The St. Sarkis church in Carrollton unites the Armenian community of past and present.
Client Saint Sarkis Congregation
Architect David Hotson Architect
Associate Architect Calvert & Co. Architects
Structural Engineer GWC Engineering
MEP/FP Engineer Gupta & Associates
Lighting Designer Tirschwell & Co.
Landscape Architect Garden Transformations
During the early 2010s, the Laguarda.Low Architecture (LLA) studio in Dallas was as diverse a firm as you could find in the city, if not in the country. Once you were inside, the models, drawing boards, and team itself collectively transported you to destinations and cultures around the world. I met Stepan Terzyan, AIA, during my time with LLA, and we worked together on projects in Eastern Europe. He always took an approach quite different than that of the firm, opting for a more subdued, detail-focused perspective.
At the time, I only began to scratch the surface of his Armenian heritage. We would often speak of his homeland and local congregation, but it was the time shared with him and his family at our team gatherings that most reflected to me what it meant to be Armenian on the most personal of levels. Stepan was always quite intentional about the values of community and people.
He also spoke extensively of his time working with architect David Hotson. To experience Hotson’s work is to gain an intense grasp of the role interstitial spaces can play in architecture. The orchestration of voids and the interaction of light and shadow are woven together by an intentional set of approaches that challenge you to understand what, if any order, might be present.
One noted collaboration between Stepan and Hotson is the Cafesjian Museum of Art in Yerevan, Armenia. “David was always fascinated with Armenian architecture, especially churches and monasteries,” says Stepan, “and we visited a number of these places throughout Armenia when he was visiting the Cafesjian museum project site.” The museum has a distinctive outward focus vividly expressed through a triumphal set of stairs that leads upward toward the horizon. The initial design phase focused on the space below the underside of the stairs, rendering it as a series of terraced galleries finished in stone. Upon full realization of the concept, a pair of folded towers atop the stairs would form a dynamic symmetry to balance the bold stairs with the vastness of the sky.
When LLA leadership announced their move to New York in 2014, firm members were faced with the option either to relocate or to explore something new in DFW. Around this time, Stepan expressed interest in forming his own practice. He had some residential work lined up, as well as a possible dental office in Mansfield, but his passion was most evident when he discussed his involvement with a new home for St. Sarkis and the Armenian community in Carrollton. The congregation had purchased a new site just south of Plano Road on Charles Street in 2011. After several conversations with the congregation, he began working on master planning options alongside St. Sarkis’ main benefactor, Elie Akilian, and they focused on responding to a growing congregation. “Many Armenians were moving from other states, especially from California,” says Stepan. “The existing small church and event hall were not able to meet the community needs.”
The site is a comfortable fit for a standard building of this type and use and complements neighboring suburban housing tracts and Hebron High School, which borders the site to the west. Mark Lamster’s reference to the Colin County landscape as “sameness” in his article “Why does everything look the same in North Texas? Blame the ‘flattening,’” (Dallas Morning News, September 28, 2022) is an appropriate description of the setting. But Stepan and the community saw a great potential. “Most Armenian churches are built on special sites — elevated, with views to the horizon,” says Stepan. “This site, with elevated, sweeping horizon views, positions St. Sarkis so you can see the church dome from a mile away. It was an extraordinary opportunity to design a contemporary building that engaged such an ancient architectural and religious tradition.”
The tradition Stepan refers to is the significance in Armenian heritage of Saint Hripsime Church, which served as a reference not only for St. Sarkis’ site conditions, both current and historic, but also for its bold architectural expression. The church was completed in 618 A.D. and replaced a chapel that had been located on the site of Hripsime’s slaying. It serves as a monument to the Roman martyr who was a descendent of the royal family of Rome and fled the country along with her fellow nuns following her refusal to marry the Roman emperor Diocletian. They settled in the region of Echmiatsin, Armenia, and were hunted down in the vicinity. The church marks Saint Hripsime’s dedication to her faith and even contains the rocks that were used in her stoning. A second church, St. Gayane, is a marker dedicated to the nuns who accompanied her to the region.
When UNESCO formally recognized the cathedral and churches of Echmiatsin and the archaeological site of Zvartnots in 2000, Saint Hripsime Church was singled out for its influence on the development of the central-domed cross-hall type of church. Also influential are the persevering qualities of the church itself, exemplifying hope through moments of conflict and hardship, and even through prolonged periods of being forgotten. Saint Hripsime Church is a literal history book of the Armenian Apostolic heritage.
