Museum on the Mount

New York-based architect David Hotson lands a commission for the most prominent site in Armenia.

Sited on the most high-profile piece of real estate in Yerevan, Armenia, the Gerard L. Cafesjian Museum of Art had to not only showcase modern art and luminous works of studio glass but also reconnect the small country in the lesser Caucasus mountains with its ancient heritage—interrupted by centuries of occupation, division between empires, and genocide. Doing both didn’t require a star architect; it took a talented designer who could take full advantage of the site and local building conditions.

A New York architect known mainly as a supporting player for other people’s grand projects, David Hotson inadvertently landed the lead role after acting as consultant for the design competition. The client deemed Coop Himmel-b(l)au’s bid for its favored entry too pricey and insufficiently anchored in the local construction industry. “Mr. Cafesjian really wanted to find an architect who could work with local people and participate very fundamentally in realizing the project,” Hotson says of the former publishing magnate’s vision. “In the end he felt like it was necessary to start all over. We had been working on the project for almost two years and had developed a pretty strong connection to his mission, so he said, ‘Why don’t you show me what you would do?’”

Hotson’s approach was to intensify the perspectives offered by the spectacular and immensely symbolic site: a terrace at the top of cascading travertine staircases with an outmoded monument at its peak built to celebrate Armenia’s 50th anniversary as a Soviet republic. A series of escalators beneath the stairs links Yerevan’s central plaza to the terrace and to the city’s northern districts. Cafesjian, who is also helping to lead the development of the Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial in Washington, D.C., had negotiated for control of the terrace, cascade, and plaza in order to restore the existing elements and transform the entire site into a monument worthy of an independent democratic nation.

“There’s this monumental staircase focused on a slender, somewhat insubstantial monument,” Hotson says, “so we proposed a site for a future monument commemorating Armenian independence that would be the ultimate visual focus of the whole composition.” The memorial’s exact form will be determined by a separate process, but its scale was planned to offset the towering jewel-like glass-and-steel gallery that Hotson designed to illuminate Cafesjian’s preeminent collection of contemporary glass—including works by Dale Chihuly, Stanislav Libensky, and Jaroslava Brychtova—and provide spaces for the installation of video projections and works by light artists.

Throughout the project, which broke ground last year, Hotson wove framed views of essential symbols of Armenian identity in the surrounding landscape. At each stage of progression up the covered escalators, another moment of visual drama is revealed through openings in the cascade: the Mother Armenia monument farther along the hillside; the arrowlike spine of the Genocide Monument on a hill southwest of the museum; and Mt. Ararat, the traditional resting place of Noah’s Ark, a profound focus of longing across the closed border with Turkey. “The country has origins at the very beginning of recorded history,” Hotson says, “and these are the cultural anchors that have kept this group together throughout a tumultuous history.”

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