by Vahan Misakyan (2014)


Man-made or natural disasters, radically changing the historic trajectories of socio-cultural evolution, are the collective inheritance of many groups and cultures, leaving current generations with unanswered questions as to how they should build their relationship with their own distant past, which is embedded in their present. This essay looks at the case of the 1988 Armenian earthquake, to elucidate larger questions of territorial and temporal perception as regards to historic and collective memory shaped through the radical intervention by a violent force, which is external to the group or the culture.

The Armenian earthquake, which occurred 25 years ago in the town of Spitak, killed about 25,000 people, leaving thousands more homeless. It affected/partly destroyed nearby cities (Gyumri being one of the largest). Conditions produced by this event, continuing to the present day, include the 'temporary-housed' communities of about 3,000 families in Gyumri, and the unacceptable socio-economic conditions of the group, which was directly affected by the disaster. Such stories are archived in multiple different forms within the Armenian Media (particularly print and broadcast recordings).

Therefore, this text does not follow the track of becoming yet another depiction of the narrative. Rather, it aims at becoming a critical and conceptual "device" to read, perceive, and re-imagine the history triggered by the earthquake. By doing so, it aids the development of an architectural and possible curatorial historic project on the event. Through this reading, the disaster also becomes a case study to arrive at or think about a larger theory connecting the ideas of collective memory of man-made or natural disasters to concepts of collective cultures of living and perceiving.

Architectural exercises/sketches followed by the text are the materialization of arguments and concepts developed within it. These will be updated throughout time.

In the contemporary world, the past is not just a territory for imagined return, furthered by simplistic emblematic devices: it is rather a repository for ongoing spatial formations of living cultures, created within collective regularities of perception of the past as well as the present. Socio-political context is the ground on which particles of collective memory antagonize with the perspective and spatial fields of modern vision. This process casts itself into an imaginary calling for an architectural intervention. The self-awareness or truthfulness of such moves can be forwarded through collective mediations initiated by pre-formed conceptual structures (such as architectural, philosophical essays, manifestos, or other similar notional declarations).

The general assumption of this essay is that events, such as natural disasters, which disrupt many people's lives at once, create complicated perceptual-spatial fields and territorial regimes. These either stretch the collective memory of human societies or loop present memory with a point in the past resulting in partly or completely isolated spatio-temporal patterns of living within a collective. Architecture, as a discipline operating through spatial ideas, becomes the platform of departure to analyze and reveal intricacies and operables of these events, and to then offer solutions or future self-aware developments of the collective living. Demarcation, as a concept, implies a process of reconfiguring territorial formations, and with the assumption that collective memory is one of them, I will start off my investigation.

“these either stretch the collective       memory of human societies or loop present memory with a point in the past resulting in partly or completely isolated spatio-temporal patterns of living”

The Armenian Earthquake, of a quarter century ago, plus the ensuing events with the resulting cultural spatial regimes and societal spatial marcations, in addition to other constituents of the collective memory, make up the field affecting the collective identity.  Generally, the reexamination of the past or the memorialization of an event, serves the role of rethinking/reimagining collective identities through an interaction with the collective memory. Additionally, as a method of cultural notation it ensures the continuity of collective identities.

The demarcation of collective memory and its transformation into a historic memory, being processed within the present continuum, naturally brings up a set of questions. What are the traces of a place, e.g., a city, that can become thresholds to access the living past, that was formed by a social space? What are the constituents of a public space, how is it produced when a given collective is constrained by larger political agendas? Is it possible to perceive the collective memory of a particular group as a unified territory, when it is processed through the modern spectral conditions? Does the individual and collective perceptions of space and time contradict or connect with each other? Are there any patterns of temporal and spatial demarcation created by this event, requiring memorialization? It is clear that these questions with their additional, derivative enquiry, leave no room for reactionary and/or conventional architectural thinking.

“thresholds to access the living past, which also was formed by a social space”

Here, we have the following three spatial constituents and their negotiated interrelations, as preconditions for any possible architectural thinking and large scale intervention.

