Brick by Brick: Preserving the Diaspora

NAASR Armenian Center
Belmont, Massachusetts

Cultural preservation has a unique meaning for a nation whose people are scattered across the globe. For the Armenian Diaspora, their rich, 3,000-year-old history is both a foundation for cultural unity and a gateway for cultural evolution. Over the past six decades, the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) has advanced this cultural project by encouraging scholars and the Armenian community to explore the narratives informing their heritage, many of which are housed in the headquarters’ renowned library.

The modern-day importance of the library’s ancient texts is a reminder that Armenian heritage is not isolated in the past; instead, it permeates the cultural present and enriches its future. Due to their growing collection of texts, community events, and expanding outreach efforts, NAASR chose to renovate their headquarters to ensure that their already-established global hub of cultural activity would have the flexibility to adapt over time and the increased visibility to continue to protect the tangible aspects of Armenian cultural identity. Both through the building design and the narratives it shelters, NAASR will invite modern users to connect with their past while finding inspiration for their next steps.

The renovated NAASR design is rooted in deep observation and imagination. SMMA studied Armenian architecture and craft as a means to explore new ideas.

Engaging With Ancient Texts

Central to the project is expanding the headquarters’ Mardigian Library: a celebrated library for the diaspora. Armenia’s rich scholarly history – which dates back to the inception of the Armenian alphabet in the early 5th century – is reflected in the library’s literature and research.

Just as the alphabet gave early Armenians access to scholarly studies, so too does the library welcome scholarly engagement. Community members and visitors, regardless of age, can explore over 27,000 titles of rare and ancient texts across the expanded three-story library. The library also marries the old with the new, with the exposed ceiling revealing a unique waffle slab inherited from the original building.

Welcoming a New Generation

The historic-laden space also connects generations. A stone lobby with tile floor, accented wall, and wood ceilings greets new visitors. Upon further exploring the space, they find an alluring bookstore display with a new adjoining lounge café. Both new and tenured scholars benefit from an expanded study and research space. The books themselves allow different generations to partake in cultural meaning-making: each visitor reads them differently depending on the context in which they live. As readers, we inform the texts’ meaning as much as the texts inform our cultural knowledge.

Ultimately, the new headquarters is a building that both tells and protects stories, stories of an evolving culture built upon a rich and explorative history. The intangibility of cultural identity – so often reliant on oral traditions, rituals and events – suddenly becomes tangible, and thus available to all ages of curious future visitors. 

A Global Community

With NAASR’s building having remained virtually unchanged since its initial purchase in 1989, their community is welcoming the new look with open arms.

“NAASR will be a true gem and a draw for everyone – Armenians and non-Armenians alike,” says Sarah Ignatius, Executive Director. “Since NAASR is a leading global center for Armenian Studies, our new headquarters building will incorporate a multitude of beautiful Armenian features that will reflect our mission and give Armenian traditions new life."