Nare Filiposyan

Young Architect Details Goal to Revive Armenian Stonemasonry in Boston TCA Lecture

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WATERTOWN — Nare Filiposyan is a woman on a mission to save the last remnants of one of the oldest Armenian crafts from oblivion: traditional stone masonry.

The craft, which dates back to the Early Middle Ages, is best known for its use in medieval Armenian churches and monasteries. Hallmarks of Armenian architecture like St. Hripsime, Holy Echmiadzin and St. Hovhannes in Filiposyan’s hometown of Sisian, Armenia, were built using this technique. But due to the vast changes of modern life, the “embodied knowledge” of traditional masons is in danger of being lost. Filiposyan is working to prevent that, and has some solutions, which were the subject of her lecture on Thursday, March 24 sponsored by the Greater Boston chapter of the Tekeyan Cultural Association (TCA) and moderated by local architect Ted Touloukian of Touloukian Touloukian Inc.

Filiposyan recently completed her master’s in architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the lecture was based on her 2021 master’s thesis, “(Re)Turn to Stone: Preserving a Culture of Stone Masonry.”

Born and raised in Sisian, Armenia, much of her research utilized the local 6th-7th century St. Hovhannes Church (also known as St. Gregory, Sisavank, and other local names) as an exemplar of the craft of stonemasons.

Traditional Craftsmanship in Armenia

To begin with, Filiposyan distinguished the different types of stonemasons active in Armenia today. Decorative stone carving is done by craftsmen known as kardash (stonecarver), who create khachkars (cross stones) as well as decorative elements of architecture. Khachkars and similar works of stone art are still in high demand today, and thankfully, this centuries old artisanship is intact in Armenia. Modern buildings are constructed by those known as shinarar (builder), who typically utilize concrete and other modern techniques. The third type of mason is the one which is disappearing. These are the badshar (one who lays out walls), the stone masons who constructed the walls and domes of ancient Armenian churches; not the architects who designed the buildings necessarily, nor the stone carvers who added decorative elements, but the masons who laid out the physical building.

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Filiposyan noted that most studies of medieval Armenian architecture have focused on typology (essentially, building design/appearance/floorplan) and the overall design of the structures. The actual construction of the walls, floors, arches, etc., have been ignored. How were the stones laid out, in what manner and what were the techniques used during the actual construction process? She suggests these issues were not sufficiently studied in the past and due to the reduced demand for masons to construct buildings in a medieval style, the number of masons trained in this process has dwindled to a handful; those remaining apparently are only called upon to use these skills in order to repair damage on medieval buildings.

The technique known as midis has been passed down to current Armenian masons from the 4th century. The technique consists of creating a double wall of dressed stone (a stone that has been worked to a desired shape; the faces to be exposed are smooth, usually ready for installation) (i.e. ashlar) blocks. In between the two layers of the wall, a filling of rubble and lime mortar is poured which hardens (rubble wall masonry).

By contrast, modern construction projects in Armenia are predominantly based on concrete walls with thin stone tiles “clad” on top of them in order to preserve the aesthetic appearance of traditional Armenian architecture. But the difference between midis and modern concrete building is more than just a romantic or nostalgic hearkening to the past, as Filiposyan noted. The midis technique actually allowed for and was the cause of certain major developments in Armenian architecture from a stylistic standpoint; for example, since the interior of a wall and the exterior of a wall are built from separate layers of stone, they often have different shapes. This encouraged such developments as domes which are cone-shaped on the outside and half-spherical on the inside; design elements which have been attempted in modern church buildings in Armenia and the Diaspora despite not using the ancient techniques. Filiposyan mentions that this flexibility allowed the masons to “play with” the geometry of the buildings.

The developments in stonework also made medieval Armenian culture unique; the neighboring Byzantine Empire, one of the most developed cultures at the time and a major influence on Armenia, had mostly abandoned stone masonry buildings at the time in favor of brick; while Armenians continued to develop techniques of stone work. Developments in stone masonry which were later associated with France had similar parallels centuries earlier in Armenia.