It is important to note the holistic use of stone inside and out, with very few details and markings to interfere with the boldness of its expression. The structural diagram is rendered perfectly, where four principal arches paired with four smaller arches carry the structural load down to large corner piers, an Armenian concept developed in response to the regions’ seismic conditions. “The result is a church that has withstood earthquakes as well as centuries of conflict between neighboring empires, acting as a shelter for Armenian congregations throughout 14 centuries of crisis and upheaval,” says Stepan. “It is in this trait that Saint Hripsime, in many ways, is a symbol of the perseverance, tenacity, and continuity of the world’s most ancient Christian nation.”
In early 2015, Stepan recommended that Hotson be added to the design team. “Knowing his appreciation for Armenian heritage and architecture, I knew that he would love to work on this special project,” he says.
To understand St. Sarkis, it is beneficial to understand the site. Unlike Saint Hripsime and other typological examples where the church is a compound defined by a series of perimeter site walls that hold in a verdant garden, the site in Carrollton is left open and permeable to the community. When I arrived, the sequence was at first confusing but quickly understood after an observation of the campus’s hierarchy. The church is the immediate visual draw, but it is at the community building bordering the north side of the site where the entry is at its most intentional. “We endeavored to create something of this relationship by creating a gateway between the community center and athletic buildings that brings visitors through the shaded courtyard and into a green compound with the monochrome church form standing inside of it,” explains Hotson.
Designed in collaboration with landscape designer Zepur Ohanian, a member of the St. Sarkis congregation, the shaded entry courtyard is a choregraphed moment. Here, the floor of the courtyard slopes gently upward toward the church building. The church dome is framed in the oculus in the ceiling above and reflected in the black granite-lined pool below. There is a constant play on orientation and perception. This moment is worth a pause, especially during the summer months, when the pool’s evaporative cooling renders the space quite comfortable. The stippling of reflection and shadow soften a meticulously detailed and wrapped floor-to-ceiling assembly of gray porcelain pavers that precisely match the color, scale, and joint spacing of the flanking precast concrete walls. This is where you start to understand the role of restraint in expression — a hallmark theme throughout St. Sarkis — as a referential cue to Armenian architecture and heritage. Eventually, the growth of the magnolia and cypress trees along the site’s perimeter, paired with the church itself, will complete the feeling of being transported to somewhere special. I, for one, am quite excited to see this outcome.
The community center and athletic building flank the entry sequence and serve as an important welcoming gesture. The two buildings house an athletic facility as well as a parish hall with clerical offices, Sunday school classrooms, a reception hall, and a 400-person event hall. The main entry into the community center is a carefully crafted void composed of dark porcelain that renders a dual set of doors as a shadow-like box with light filtering in from a clean glass extrusion above. These layers of transparency allude to the varying levels of activity within the center.
Upon entry, visitors are greeted by an intricate mosaic floor patterned to evoke a classic Armenian carpet. Large, perforated doors open into a spacious event hall with focused views of the church to the east, landscaped campus to the south, and the horizon toward the west. Exterior overhangs protect the south- and west-facing windows and ground the massing’s scale to the lawn and adjacent plaza. The event hall ceiling and electrical and mechanical systems are painted a uniform midnight blue, which sets off a scattered pattern of point lights that animate the space after dark. Experiencing the center is one of the highlights within the campus. Especially during times of gathering, it successfully conveys the congregation’s focus on welcoming the broader community.
Whereas the community center symbolizes one critical dynamic of St. Sarkis, the church is the heart of the congregation and campus. The church best exemplifies the congregation and design team’s collective intent to look forward as well as backward, coalescing ancient architectural traditions of Armenia with new expressions of craft and detail made possible by digitally driven fabrication technology.
The architecture of St. Sarkis is a reverent abstraction of Saint Hripsime Church, embodying a direct relationship to the restraint shown in Armenian design of the period. “The church exterior is a uniform monochrome gray, achieved by matching the precast concrete exterior walls and glass-fiber-reinforced concrete light coves with a durable, standing-seam zinc roof,” says Hotson. “The solid gray mass rendered in modern materials references the monolithic sculptural character of ancient Armenian churches, which were constructed entirely of stone.”