1. Radical transformation of space-time within the unified territory of collective memory, as regards Armenian society and the earthquake of 1988.

2. Socio-political spatial regimes, which were externalized during the last quarter century, and resulted in patterns of secular cultures (those that are exercised through everyday living).

3. Territorial conditions and self-reproducing spatial regimes, resulted from these developments in connection with questions of collective identity, regarding the particular society or cultural group.


Societies or groups, in order to build collective self-awareness and perceive their own image, usually reexamine the past, and the traces of events that shaped it. Reexamination becomes the condition in which the perception of collective continuity is possible. Every society, group, or culture collects the particles of time in its own perceptual and cognitive terms, meaning that time usually comes to appear inside the territory of private truth. If the current of time in a decade or a century flows as full of events, in another period it appears in the image of a voided  space. Collective memory, and sociological, philosophical discourses that developed around its questions, circulate the idea that, perception of time, its recalling or apprehension, is social in its nature and is formed within and is bounded by the private spaces of culture and history. Culturally identified significant events or landmarks within the time-continuum of collective existence, therefore, become points of continual return for a group/culture/society, when reexamining possible futures.

“Reexamination becomes the condition in which the perception of collective continuity is possible”

** Earthquake, as a typology of a large-scale disaster, exemplifies an event which links multiple human conditions into one perceptual and cognitive construct and anchors it to a specific location for a duration of time. An event which took place in Spitak, Armenia on Wednesday, December 7, 1988 at 11:41 local time (07:41 UTC) lasting 41 seconds, had resulted in such a construct (a dispersed spatial condition on an urban scale, which on the human scale is understood as a homogeneous psycho-atmospheric condition). From this moment on, for a particular group of people affected directly by the event, it becomes a distinct temporal demarcation, delineating two distinct spaces existing inside and outside the demarcation, with times and temporal flows before and after the demarcation.

“perception of time, its recalling or apprehension, is social in its nature and is formed within and are bounded by the private spaces of culture and history”

Each of these being perceived as distinct realities, with sharply marked contours, creates the ground on which a time-continuity perception apparatus is developed, and later used within the group of people directly affected by the event. The latter implies that a portion of Armenian society shares a system of demarcations within the territory of its collective memory, which is different from the one of the collective whole. As a result, it also develops differing patterns of collective self-identification. This point, as the starting condition of asymmetric development of collective identity, requires a closer reading.

This particular societal group, as a result of the event appears in an intermediate, transitory space where it can perceive two points of orientation for the temporal and spatial movement or evolution.

1. Origin: the point of departure, which is the instant where the shape of the collective reality was drastically deformed.  

2. Terminus: the point of arrival, the space where recovered and rebuilt reality can allow and further the natural movement inside the space-time continuum.

This intermediary condition resembles a collective waiting space, because the anticipated future, which naturally would have arrived a lot faster, was subjected to an indefinite movement or dislocation, by that stretching and deforming of the space-time continuum for this group. Deformed rhythm of temporal sequence results in a newly voided space, the gap in-between, which achieves an unnatural tension through spatial casting from two channels--particles of the memory constituting the realization of the past, and thoughts about the anticipated regularities and routines of the future, which in turn effuses from the imaginary of the anticipated future.

“new territorial demarcations of secular or day-to-day life, inside of which differing and alternatively regulated living-culture. ”

This process, within the context of Armenian socio-cultural regularities and rythms, creates a new territorial demarcation of the secular or day-to-day life, inside of which there’s a discrete and alternatively organized living culture. Therefore, temporal divisions, which in turn are subject to demarcated territorial regularities, are also differing from the overall temporal divisions of Armenian society. The isolated group, becoming unaware of the temporal rhythm of the collective whole, develops its own depictions of time and continuity, regulated by natural and subcultural (specific to itself) laws of living.

