Our Very Own Starchitect

Our Very Own Starchitect

n. Term used to describe a special class of architect who holds celebrity renown due to their trailblazing impact in the field 
Synonym: rockstar 
See also: Bernard Khoury 

When preparing for a Skype interview with a world-famous architect – who also happens to be known as “the bad-boy architect of the Arab world” – it’s difficult not to expect a conversation punctuated by short answers and condescending glances. At least that’s what this (star-struck) interviewer believed. But as soon as Bernard Khoury appeared on screen, it became clear that this particular starchitect was actually quite pleasant to talk to…

Impossibly charming, Bernard maintains an infectious energy regarding everything he speaks about. He also happens to be the mastermind behind the Yerevan TUMO center’s interior architecture, the renovation of Gyumri’s historic first theatre (a.k.a. TUMO Gyumri) and the soon-to-be TUMO Koghb. If you’re at all familiar with these designs, you’d notice that each center is unique its own way. And that’s kind of the point. “We’re not after a recognizable aesthetic. TUMO is an idea more than anything else, a spirit that has to remain everywhere we go – regardless of the building or location.” Each center is built to balance the unique character of its urban context with the requirements of TUMO. It’s a specific response to a specific need.

Bernard has seen to it that each center is as individual as its location. “The first time I visited the Gyumri site, it was freezing and my arm was broken. But the contrast I saw between the city’s beautiful historic architecture and the serious decay was unforgettable.” Currently, TUMO Gyumri is situated within the Gyumri Tech Center, but it will soon be moved to the city’s first theater. Housing a TUMO center with such cultural significance presents its own set of advantages and challenges. Before the center is even constructed, it will have a certain sense of importance because of where it is on a map. But the primary obstacle (or creative opportunity for Bernard) is finding a way to preserve the identity of the building without being a slave to it. “We’re starting off with an important building and reanimating it by adding the tools of TUMO, but we don’t just want to recreate what it used to be and build something that looks like it belongs on a postcard. This is how we create meaning; this is how history evolves; this is how we build a place.”

The Koghb center, on the other hand, is a whole other animal. Right now, the site is just a pit that will be built up according to a new vision. “I particularly enjoy the oversized importance that the center will have in this small town. These two projects (Gyumri and Koghb) don’t aesthetically resemble each other, but conceptually they work on the same level. They’re both optimistic and positive gestures in each city.”

As someone who has been with TUMO from the very beginning and as the person responsible for developing the physical representation of TUMO, Bernard has a first-hand understanding of TUMO’s journey. Bridging the gap between drawing sketches for an impossible-sounding idea to now working on the third and fifth manifestations of the now very possible idea was no accident. “We embarked on this project over ten years ago and I was witness to the very beginning of TUMO; it all happened very carefully. TUMO was a phenomenon that couldn’t be fully envisioned before it was created because there wasn’t anything like it. But I do think the structures are fruitful translations of what became the overarching concept behind TUMO.”

But Bernard doesn’t see the TUMO momentum fizzling out anytime soon and this assessment is particularly special for Bernard as he’s part Armenian. “I think Armenians, as all other peoples, are citizens of the world, but I’m very happy to see TUMO coming out of Yerevan. I believe that growing cities like Yerevan create more interesting forms of modernity than in areas of global certainty like London or Tokyo, areas that have reached their limits. This is a kind of modernity that can be exported and it was all born and developed in Armenia.”