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Architecture - first of the arts

Large numbers of churches and monasteries sequestered by the Soviet regime have been returned to the Catholicos by the new Armenian Republic.

Armenian architects and masons during the first two centuries after the conversion to Christianity developed the characteristic building expertise associated with nearly all Armenian edifices erected after the sixth century. Before tracing the formal steps followed in achieving these results, the building technique itself should be understood.

The architectonic problem was singular: How to build churches with complex interior volumes in stone that would both resist the immense weight of the masonry vaulting and roofing and not crumble under the jarring effects of earthquakes.

Armenia is a highly volcanic and active seismic land. The lateral movement caused by earth tremors could easily cause the upsetting of the often delicate balance of forces developed to support stone domes.

The major solution was the skillful use of concrete, not in the form we know of it today, but similar to that developed in Roman architecture in the Near East, perhaps the original sources from which Armenian artisans borrowed the formula.

Buildings were virtually poured into being from the ground up, but instead of the modern usage of wooden forms into which a thick liquid mixture of cement, gravel, and sand - modern concrete - is poured, a more integrated method was used.

Onto modern concrete buildings a decorative facing material, often marble, is added later. This external siding is not organically related to the constructional process. In the Armenian case the parallel forms employed to contain the inner core of mortar were finely cut slabs of tufa.

Elevated a few rows at a time, these tufa forms adhered permanently to the wet mixture (composed of broken tufa, often of large size, and other stones, lime mortar, and usually eggs) poured in between them. As the binding material dried, it formed a nearly solid, concrete-like mass, which, because of the property of tufa discussed earlier, hardened as time passed.

For architectonic forces, this inner core is the major support, the transmitter of the weight, of vaulted roofs and domes, rather than the carefully carved exterior masonry that we admire.

Furthermore, this manner of slowly raising a building was extended above the level of the walls directly into the vaults, the drum, and the dome, giving the whole structure the solidity associated with reinforced concrete of today.

The architects employed various innovations to ameliorate constantly the quality of their work, for instance tufa of lesser density or large terra-cotta jars were often used in the core of the domes to reduce their weight.

The facing of inside and outside walls, even though it played a secondary role in support, was executed with great care. There was an aesthetic consideration that played with the natural beauty of tufa in two principal ways.

Often the entire building would be made with tufa of exactly the same color and hue. The perfectly cut stone was usually laid one upon the other without the use of mortar.

To give some buildings a perfectly unified and singular look, tufa of the same color was ground into powder that was then applied along the joints, concealing them and giving an effect of walls without seams.

The other major use of tufa was to highlight rather than hide the differences in color. Blocks of contrasting colors were juxtaposed to give checkerboard or other decorative effects.

A more important reason for the care devoted to the tufa walls was protection against earthquakes. Shocks to a building, usually in a rocking motion, could precipitate the detaching and falling away of blocks of stone from the inner core.

By beveling the tufa slabs, varying their size and height, and breaking up the straight vertical and horizontal lines of successive rows, a very resistant surface cohesion was produced.

Nevertheless, after more than a thousand years some medieval Armenian churches abandoned for centuries to the elements and vandalism stand today as though naked with only their inner concrete core intact.

The outer stones have either fallen away or willfully pried loose by present day villagers in search of ready-made building materials for their homes.

Once perfected, this method of construction became the standard into modern times. Its evolution was cautiously nurtured by several generations of builders in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries who were confronted by the challenge of patronage from all parts of the newly converted Armenia.

The land became an experimental workshop for architecture just as that experienced by the Roman Empire after its acceptance of Christianity in the same fourth century.

Armenian architects, by rejecting the use of wood for roofing as in neighboring Syria and the more easily manipulated brick so popular in the Roman and Byzantine Empires to the west, confronted the ungrateful task of all stone construction with persistence and genius.

The earlier churches of whatever design were characterized by the use of heavy and thick stone for walls, often with mortar placed between joints.

The inner core was so narrow that the real work of supporting the superstructure was performed by the walls themselves.

Gradually in the fifth and sixth centuries, as the masons saw that the domes and vaults of earlier buildings were steadfast and resistant to shock, the blocks of stone became thinner and the inner core of mortar wider.

Eventually large stone blocks were reserved for the lowest courses and for the corners where two walls met.

By the end of the sixth century the confidence of architects was such that windows and other openings were added to edifices, while domes became bigger and interior management of space more audacious.

Some domes did suffer design weaknesses, a few had to be rebuilt, but on the whole, as the numerous extent monuments erected more than a thousand years ago eloquently testify, the work of Armenian craftsmen was executed to last for eternity.

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Writer: Dickran Kouymjian
Editor: Eugenia Melkonyan
 Date Added: Tuesday September 05, 2006 10:46:23 

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