Throughout the quarter century since the earthquake, this portion of  society was also subjected to rupture and reproduction. Some parts of the group, in time separating from the whole, joined other zones with new spatial regularities, while continuing to inhabit the same transitional space of collective memory and future imaginary. As a result, they still participate in the process of collective identity formation for this group. A new generation, developing inside the created territory of spatio-temporal demarcation, with its differing regularities of living culture, in turn develops another system of temporal divisions. This generation, in contrast to the previous one, has only one point of orientation inside the space-time continuum, the terminus (anticipated future with its new regularities) which in turn is conditioned by the future-imaginary of the previous/original generation. Thus, the collective memory of the group still continues to lead the production of previously established collective self-perception and identity, while the original/previous generation transforms into the threshold within the space-time, through which to access alternative narratives of the past, which existed before the origin point, where the deformation of the space-time continuum took place.

“conditioned by the future-imaginery of the previous / original generation”

The individual perceptions of time and continuity, being conditioned by personal-singular temporal divisions, is in turn affected by the larger socio-cultural, collective regularities of temporal sequence. The latter, for the observed group, is the generalized division or temporal movement origin and terminus (which, after a quarter century, still continues to be moved and dislocated). Through a speculative generalization, one could also argue that, spatio-temporal regularities formed within this demarcated territory directs its constituent members into a state of perceptual and physical immobility, eventually leading to the point (or the regime) of absolute stasis of collective consciousness.

“after a quarter decade, still continues to be moved and dislocated”

-/- Zooming out from this image, and zooming into the scale of individual humans, it's important to notice that generally within philosophical discourses and those concerning the psychology of remembering or memory, there are many depictions and definitions of space-time continuum, spatio-temporal axis etc. Given the objectives of this project, e.g., initiation of imaginative thinking around the subject, I am depicting space-time as one unified static axis, through which, during its movement from an event condition A to B, human consciousness creates and locates particles of memory or remembrances. During the materialization stage of this project (i.e., further development of architectural drawings) the following concept will also inform the decision making. Large or spaced-out temporal divisions are typical for adults, creating the perception of fast-paced movement in time. Smaller, or denser, temporal divisions are typical for the younger/developing human brain, forming the perception of slow-paced movement in time. The latter implies that slow-paced movement is the result of a greater quantity of created and stored memories.


During the event of this earthquake, the Armenian Republic was still a part of a larger socio-political spatial regime, then present inside the Soviet Union. This space had its own regularities of everyday culture and societal visibility, different from those within the present day Armenia. The event of this earthquake, with its schedule of media coverage, archived in forms of print and television broadcast media, bespeaks the bordered or invisible condition of the republic, or the human population within the Soviet Union in general, since it took a couple of days for it to reach the headlines of the propagandist media machine. Within this socio-political territory, accepting media as a window to access those distant cultures of living, one could also note that the Russian language, as the generalizing and unifying substance of this space, made its way into becoming a part of the imaginary of higher culture of living. Groups with weaker collective consciousness and self-perception would fall into the trap of following this narrative, while some groups within the Armenian society were not exempt from it either. Both during and right after the earthquake, the observed group perceived itself primarily as a constituent of a borderless and also faceless space of the Soviets.

“specification of ones own territoriality within the collective consciousness of Armenian society”

The process of specification of one's own territoriality within the collective consciousness of Armenian society, was the result of the idea that volunteers of Armenian Republic, complemented by those from the Armenian world in general, are the first resource in disaster response (i.e., in correcting the deformed and imbalanced surface of the reality). This point, within the space-time axis, should be viewed as the identity-formation starting point for the group primarily affected by the earthquake, and as a node that influences over the overall collective identity of Armenian Society. Cultural regularities assumed within the socialist environment were embodied through constituents of secular/everyday culture and some collective habits, including use of the Russian language. The collective movement towards these regularities, personified by some groups within Armenian society, externalized the larger historic spatial regime of forming an unconscious (therefore invisible) culture of collective submissiveness.

“spatial regime of forming unconscious therefore invisible culture of collective submissiveness.”