On the west facade, historical reverence and technological advancement come together in a moving depiction of the traditional Armenian cross, or Tree of Life. Rendered in an interwoven botanical and geometric motif that is a hallmark of Armenian art, the cross is composed of 1.5 million circular ornaments, each uniquely expressed, which represent the 1.5 million victims of the 1915 Armenian genocide. Capturing this moment in Armenian history was important to the congregation, and Hotson was keenly reverent. He describes first having become fully aware of the genocide as an “apocalyptic cataclysm” in Armenian history while working with Stepan on the Cafesjian Museum project. “Virtually every surviving Armenian family was directly impacted by it,” says Hotson, “particularly those in the diaspora whose families were dispossessed from the portion of the Armenian homeland in eastern Anatolia west of Mount Ararat, the mountain on which Noah’s ark comes to rest at the end of the Biblical flood.” He goes on to explain how the ancestors of the St. Sarkis community were forcibly expelled from their homeland into the Syrian desert, where hundreds of thousands perished, and that those who survived established diaspora communities in Lebanon.
Each unique ornament references the circular motifs that occur throughout Armenian artistic tradition, particularly on khachkars — carved stone markers dating back to the ninth century erected for the salvation of the soul either of a living or a deceased person. Hotson explains: “Each expression signifies the bonds that have held the Armenian community together through the millennia. These interwoven ornamental strands coalesce into the overall image of the Armenian cross — the eternal Christian symbol of suffering, martyrdom, forgiveness, redemption, and renewal.”
To create the facade, Hotson’s team worked with representatives from Fiandre Architectural Services, who had developed a process for printing in high-resolution on exterior-grade porcelain panels. The firm developed a Grasshopper script to generate 1.5 million unique ornaments and to distribute them by density to create the interwoven patterns that coalesce into the image of the cross. Catalogued and coded, the panels were delivered to the site and coordinated into place. The result is a dynamic facade, ever-changing throughout the day with subtle glints of reflected light. It is one of the most important architectural moments of the project and should be witnessed in person.
On the interior, St. Sarkis is abstracted from the organization of St. Hripsime, with a central-domed cross-hall order. The luminous and seamless character of the church interior presents a powerful contrast to the exterior. “In Armenian churches, natural light plays a significant role in the interior,” Stepan explains. “We had an ambition to create an interior ambience where natural, indirect light floods the volume from all sides but the light source remains completely hidden.”
Indirect light comes in through a series of concave light coves sculpted into the exterior form. Compound-curved plaster vaults, fabricated in glass-fiber-reinforced gypsum, shape the interior volume. The light and curves come together to render the spatial volume smooth and scaleless. It was, therefore, important that systems such as lighting and air-supply registers be visually hidden from view to present the purest of forms. Their function was concealed, as well, using a displacement climate control system to introduce air at low velocity through registers underneath the pews. Free of visual and ambient noise, the interior offers a silent backdrop for the reverberant traditional Armenian choral music.
The care, attention to detail, and constant reminder that the design speaks to something greater in Armenian heritage are felt in every moment, which will undoubtedly create a lasting impact upon the congregation as it did on the design team. “It was deeply meaningful to collaborate with Stepan and with Elie Akilian on a project that engages the traditions of the world’s most ancient Christian nation while leveraging the material technologies of the present and looking to the future,” says Hotson. He shares that he had the privilege of being present during the consecration and first Sunday service, which occurred on April 24, the date on which the Armenian Genocide is memorialized every year. It was particularly moving to him to see members of the congregation approach and engage with the facade, then step into the sanctuary, filled with ethereal light and the beautiful choral harmonies that are an integral part of the Armenian service.
After the opening, Stepan and I discussed his feelings about the project. In keeping with his personality, his views were brief but charged. He commented: “St. Sarkis Church and its community center have become a magnet for all Armenians living in the metroplex, especially for the younger generation. I believe this project will become a beacon for many Armenians to find new friends and form new relationships with the community.”
Authoring this article, for me, is in many ways a gesture of thanks for Stepan’s friendship and an opportunity to express my deepest gratitude for his influence and support throughout my career. Walking the space was a physical reminder of how far both he and the community at St. Sarkis have come in making this place a reality.
To Stepan, David Hotson, and the entire St. Sarkis team and community, thank you for gifting us a cultural masterpiece. You all should be immensely proud.
Michael Friebele, Assoc. AIA, is a senior associate at the Dallas office of Perkins Eastman and resides in Minneapolis.