St. Vartan Cathedral in New York

Commentary: Diocesan Development Revisited: ‘God Is in the Details’

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By Garo Gumusyan, AIA

“Less is More” is the famous quote the legendary German architect Mies Van der Rohe is known for. Be that as it may be, his lesser known dictum,  “God is in the details,” appears to be guiding principle for us mere mortals, Armenians in particular.

In the case of the proposed development of the Diocesan property, these details take on epic, ungodly proportions, for, being in the original Diocesan development council myself many years ago, I had a  close-up view of the same issues that appears to be as much relevant today as it was then.

The “Legacy” issue. This was the issue that effectively ended the proposed development then and it appears that the history will repeat itself now. The fact that the Church was built by the enormous efforts of a group of  deeply faithful Armenians, with no outside help or funding, was and still is an unparalleled achievement, which we all Armenians are rightly proud of. However, this achievement has also brought its own heavy legacy, banishing  any and all thoughts of  altering it. The thought process “if they were able to built under such dire circumstances then, how come the Diocese can’t maintain it now” runs deep. Probably more so then, since  some of the spouses of these great men were alive and their vehement opposition to any development echoed more vibrantly among the community.

The “Real Estate Valuation” issue. This, in my opinion, was another issue that hindered any meaningful real estate negotiation then, as it will do now. With so much emotional legacy invested, I thought that we had overestimated the value of what we had to offer to the developers. In the reality of New York real estate, not in our virtual reality, from a Real Estate developer’s point of view, the site is not that great as we think it is, and what would be some of the desirable attributes for a development from the developer’s point of view  conflicted with the Diocese’s requirements. Subsequently, the first tier real estate developers showed no interest and walked away. That was the case then, and it appears to be the case now.

The “Architectural” issue. A disciple of Mies Van Der Rohe, another legendary architect, Philip Johnson, wryly  commented that “In New York, we don’t build architecture, we just build buildings.” Any casual observer, looking at the recent crop of buildings will agree. Sadly, this ordinariness is more obvious with apartment building developments, whether  they are condominium or rentals, rentals being more so. In rare occasions, a top tier developer will make an attempt to bring in a so-called “starchitect” to make an architectural statement which will add value to his development , however, if those developers are not there, unfortunately  the  end result will inevitably turn out to be the current rendering. This rendering will be a tough sell as a backdrop to  the landmarks qualities of the cathedral  itself.

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The “Engagement of the Community” issue. I can’t think of a more important issue than this, and time and time again we have failed to address it. I thought that a poor job was done then, as it appears to be the case now. The inherent conflict of “the necessity of privacy with real estate negotiations” and “the community’s right to know” could have been avoided then with a more professional approach, providing  “transparency” and addressing the community’s concerns along the way with briefings and hearings,  rather than giving  the appearance of a “fait-accompli.” A project of this scope cannot move ahead without the active participation and engagement of the community at large.

The “Timing” issue.  As fickle as real estate is in general, it’s even more so in New York, where the inevitable boom and bust cycle of development reigns supreme. As a recent article in Crain’s points out, the boom cycle is over, the vacancies are rising as thousands of new apartments are entering the market. A classic definition of the beginning of a bust cycle. This was another major issue that we got caught up with then, which will happen now.

The “Leadership” issue. Imagine that, at that time, the great, legendary Archbishop Torkom Manoogian was head of the church. A spiritual man of the highest order, a most eloquent orator, a poet, beloved and respected by the New York Mayor, Governor and all the leaders of other faiths. A truly extraordinary  man, who I believe  supported this project and with his  leadership  could have moved the project ahead. But, facing the vehement opposition of a community, incensed by also being kept in the dark most of the way, he, in his infinite wisdom, recused himself. Any endeavor requires effective leadership, which we lacked then, and appears to be lacking now.

I started with Mies Van Der Rohe’s  dictum,  that “God is in the Details,” as appropriate that may be for this endeavor, let’s also remember another famous architect’s, this one being  Mies’s nemesis, Frank Lloyd Wright, who said of New York’s skyline, “A great monument, I think, to the power of money and greed.”  For, it is what it is, this skyline is indeed built upon money and greed.  The challenge  is to acknowledge it, face the challenges  and chart a  course  that will serve the church’s best interests.

(Garo Gumusyan is a practicing architect in New York. He was in the original Building Committee of the Diocese.)

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