The evolution of the culture of living within Armenian society continued through other significant events (i.e., the Nagorno-Karabakh war, and the cultural space resulting within the new presidential republic). Historic transformation of the context surrounding Armenian society, from the paradigmatic space of a socialist society into one of a market society, brings a new culture of living into the environment with partially preserved collective habits from the past, still present within some groups inside the whole, particularly the culture of collective submissiveness.

This transformation can be better understood through Henri Lefebvre's argument;

“.. cultural history of space should not be conceived in terms of discrete movement from one spatial regime to another, but should be understood in terms of an ongoing interaction between the spaces produced in and through everyday life ‘la pratique spatial.’”

The global economic environment and consequent market culture that emerged from it, contains the process of commodification as an important attribution, yet another unseen and unperceived ideological vector penetrating Armenian society.  Given the conditions of a weak cultural immunity of the contemporary Armenian Republic, the market culture embodies another spatial regime with the possibility of influencing the society. The byproduct of this spatial regime can be represented within collective habits, such as the  inclination towards the total commodification of everything. The identity of the observed group is not isolated from this process either: led by its culture of collective survival, the forced commodification of one's own condition points to another transformation which needs to be perceived as a constituent of the formation of cultural identities.

The notion of cultural immunity—as a form of awareness or intellectual resistance furthered through the collective culture of living—is hardly possible without identification of each and every one of these  attributions. External structures governing the socio-political spatial regimes, which in turn influence the financial-economic formation of the cultural sphere, furthers the territorial habitation of power and influence, as a result reestablishing and preserving the regularities of socio-cultural space which enabled the existence of these very structures in the first place. Therefore, effective cultural interventions, which are liberated from so called cultural sphere, are those which can identify these developments with their constituents, in a systematic fashion.  

photo credits - Danilo Balducci, Armen Muradkhanyan

Within the context of identities created through the present day socio-cultural territory of the Armenian Republic

Collective identity, consciousness and self-awareness is constituted by a set of attributes including collective memory, historic memory, secular/living culture and high culture. All of these, being formed in an interconnected manner, within the contexts of various historic events, embody the invisible web affecting every Armenian, particularly those living in the Armenian Republic. Therefore, collective consciousness and self-awareness becomes the condition without which the historically inherited task, of creating the cultures of living for the formation of free humans, is impossible.

The physical space, allocated for habitation of the observed group, embodies the physical concentration for the above-mentioned spatio-temporal and socio-cultural regimes of space. This creates the environment, materialized as a demarcated and isolated territory within the fabric of the city of Gyumri, that represents the socio-economic, cultural, as well as psychological junction, which serves the self-reproducing, disconsolate spatial regimes of misery. The process, which in turn bares its influence over the formation of the collective societal identity of the Armenian Republic. This spatial regime will only end, when "temporarily housed" communities are eliminated (through allocation of permanent housing) and the territory replaced by a rebuilt environment. This, in turn, can only be realized through de-marcation and the unchaining of collective memory, the rebuilding of the culture of living (through a rethinking of the collective memory, as well as through critical examination of an historically-formed culture of living—a process which this essay aims at starting).

“creating the cultures of living for the formation of free humans”

As I demonstrated earlier in this essay, from the moment of the earthquake, the bifurcation and territorialization of collective memory of the Armenian society took place, also producing isolated psychological atmospheric spaces within its society. The group which was directly affected by the earthquake during the time period of a quarter century, enduring not only physical and psychological attrition, but has appeared in a demarcated and isolated reality, in which it is subject to a phenomenological deformation. This process was followed by the development of new taxonomies of cultural regularities (concentrated within the physical location of temporarily-housed communities) by enabling the creation of self-reproducing spatial regimes of poverty, disconsolateness and misery. Moreover, a quarter century of development was hampered by a weak cultural immunity of the Armenian Republic, allowing the incomplete or untruthful collective consciousness, and self-awareness (e.g., influences of Soviet culture of living and the market culture over the space of the everyday culture of Armenian society).


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