How to Design the Festival: A Workshop for Armenian Teens
TUMO Center for Creative Technologies sits just outside of Yerevan’s city center in the shadow of Mount Ararat, perched on the Hrazdan River gorge and nestled inside Tumanyan Park. The modern building, with large gleaming windows and clad in pink tuff—a volcanic stone that spewed from Ararat millions of years ago—stands out among the sea of Soviet-era apartment buildings. A harmoniously designed lawn and hardscape surrounds the building’s perimeter, an echo of the creativity and artistry generated within its four walls.
Sam and Sylva Simonian, founders of the Simonian Foundation, first conceptualized the idea for TUMO in the early 2000s. Opened in 2010, TUMO is an after-school resource to any and all Armenian teenagers, free of charge, providing a curricula ranging from game design and robotics to filmmaking and animation. Upon entering the space, visitors are greeted by a smattering of plywood rolling learning pods, each connected to the twenty-foot ceiling by an articulating cable—imagine the arms of Dr. Octopus reaching down to supply high-speed internet to the Mac workstations.
Staff and alumni work with students to motivate, inspire, and spark curiosity so that each may find an areas of interest that they may pursue. Each student learns at his or her own pace, soaking up the knowledge from their coaches and peers. Once a student demonstrates proficiency in a particular area, they unlock the opportunity to participate in more in-depth workshops and learning labs instructed by staff, local industry professionals, and guest instructors from all over the world.
Eager to bring some of the energy and creativity of TUMO to the National Mall for the 2018 Armenia: Creating Home program, curator Halle Butvin asked that operations manager Justin Hensley and I lead a workshop at TUMO during our November research trip to Armenia. We developed a curriculum that would give the students an idea of how the Folklife Festival site is born. We also hoped to formulate a plan for a unique foodways demonstration space that could incorporate local aesthetics and serve as a focal point of the Festival program.
Our class was made up of eight students and a staff coach who translated and helped the students with the various software programs. After an introduction to our work, we conceptualized a mock Festival on the National Mall that included four artisan demonstration tents, a large performance stage, and a foodways demonstration stage. Students used blank site maps of the Mall to sketch out what they thought might be an optimal layout of the six venues.
There were some great ideas regarding the relationships between the venues, the land, and the general public, but there was a bit of misunderstanding regarding the scale. The students had placed each venue about seventy-five yards away from the other. They explained that it just felt right, and they didn’t want the site to be too cramped. I realized that the paper in front of them didn’t give them a sense of scale and that we needed to abandon my initial lesson plan. This called for a trip outside.
With the sun quickly setting, we put on our coats, pulled out our cell phones to use as flashlights, and walked out to the sprawling lawn just outside the building. Two students served as captains, helping me to assign roles and position the six other students across the lawn, each representing one of the six “venues” on the “Mall” in real scale.
Once the venues (students) were placed according to the placement on their site map, flashlights beaconing above their heads, the captains and I walked from venue to venue. We asked each student what they thought about the layout. The consensus was that the venues were spread too far out and that, in order to make the space feel more intimate, inviting, and properly contextualized, that we would need to bring the venues closer together.
In our second attempt, the blacksmith was adjacent to the woodcarver and weaver, while the rug maker was nearer to foodways demonstration. The stage was further removed so as to not rock the artisans off their work stools or to unstick the lavash from the sides of the tonir (oven).
Over the next few days, we focused on the foodways cooking demonstration venue, called Hatsatun (literally translates to “bread house”), with the goal of designing a space that we would actually construct for the Folklife Festival. I guided the group through the design process, conducting research into Armenian architecture, food culture, and history. Program co-curator Ruzanna Tsaturyan helped the students more effectively understand how their country’s rich food history influences their world and the work that they were to do in this workshop. The students called upon their community, history, traditions, and cultural heritage to find inspiration for the Hatsatun.
The result was a thoughtfully designed and contextualized space built using 3D modeling software programs. Together, the class designed the stage, backdrop, countertop, audience seating, and other decor elements. The basis of their Hatsatun design will now serve as inspiration to the technical team as we move into design-build phase. The final product on the Mall this summer will honor the students, their artistry, creativity, and collaborative efforts by incorporating elements of their design.
The workshop not only served as an excellent bonding opportunity for the class and a means to think about public space, structural design, and site design in a different light, but it also spurred the students—and me—to form a greater appreciation of the rich Armenian history of feasting. Inspired by the student’s design, we are excited to share the lavash, khorovats (barbecued meats), dolma, and many other Armenian feasting traditions in the Hatsatun when you visit the Folklife Festival this summer.
Tyler Nelson is the technical director for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.