Turning on his TV as he sat down to breakfast last Dec. 7, Ron Altoon expected to see the usual commemoration of Pearl Harbor. But the images on his screen were more immediate in their horror.
An earthquake that measured 6.9 on the Richter scale had wrought terrible destruction in Soviet Armenia: 55,000 people would die and 500,000 would be homeless as whole towns collapsed into rubble.
As an architect, Altoon was deeply affected by the destruction. As an Armenian, he was personally touched by the deaths of thousands of his countrymen.
"It could be my own family dying out there," he said. "I wrote several checks, but they didn't make me feel any better. I felt strongly that I had to step into this more personally."
So Altoon, a commercial architect in Los Angeles with his own firm, Altoon and Porter, decided to organize a team of American architects to visit the Soviet Union to help plan the rebuilding of an Armenian city. After months of bureaucratic and diplomatic delay, six Californians, led by Altoon, spent two weeks in late March in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, laying out a proposal for the reconstruction of the demolished city of Spitak.
The California team's plan was a success and ultimately was selected by the Soviets in place of their own design for the new city of 25,000 people. The Altoon group's vision was more imaginative than the Soviet architects': It not only took into account the hillside setting of Spitak, but it also favored traditional Armenian architectural style instead of cold, impersonal concrete buildings.
"You have understood the culture of our land better than we ourselves have," said Ashod Alexanian, chief of the Armenian division of Gosstroi, the Soviet state construction agency. "You have helped us understand our past and the vital role it can play in our future."
Yuri Platonov, head of the Union of Soviet Architects, reportedly hailed the California plan as a double first. The California team was the first group of U.S. architects ever invited to collaborate with Soviet colleagues. And the Spitak plan was the first time an American concept had ever been adopted for the design of a Soviet city.
In the months before he was able to enter the Soviet Union, Altoon and the five other architects, who are from the Bay Area, studied the architecture, politics, history and poetry of Armenia.
"Although I'm Armenian, I was raised American in Los Feliz," Altoon said. "I speak a few words of the language, and that's about it. The quake made me eager to understand the spirit of a people who've always had to struggle for survival, against human persecution and natural disaster."
Southern California is home to about 350,000 Armenians, the largest population outside the Soviet Union. The California team arrived in Yerevan, the capital of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, on March 20. Its visit to Armenia was backed by the Los Angeles branch of the Armenian Assembly and sponsored by the state chapter and the national Washington headquarters of the American Institute of Architects. Touring the quake-shattered region of northern Armenia revived and intensified Altoon's sense of shock at the magnitude of the human tragedy.
'Like Bombed Cities'
"Spitak and Leninakan were like bombed cities," he said. "Three months after the event, rubble was everywhere. People still looked stunned. I remember one old man outside Spitak who stood staring at the ruined town for hours on end. He seemed turned to stone by the horror and the loss--except for the single tear that ran down his cheek from time to time." Thirty-two mountain villages surrounding Spitak had been destroyed, Altoon's team discovered.
The Soviets welcomed the Americans warmly but were skeptical about the usefulness of yet another bunch of well-intentioned "tourists." Teams from Norway and Italy and from two Soviet republics were already in Armenia planning cities and building new hospitals and temporary housing.
One difficulty for the Californians was the primitive and bureaucratic character of the Soviet building industry.
"Put simply, Soviet construction technology is a disaster," Altoon said. "Since the Russian Revolution, the Soviets have used a precast concrete system that requires much more precision than their primitive methods are capable of."
Designs Ignore Differences
The standard Soviet building designs consist of cement units actually poured in a factory and then transported to sites and assembled. If the assembly isn't done very carefully, they are prone to problems. Altoon added that the centrally planned units used all over the vast territory of the Soviet Union ignore "regional climatic, seismic and geological variations."
The collapse of thousands of such badly built structures was a principal cause of death and injury during the recent quake. In addition to the shoddy construction technology, the Soviet system provides for no independent supervision of building quality by architects or inspectors. And there is no Soviet seismic building code setting strict standards for earthquake resistance similar to the ordinances that govern the construction of buildings in California.
"There's no area where Gorbachev's famous perestroika (restructuring) is more literally needed than in the Soviet construction industry," Altoon said. "Cities like Spitak were disasters waiting to happen."
The first task for the U.S. designers was to critique the plan for Spitak's reconstruction drawn up by the Soviet architects. This potentially sensitive moment was made easier by the invitation, expressed by Hratch Poghossian, director of the Armenian Design Institute, to "take your gloves off, comrades. We're all architects here."
Outdated Planning Ideas
The Americans found the Soviet design inadequate. Their proposed layout, consisting of a rigid street grid with oversized boulevards, failed to take into account the hillside site for the new Spitak, several miles away from the destroyed city. The American team's consensus was the Soviet plan represented an outdated 1950s notion of city planning long discredited in the West, with boring, straight, endless blocks of no visual interest.
Rolling up their sleeves, the Californians set to work for up to 17 hours a day. They sketched, argued and sketched some more. Their inspiration was in the architectural tradition of Armenia and the desire to offer the traumatized people a new kind of city--open, communal and filled with light and air.
" Spitak means white in the eastern Armenian dialect," Altoon said. "The traditional local building material is a soft volcanic stone called tufa, which varies in color from a soft beige to a reddish brown. When the sun catches it, it turns to gold. An airy sense of white and gold was the feeling we wanted in our design." And tufa is a major component in the Americans' final design for the city.
Tufa churches and monasteries celebrating an ancient Armenian Christianity dot the bare hillsides of the republic and neighboring Azerbaijan. The style of such 14th-Century masterpieces as St. Stephanos or St. Thadei' Vank is fortress Romanesque. Castle walls enclose towers and spires in golden stone covered with elaborate carvings of shepherds and warriors.
When the California architects presented their Spitak design to the Soviets on March 31, they were greeted with great applause. Stopping over in Moscow on their way home, the Californians were also warmly hailed by architects in the Soviet capital. "What you have done is put in place a U.S.-Soviet collaboration that has eluded us for years," Platonov said.
As a follow-up, Platonov will visit the AIA national convention in St. Louis in June to participate with Altoon and his colleagues in a panel discussion of the Spitak plan. And on Thursday, Altoon will make a presentation of the plan to the local chapter of the AIA in the Pacific Design Center.
The Armenian disaster, Altoon said, "has taught me a great lesson in humanity."