A Japanese architect built a low hotel at the seaside. Strange as it is, it had no view of the sea, which was hidden from sight through ramparts of straw, a long, band-like sink extending all along their circumference.
A foreign tourist staying at this coastal hotel was at first very surprised at this and could not understand why the view of the sea was hidden from the hotel rooms. This was even more amazing given the well-known fact that Japanese architecture pays special attention to natural environment. The tourist who kept thinking over this all evening, was to have some completely unexpected experience in the morning. He went to wash at the ramparts of straw and bent down to take water from the sink, above which, the wall suddenly discontinued at some section, creating a long, narrow opening before him. As soon as his face bent down and his hands were in water, the view of the sea suddenly opened up before him. The cold water of the sink, the fresh morning air, the sound of waves and the view of the sea flooded into his imagination so unexpectedly that he thought it was the storming sea that washed him, as if he had involuntarily found himself right in the embrace of the raging waves.
This experience lasts just for seconds, but the indelible impression it makes never fades away from your memory, always reminding you how the boundless sea can be seen and felt through just a thin opening reminiscent of the narrow and extended eyes of the Japanese.
The masters of the Orient always have a delicate and emotional dialogue with nature, ranking it even higher than their own work, considering it as divine creation and being greatly nourished by it. Their works are permeated with the power of nature, which makes them stronger.
The great masters of the Orient also comprise Armenians.
One of the most noteworthy and unique architects of the 20th century is Raphael Israelian, whose works were warmly welcomed by the Armenian nation and highly appreciated throughout the Soviet Union.
However, the achievements of the Soviet years, especially those regarding the field of architecture, did not go beyond the so-called Iron Curtain. Broadly speaking, the wide variety of styles and innovations applied in this sphere and exemplified in various monuments remained unknown to the world.
Indeed, strong individualities are never confined to the bonds and bounds of this or that “ism”; nor do they ever become affected by various fashionable trends. Perhaps, this very mental and spiritual freedom gives birth to independent thought and approaches which become the basis of new directions.
The second half of the 1960s saw the theoretical formulation of post-modernism in architecture as counteraction of the extremely rational and functionalistic thinking of modernism. Architectural monuments representing the post-modernistic direction were built in the USA beginning with the 1970s, their construction continuing nowadays.
The works designed in the last years of Israelian’s activities, which are often characterised as the first specimens of post-modern Armenian architecture, date back to a period even earlier than those mentioned above. What is especially noteworthy, these creations, which are manifestations of the multi-layer culture of post-modernism, pursue the fundamental problems of modernistic achievements with the greatest accuracy. The trustworthy reflection of functional and constructive systems, typical of modernism, has been one of the main characteristics of traditional Armenian architecture, being also the basis of Israelian’s style. The images created in his works look quite convincing and well-grounded. Even when the form is severed from its former context as a result of the application of improvisation typical of post-modernism, it does not become just a formalistic caprice; rather, it forms an organic part of another context, thus being able to express the significance and up-to-dateness of the given structure. The best example of this is the artistic embellishment of the facade of the well-known building of wine cellars in Yerevan: in this facade, the pediment generally typical of churches does not crown the entrance door opening as formerly: instead, a blank wall, characteristic of a cellar and expressing its function of a warehouse, is found beneath it. It is decorated with three high reliefs of pitchers which symbolise the praise of wine. The church portal and pitcher together form a single relief composition: this suggests that even in the Soviet years, the concept of wine was also used in another context, in architecture, stressing its most important role in the church ritual, for it is a well-known fact that wine has been used during church services for already many centuries.
The achievement of deep aesthetic expressiveness on this facade was justified from the standpoint of urban planning: it was for this reason that the authorities ordered to enlarge the old building of wine cellars. Leaving behind the bridge, you come across not the repelling mass of a bare vertical wall, but the picturesque scene of attractive entrances, which were at that time perceived as gates standing on the highway leading from Echmiatzin to Yerevan. Such successful specimens of post-modernistic interpretation can also be found in other works designed by Israelian, although the dominant theme is that of a wall or memorial.
The Monument to the Self-Defence of Hajn, built under Israelian’s project, is one of those remarkable works that combines the concepts of a wall and memorial, at the same time also being a peculiar illustration of the architect’s style and character.
At first sight, the monument strikes by its peculiar composition and unexpected proportions. Its body is distinguished for a remarkable plasticity which reaches such an extent that the entire monument is perceived like a sculpture cast with a single whole material, as if created by an uninterrupted stroke of the sculptor’s fingers.
A head, a spinal column, arms and a tail—the parallels of these structural forms can be seen in the composition arrangement of the monument, being embodied in the symbolic images of a church, a castle, a sword and steps.
In order to reveal what these images symbolise and find out their association with the contents of the monument, we should go back to the days of the 1920 heroic self-defence of Armenians in Hajn City, Cilicia.
The President of the Supreme Council of Self-Defence was the spiritual leader of Hajn, Petros Sarajian. The Commander of the Armenian self-defence forces was Sargis Jepejian, an officer who been one of national hero Andranik Ozanian’s comrades-in-arms. The Deputy Commander was Aram Terzian.
On 10 April 1920, the Turkish army, which had already occupied Aintap, Marash and Sis, started launching attacks in the direction of Gavush and Cilicia Quarters of Hajn and the monastery of St. Hakob (Jacob). After fierce fighting, the Turks took the monastery and imposed a complete blockade on the city. For several months, the Armenians of Hajn kept defending it, sometimes also initiating crushing counter-offensives.
In the long run, however, the Turkish army got reinforcement and managed to conquer Hajn on 15 October: 6,000 Armenians were slaughtered in the city, only 365 people managing to break through the encirclement and have a narrow escape from the massacre.
