfortunately many architects in Armenia don’t have the capacity to go abroad for that kind of learning environment.

What do we need to do to strengthen the Armenia-Diaspora relation?

I was part of the diaspora to whom Armenia was a far-away land that I was supposed to feel connected to, but until I came here I was not invested in Armenia.  I think the most important thing to do is encourage diaspora to travel to Armenia, and understand the political, economic, social, cultural and professional landscape for themselves. 

I think it is important to encourage the diaspora to participate in Armenia, to feel invested in the ownership of this country.  And it is important for us to acknowledge that the survival of Armenians world-wide is dependent on having a country to represent us globally.

Though the educational structure is strong in Armenia there are gaps in the professional expertise that don’t allow it to be competitive on a global market.  Armenia needs to improve its human-capital and this can be initiated by professionals in various trades and fields from the Diaspora.  I would encourage those professionals to come to Armenia and contribute to nation-building in some capacity.  This is an exciting time to be here, there are great opportunities to invest in this country now, helping us build our legacy for generations to come.