“I know we’re all isolated and working independently, but for a number of months now we’ve grown a bit accustomed to this sort of remote work.”
We’re speaking with Shahe Simonian of the TUMO architecture team, remotely of course, on the challenges of managing and juggling multiple projects with a team scattered to the winds across Yerevan. As the TUMO team, like other workplaces throughout Armenia and around the globe, nears the 8th week of social distancing and remote work, chock of full of video calls and frantic text messages, we wanted to get a better feel for how one group in particular has been weathering the storm.
A repatriate from Australia, Shahe first visited Armenia in 1997. After his initial trip, and the many subsequent trips that would follow, Shahe would return home to Sydney wondering how he and his family could help further Armenia’s independence while meaningfully contributing to its prospects of growth. His family’s decade-plus long dream finally morphed into a reality this year, when he relocated to Armenia alongside his family to begin an exciting new chapter in Armenia.
Tasked with overseeing a number of exciting new projects while coordinating with disparate teams from rural Armenia to America to the Netherlands, the architecture team, which also includes Suren Sargsyan, Nektar Mkrtchyan, Lusine Ghushchyan Lori Kharpoutlian, Adom Hergelian and Alex Ng, brings a varied list of skills and accomplishments to the table. From past work on the Dilijan International School of Armenia (DWC), net-zero carbon housing in Gyumri, and the design and fabrication of TUMO “Stations Volantes” in Paris, the collective group brings a wealth of experience in urban, industrial, experiential and sustainable design to the table.
The team was also well positioned to seamlessly shift into remote work mode. Interestingly enough, the 5-member team was only physically together for a whopping one-week span, with, in a whirlwind flurry of events, Lori relocating from Beirut to Yerevan, the team moving into a larger, more accommodating room at TUMO, team members being sent home to work, and Lori quickly flying back to Beirut prior to full lockdown measures across Armenia. Yet when we speak with Shahe, he’s quick to emphasize a business-as-usual, nothing-out-of-the-ordinary vibe as far as work is concerned, with the team continuing to conduct daily stand up meetings along with beginning and end of week project check-ins.
At the moment, Shahe and the architecture team are preoccupied with two high profile projects. One of which, the TUMO Box, is progressing quickly. A fully equipped portable learning center that will take the TUMO curriculum directly to teens throughout rural villages in Armenia, the first Box is set to be installed in Berd, located in northeastern Tavush province, facilitating a future move for Box learners to TUMO Dilijan. “The prototype we developed locally in Yerevan has progressed to the point that we’re really just waiting for some of these social distancing measures to ease. Once on-site working restrictions are lifted, we’ll be able to move the Box from Yerevan, truck it to Berd, and set it up there,” says Shahe.
As for the EU TUMO Convergence Center, the project is entering a very exciting phase. The center, a visionary new shared hub for research, education and startups geared towards university students and young professionals, is currently being designed by Netherlands-based architecture studio MVRDV. Structural, climatic, and environmental consultants will soon review the current set of designs mapped out by MVRDV to add each of their unique skill sets to more deeply inform the design phase prior to moving into schematics. Because of the global nature of the project, with Shahe and the architecture team coordinating with consultants from the U.S. and the MVRDV lead design team in Rotterdam, working from home hasn’t proven to be a stumbling block at all. In fact, it can even make for some humorous, lighthearted moments. “The Rotterdam team has been working from home for a while now as well. Before all this, we’d have conference calls with each side in one room and now when we have our calls there are quite a few different rooms on screen. So it’s a very funny relationship in a way. It gets very personal when you can see into everyone’s home on screen,” says Shahe with a grin.
When describing the Convergence Center project and all of the progress that’s been made to this point, Shahe can barely contain his excitement. “If the building is realized the way it’s been drawn up, I don’t think Yerevan will have ever seen anything quite like it.”
Outside of the TUMO Box and the EU TUMO Convergence Center, work continues on the TUMO centers in Gyumri, Dilijan and Koghb. Poised to become a visually striking new presence in its surrounding environment, the newly renovated TUMO Gyumri center will serve a variety of roles. Repurposing the city’s Drama Theater, internationally renowned architect Bernard Khoury and his design studio DW5 created a multi-faceted building that will serve the community as much as provide a creative spark to Gyumri’s youth. The relationship between TUMO and Khoury/DW5 dates back to the interior design of TUMO Yerevan,with the studio also designing three generations of TUMObiles over the years (Khoury and DW5 will also be designing the upcoming TUMO center in Koghb.) The project has not been completed, however, with Shahe and the architecture team working with their local counterparts in Gyumri to complete a technical fit-out of specialist furniture and equipment. Looking into the not-too-distant future, the new TUMO Gyumri center may also function as a hub for some of nearby TUMO Boxes, thus serving an even wider community of surrounding villages.
Up in the lush, forested hills of Dilijan, meanwhile, the local TUMO center is undergoing an equally exciting adaptive renovation. The new facility is over five stories tall and is currently in various stages of completion. The new facility has been refurbished with brand new workshop labs and computer facilities and will also house the Dilijan Library while providing housing to accommodate staff and students from surrounding villages. Ultimately, the concept of living, working and studying amongst books became a central theme during the interior fit-out of the building and will play an integral role in how the facility will be used moving forward, particularly when it comes to the TUMO Box (with TUMO Dilijan serving as the first hub for the initial TUMO Box and more Boxes to come in the Tavush and Gegharkunik regions.)
“It’s the spatial aspect that really serves to unify all of these different projects. Open spacing, innovative approaches to design…they ultimately loop back to reinforce TUMO’s overriding philosophy when it comes to education,” says Shahe.