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The Forms of Armenian Architecture

4. Niche-buttressed Square
Another variant of the quatrefoil, what Josef Strzygowski called the niche-buttressed square, has four apses protruding from the middle of each of the four walls of a square; the weight of the centrally placed dome is absorbed by these four protruding niches that buttress the walls.

All such churches have a pair of chambers added to the sanctuary; one type has a dome resting on four free-standing pillars with pendentives (masonry corners in the shape of spherical triangles) which form a circular base as a transitional element for a cylindrical drum.

The most famous examples are Etchmiadzin and Bagaran. Another type features a dome that covers the entire interior and rests on an octagonal base and drum formed by the walls and four corner squinches (arches): Mastara, Artik, Voskepar, and the church of the Holy Apostles at Kars.

5. Hrip"simé Type
The most developed central plan and the one considered most uniquely Armenian (or Caucasian, since early examples are also found in Georgia) is the radiating or Hrip"simé type, which takes its name from the most famous example, the church of St. Hrip"simé built in 618 at Etchmiadzin.

The oldest dated monument with this form, however, is the church at Avan (591-609) near Erevan, though some Italian scholars suggest that the church at Soradir east of Lake Van may be an even earlier sixth century prototype. The basic plan of the Hrip"simé type is an interior tetraconch, that is interior apses joined to form a four leaf clover shape.

At the intersection of these apses in each of the corners are deep circular niches (three-quarter cylinders), which, with the four apses themselves, create an octagonal base as a support for a high cylindrical drum.

This in turn is crowned by the usual dome. Leading off the corner niches are four chambers, either circular in shape (Avan) or more usually square (Hrip"simé and Sisian).

This very symmetrical plan allows a proportionally large interior space to be created, unhindered by columns or piers. Since, however, this complex inner space is enclosed in massive stone walls, the exterior of the building in Armenian architecture, often does not reflect the contour of the interior.

The high drum supporting the dome is pierced by windows to admit light into the large central space; windows on other walls are relatively small.

Each of the façades of Hrip"simé and Sisian are indented by pairs of deep triangular slits, which place in relief the otherwise hidden inner tetraconch.

Only the exterior of Soradir (and the tenth century church of Aght"amar, which copies the Soradir plan minus the corner chambers) to some degree has an exterior that reflects the interior articulation.

6. Circular Plan
The ultimate design in the centralized plan is of course the perfectly circular church. In the seventh century, the aisled tetraconch of Zvart"nots" perfected the circular plan.

The church is really thirty-two sided. Its domed quatrefoil interior reached some forty meters in height. The inner ground space, according to the most recent reconstruction of S. Mnats"akanian, was surrounded by a single tiered ambulatory with open passages leading into the center through an arcade formed of six columns on each of the north, west and south lobes of the tetraconch.

This impressive building erected by Catholicos Nersés III between 641 and 653 had an overall diameter equal to its height. Other circular churches of the seventh century include the octafoils of Zoravar and Irind.

The plan of Zvart"nots" itself was later imitated in both Georgia and Armenia, the best known example being a near replica of it in the eleventh century church Gagikashen at Ani, which like Zvart"nots" itself is now destroyed. Among later circular plans is the church of St. Sargis at Khtzkonk" and the hexafoils of the Shepherd"s church and St. Gregory Abughamrents" at Ani.

7. The Gavit" or Jamatun
By the mid-seventh century Armenian architecture developed most of its basic forms. During the various architectural renaissances of the medieval period, these forms were imitated and elaborated.

One exception was the newly developed narthex, called a gavit" or jamatun in Armenian. These special square halls were usually attached to the western entrance of churches.

They were very popular in monastic complexes where they served as meeting rooms and vestibules. The twelfth to the fourteenth centuries was a period of great expansion of monasteries (in Armenian vank"), which in times of danger also housed neighboring villagers.

Pairs of large intersecting arches, held up by four sturdy and squat columns, supported the roofs of jamatuns. Their intersection in the upper region of the hall created an open lantern for light and air.

The walls were massive and contained few and small windows. Excellently preserved examples are found at Haghbat, Sanahin, Geghart, Goshavank", Magaravank" and Hovhannavank".

Contemporary Church Architecture
Modern Armenian architecture, especially in church design, is extremely dependent on the ancient tradition.

Most new buildings either consciously imitate the most famous monuments of the fourth to the seventh centuries, substituting contemporary constructional advances like reinforced and poured concrete for the traditional Armenian methods, or they combine features - either tectonic or decorative - from several old churches with results that are often a hybrid amalgam.

Unfortunately, despite the large number of Armenian architects in Armenia and the diaspora and the many opportunities for new church design, innovation and inspiration seem lacking.

The willingness of Armenian architects and masons of the past to constantly experiment with new forms has given way to conservative contemporary church boards and architects who seem afraid to deviate from the ancient and glorious tradition.

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Writer: Dickran Kouymjian
Editor: Eugenia Melkonyan
 Date Added: Tuesday September 05, 2006 11:00:23 

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