Nestled in a bowl at the end of a narrow river valley in the remote northern Armenian province of Lori, the village of Debet is far off the beaten track. So when the low, white outlines of the Children of Armenia Fund’s (COAF) sensuously curved Smart Center come into view, you are momentarily astonished. Rather than having risen from the ground, the light, pavilion-like structure, by Lebanese-Armenian architect Paul Kaloustian, appears to have descended from the skies.
‘I think the locals thought it was a space centre, with secret technologyand hackers,’ says Shahane Halajyane, initiative director for the fund’s Smart programme. ‘COAF has been working here for years, but the villagers didn’t relate this building to them. They were sure it was some place for rich people.’ She should know. Although Halajyane now lives in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, she grew up 15 minutes from here. ‘We decided to bring in groups of children and parents during construction,’ she continues. ‘The idea was to give local inhabitants a sense of ownership.’
COAF, a socio-educational NGO, was founded by American entrepreneur Garo Armen, and has been operating in Armenia since 2003. Now, with the launch of its Smart Center initiative – Debet’s is the first of 20, subject to funding – it is seeking to bring the 21st century to rural areas, through after-school programmes in coding, robotics, engineering, visual arts, music and dance, all offered free of charge.
Kaloustian signed up to the project after Tony Shafrazi, the New York-based Iranian-Armenian gallerist and former art advisor to the Shah, sent him a message on Instagram. ‘It was surreal,’ Kaloustian says. ‘This was someone I respected, whose career I followed. He invited me to New York to meet in person; he’d lost his studio and had a project to replace it. Then one night, we ended up at a party, and we met Garo. The whole thing was very organic.’ A couple of weeks later, Kaloustian found himself flying into Yerevan.
‘The diaspora has this romanticised vision of Armenia,’ he says. ‘It’s an ideal. So when we go and see that it’s a real country, it leads to mixed feelings.’ For Kaloustian, though, Lori was love at first sight: ‘Excavation had already started for a three-storey structure, but I immediately wanted a single-storey building that related to the sheer size of the plot and the empty space around it. I wanted to design something big that would reach out and embrace the land, a landform, more than a piece of architecture.’
Kaloustian designed an irregularly shaped, winged building that pushes into the landscape via a long, as yet unfinished, curving promenade that will combine rooms, walls and open, ‘wild’ green spaces. ‘I’ve always been interested in exercises in ambiguity, the way you can do something that feels like an exterior, but is delimited,’ he says. ‘Like at the Alhambra. Spaces that are fluid and ambiguous, so the visitor feels something is different but doesn’t necessarily know what it is.’
For Kaloustian, the three-year project was a journey, both as an architect, and as a person of Armenian origin. Determined to be as bold as possible, he credits COAF for its willingness to travel along. The contractor, however, was another matter. ‘It was a shock of two mentalities,’ says Kaloustian. ‘There are traces of our clashes all over the building.’
This may be why, if you want, you can find fault. Minimalism is an unforgiving mistress and, in places, the building’s finish is imperfect. But these flaws do not detract from the overall impression that this dynamic beauty stands out even as it hunkers down, a glazed lantern adrift in a sea of green. There is nothing similar for hundreds of kilometres. Here in Lori, this building is alien and yet it is clear from the easy behaviour of its users that it is also their alien.
‘Unconsciously, that is what I wanted to achieve,’ Kaloustian says of a project he has loved, loathed and finally come to terms with. ‘The villagers are super proud of it. They’ve appropriated the building and understood it, and this is rewarding for an architect.