Israelian outlined the picture of these heroic and tragic events in a conventional language meriting the loftiness of art and architecture: as usual, he avoided the simple explanatory method generally applied through various tricks.
The castle, sword and church-like building, which form the general volumetric-spatial image of the monument, are represented in a new interpretation, performing the role of memorials.
The church-like section, which is on the right of the monument, probably represents a collective symbol of religious monuments. Partly merged into the other volumetric sections of the monument, it ends with some accentuation, at the same time as if heading its composition motion directed to the right. This part is distinguished for its asceticism: the pointed transitions from its blank walls to its upper part, which reminds of a narthex roof, are marked with stern and rigid accomplishment of surface, expressing the feelings of tragedy and calamity. Presumably, this memorial also symbolises the history of St. Hakob Monastery or its prior, who sacrificed his life during the self-defence of Hajn. Anyway, the embodiment of these concepts in red stone in the times of the so-called red ideology propagating absolutely different ideas was a bold and risky conception by Israelian.
The sword-like obelisk, which abruptly towers high from the general body of the monument, represents the most impressive and outstanding accentuation of the monument.
At a certain height, its surface, which is slightly interrupted at some points, is divided into three parts: the long, pointed shadows of the vertical cracks, which appear as a result of this division, promote the motion upwards even further. On the one hand, the monument looks like a group of united swords of a varying height; on the other, it reminds of an “injured” blade broken in the sides.
An eagle towering on a left crack clings to the uppermost, steadfast part of the monument
with its wing, as if struggling to unite it with the other, lateral section falling behind it. This mythological guarding bird soars into the sky via the cracked surface: it has spread its wings to a leaf and a he sword-shaped obelisk conveys the concepts of struggle, split, martyrdom and revival. It is adorned with five reliefs, four of which are quite intricate, detailed and densely-carved, while the other is blank, lacking any pattern. All of them are in dynamic connection with the volumetric shaping of the obelisk.
One of the reliefs, which repeats the horizontal rhythm of the wing of the eagle above, is adjoined by the following inscription: «Անհատնում երախտագիտությամբ կանգնեցրինք այս կոթողը ի նշանավորումն Հաճը նի հերոսամարտի ինքնապաշտպանության և Նոր Հաճը նի վերածննդի մայր հողի վրա» [transl.: This monument was erected out of boundless gratitude in commemoration of the heroic self-defence of Hajn and the revival of New Hajn in the Motherland].
Beneath the inscription, the years 1920 and 1956 are engraved, the former marking the fall of the Cilician city of Hajn, and the latter the foundation of New Hajn in the Republic of Armenia.
The surface of the finely-dressed stone enters into a contrasting relation with the intricate relief and inscription, something typical of Armenian architecture which has reached the maximum of expressiveness in this monument. As compared to traditional structures, the contrast becomes more vivid here thanks to the modernistic purity of the general body of the monument. The crystal-dressed walls create quite a suitable background which contributes to the brilliant effect of the artistic light and shade reflecting the powerful sun of Armenia.
The interior of the monument lacks the impressive splendour typical of Israelian’s other works, but the principle of contrast between outer and inner space is again applied here. The monument which looks slender outwardly is inwardly confined and restrained, as if its rooms simultaneously convey the hardships of the blockade with a feeling of gloom. The narrow windows, which are the only sources of illumination, give the monument the appearance of a castle. The wall opposite the outer arched niche has a similar opening overlooking the garden.
The same aura of confinement and limitation is also felt in the so-called narthex-like structure: its inner restriction reaches such an extent that its upward space can be seen only standing under its yerdik (an opening in the ceilings of traditional Armenian houses for the purpose of letting out smoke and illuminating the building). Even the museum entrance door is made in such a way as to absolutely conform to these feelings and mood: it could have been accentuated by being placed in the central arched niche, which is the dominant element of the entire composition, but it is outside this recess, in a place of no importance, its plain, rectangular opening giving the entrance the appearance of a hiding-place.
However, the most inspiring peculiarity of the contents of the monument is found at the top of the museum roof. Surprising as it is, this roof, which is as high as 12 steps, moves you to another world, and you enjoy the magnificent view of the gorge that opens up before you. Surrounded by stone banisters with projections looking like denticles and facing the deep ravine with rocks descending to its bottom, you involuntarily have the feeling of standing at the top of a castle tower. The spirit of Mountainous Cilicia reawakens in your mind, and the building of modest dimensions turns into a huge, powerful fort.
Such secret tricks revealing the greatness of what is small were often applied in Israelian’s works, which sometimes seem outwardly plain and insignificant. A most remarkable specimen is the famous Arch of Charents, also called Monument of Masis, as it offers a breathtaking view of the sacred mountain. With this regard, this memorial arch and the Monument of Hajn share common features, as in both cases, what is small becomes great: in the case of the former, when you step into its interior, and in the case of the latter, when you ascend onto its top.
Thanks to Israelian’s ingenious thinking and approach, the view of the gorge is so carefully hidden behind the structure that it cannot be seen either from the square of Hajn or from the street leading to it. In this way, the architect surprises the visitor of the monument by suddenly revealing the picturesque piece of nature. Through this approach, he also perfectly completes the hardest task of achieving massiveness and environment organisation through a harmonious dialogue between human and natural creations.
The aforementioned Japanese master working at the seaside similarly based his entire project on the surprise of nature.
White, red and black are often found in fairy tales as embodying some lands, knights’ horses or princesses. The colours used in Raphael Israelian’s heroic tales, which are predominantly black and red, convey the peculiar message of the given theme.
The Monument to the Self-Defence of Hajn does not look so triumphant as the black northern wall of the Monument of Rebirth in Aparan; nor does it look so firm and attached to the land as the Monument of Mount Musa. Its elegant composition predominantly expresses heroic outburst, longing and anguish.