St. Hovhannes Church (7th century) in Filiposyan’s hometown of Sisian, Armenia, showing traditional stonemasonry techniques

Last of Their Kind

Filiposyan has struck up a working relationship with remaining masons, one in particular, varpet (master) Andranik. She shared the conversations she has had with Andranik, who has more than 30 years of experience primarily in repairing damage to medieval churches.

Andranik shared a sentiment recognizable to those familiar with the “Arts and Crafts” movement in Western art and architecture from the early 20th century. That is, modern construction is boring for the builders. Doing the type of “cladding” work common in contemporary Armenia, where concrete is covered with a veneer of stone tiles, is “like eating borscht every day,” according to Andranik. The old style of stone masonry presents new challenges at every turn, as different approaches are necessitated for different parts of the building, and masons find the solutions due to their years of experience, which keeps the brain active. Despite the Communist regime that ruled the USSR, a very “capitalist”, money-and-efficiency driven mentality for building projects set in during the Soviet era. The old ways were not efficient, so they were discarded. But like factory work, modern stonemasonry is often repetitive and does not take the ingenuity and inventiveness which characterized the old.

Filiposyan argues that the experience and hand-on knowledge possessed by Andranik and the handful of other masons, is a valuable resource that cannot be reproduced by writing books about it. Instead, the knowledge is “embodied,” that is, is it part and parcel of Andranik’s life and who he is. This type of knowledge can really only be passed down from master to student and in the context of real-life scenarios where various issues arise that have to be solved by the masons. To lose this knowledge, says Filiposyan, would be to lose something that cannot be replaced by architects trained merely from books. (One is reminded of so many other losses from oral transmitted culture that the Armenian people experienced due to Genocide, Sovietization and Modernization; for example in the realms of folklore and folk music.)

But without any real demand for the services of the traditional badshar masons, how can their skills realistically be carried into the future, especially considering that much of their knowledge is contextual to specific situation in a building project?

Old Techniques for a New Age

Filiposyan has developed a possible answer to this question; she wants to see the skills of the masons transferred to the domestic realm. Using her grandmother’s house in Sisian as a model, she has planned out various ways in which traditional stone masonry could be utilized on a miniature scale to build private homed or public and semi-public buildings.

The design elements of medieval churches, in particular the “squinch,” a straight or arched structure across an interior angle of a square tower to carry a superstructure such as a dome, is utilized heavily by Filiposyan in her schematics. Interestingly, she chose to make some of the more complex architectural elements more visible to the person living in the hypothetical house, to keep the skill of the masons visible and understandable to the user.

Filiposyan’s rendering of a projected domestic outbuilding (shelter over a backyard irrigation canal) that could be constructed with traditional stonemasonry

Outbuildings were also designed by Filiposyan with medieval elements, however, they are made to serve some kind of purpose so that the architectural style doesn’t turn into mere aesthetics or “nostalgia” as Filiposyan puts it (perhaps another word would be “romanticism”). A sort of shelter designed in a medieval style overhanging the irrigation canal in the backyard serves also as a kind of porch or spot to sit in the shade while utilizing the water and the nearby raspberry bushes.

A major issue with using stone masonry to build homes is temperature, especially in a place with severe climate changes like Armenia, with cold winters and hot summers. In this case, Filiposyan added modern thermal science to traditional techniques and suggested that aerated stone pieces (stone with pockets of air in them) could replace the traditional mortar in the center of the walls, in order to provide a better insulation system.

The lecture, presented by Masis Parunyan of the Greater Boston TCA, ended with a lengthy question-and-answer moderated by Touloukian. Touloukian’s architectural expertise helped him to reframe and expand on questions posed by attendees, which greatly increased the exploration of Filiposyan’s fascinating research and ideas.

The lecture can be watched here:

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