Brick by Brick: Preserving the Armenian Diaspora

NAASR Vartan Gregorian Armenian Center
Belmont, Massachusetts

Since 1989, NAASR’s headquarters in Belmont, MA has served as a gathering place for the Armenian diaspora in the United States. Scholars of Armenian studies rely on the center and its celebrated rare book library for research and support. The headquarters is essential to serving NAASR’s mission of preserving Armenian heritage—ever more vital after the 1915 genocide and subsequent waves of emigration—and connecting to the public through lectures, symposia, and the NAASR bookstore.

But with an ageing building, outdated technology, and a library collection expected to grow by 50% over the next decade, NAASR faced a pressing need to transform itself. SMMA was brought in to provide full-service architecture, engineering, interior design, and site design for a brand-new construction. Funded almost entirely by community donations, the new headquarters represents a significant milestone in the preservation of Armenian culture for future generations. It also provides a stage for NAASR to connect with the worldwide diaspora through virtual events, becoming a truly global center for Armenian studies.

“Every day, when I walk past the Eternity Sculpture and stone bench and open our carved front door and enter the soaring atrium, the building seems like a miracle.”—Sarah Ignatius, NAASR Executive Director

Custom glass frit with Armenian patterns on exterior window of NAASR Armenian Center

The design of the new headquarters treats Armenian culture not as static or fixed, but as a foundation for growth and interpretation. Designers took traditional aspects of the culture—crafts, language, religious architecture—and reinterpreted them through a modern use of steel and glass, stone and wood, and ornament and pattern. The result is a building that captures the forward-looking intent of NAASR’s mission, speaking to the community’s ability to adapt as well as preserve. 

Visitors to NAASR are welcomed by a dark walnut front door, hand-carved in Armenia by artist Mels Yeghiazaryan and gifted to the center by Armenian American philanthropists. This unique entrance invites visitors to open the door to learning and community—a modern building reaching back to the homeland. 

  • Hand carved front door at NAASR Vartan Gregorian Armenian Center

Visiting scholars are served by a redesigned library, multi-purpose conference spaces, and a special collections room. Members of the public are encouraged to interact with Armenian heritage via extensive artwork, event spaces, and a bookstore. Accessibility is met by an elevator and accessible front entrance—two features absent from the old building. Furthermore, all the conference and event rooms boast full audio-visual broadcasting capabilities, allowing for cultural and academic exchange far beyond the confines of NAASR’s walls. 

  • Armenian alphabet wall feature in Solarium staircase at NAASR in Belmont, MA
  • Event hall at NAASR Vartan Gregorian Armenian Center

“The design is a celebration of a 3,000-year-old culture. We wanted to take traditional aspects of Armenian life and reinterpret them as part of the forward-looking mission that NAASR has."—Michael Pardek, Lead Designer

  • Exterior view of NAASR Vartan Gregorian Armenian Center at sunset

Heritage meets innovation

18 cast-stone relief panels grace the sides of the new building. Our designers blended 3D parametric design, hand-drawn sketches, and digital fabrication techniques to create a panel that interprets traditional Armenian carving through modern materials. The patterns are inspired by a 12th century walnut carved door from the Church of Saint Karapet in Mush, Armenia.

The diaspora’s passion for safeguarding its heritage, while welcome, posed a design challenge: How to safely store NAASR’s ever-expanding collection of donated books, maps, artwork, and rare collections? With a larger footprint not possible due to budget and site constraints, the team designed two high-density storage rooms to allow scholars easy access to the entire collection.

A climate- and humidity-controlled archive houses NAASR’s oldest and most treasured items, some dating to the 17th century. SMMA's engineers devised a sophisticated pre-action system to guard against fire and water damage. The team’s work was praised by the American Council of Engineering Companies of Massachusetts, with the NAASR project earning an Engineering Excellence Bronze Award

Woman browsing books in the NAASR Armenian library in Belmont Massachusetts

“I feel deeply grateful to have worked with such a dedicated, knowledgeable, and gifted team at SMMA,” says Sarah Ignatius, NAASR Executive Director. “The worldwide response has been overwhelmingly positive… People are amazed to see the beautiful features and welcoming design of our magnificent building and feel that NAASR has truly become a global center for advancing Armenian Studies.”

  • 3rd floor Solarium at NAASR Armenian Center overlooking Concord Avenue in Belmont