Varouj Gumuchian – Community Alchemist

varouj 1

By: Maya Honda-Granirer

Photo credits of: Maya Honda-Granirer

After listening to Varouj’s enlightening presentation, I was left with more questions than answers. Still, I think I like it that way. Varouj talked about a multitude of equally fascinating topics, some of which I will touch upon today. What came across as the most striking to me was that he never claimed to be an expert on anything. In fact, Varouj emphasized his never-ending journey of learning.

Vancouver’s beauty is often overlooked and taken for granted by those who are immersed in it. Varouj remarked that Vancouver is a special place for reasons we should pay more attention to: Vancouver has one of the highest qualities of life for its acceptance and multiculturalism, Varouj claims. Unlike other larger cities, Vancouver does not experience major conflicts or divides when it comes to racism, homophobia or sexism. People from all walks of life are able to be themselves. Nevertheless, we must watch out for what Varouj calls, “Starbuckization”. A city loses its “soul” when it overlooks the importance of small, local businesses. With a Starbucks on every block, Vancouver must continue to stand up for these local businesses. Neighbourhoods such a Strathcona have been very active in preserving their neighbourhoods, according to Varouj.

Although Varouj calls himself a “community designer”, a member of the audience cleverly dubbed him a “community alchemist”. Working with diverse communities is not easy work. There are bound to be people who disagree with you or don’t like your approach to a problem. Varouj keeps two integral realizations close to his work: “nobody is the enemy” and “everybody needs love.” Varouj sheds light on important issues such as gentrification, homelessness and ageism. He collaborates with a diversity of people – seniors, refugees, members of the LGBTQ community – to create art (in many forms) that resonates with whole communities.

Varouj had the brilliant idea to use a demolished building as a performance space for a piece titled “Carwash”. He also pioneered a play called “the Garden” at Riley Park Garden that was inspired by Shakespeare. Varouj even led the yearly Jane’s walk – a walk that celebrates the work of activist and urbanist, Jane Jacobs – on Main Street.

varoujVarouj’s role as an activist is informed by his Master’s degree in architecture. He says that he likes to look at past issues of the Architectural Digest for inspiration. He likes to visualize his ideas with tangible models, which he showed us during his presentation. He has facilitated many workshops in which he gave children the opportunity to come up with their own architectural designs with materials such as cardboard and paper. Kids conceptualized solar-powered garden sheds, houses and the medicine wheel! I enjoyed Varouj’s straightforward summary of his process. “The eye goes to the hand, the hand goes to the pen, the pen goes to the paper, the paper goes to construction.”

Varouj mentioned that “imperfection is more interesting than perfection.” I think this holds true especially in this era, when perfection is heavily praised. Varouj regards his house as an “incomplete work of art”. This is quite beautiful because his “crazy” house is bound to start more conversations, engage more neighbours and produce more interaction than any “regular” house ever would. This reminds me of the Japanese philosophy of “Wabi-Sabi,” which considers beauty to be transient, imperfect and incomplete.

One quote that Varouj brought up that continues to puzzle me is this: “Standing on the margins will have a wider orbit.”  I’m not quite sure what this means, but to me, it suggests that not attaching oneself to a certain group or ideology allows oneself to experience a broader view, and therefore, a better grasp of the world. This could hold true for different professions, especially for Varouj. He has immersed himself in a diverse range of industries – architecture, art, community engagement – and at 70 years old, he is only getting started.

Towards the end of the evening, members of the audience remarked how so-called experts often destroy the collaborative process. One member summed it up quite well, in my opinion. “An expert is someone who has stopped learning.” Varouj, a man who has dedicated his life to learning and understanding, is certainly not an expert by that definition! He has demonstrated that there is no shortage of things to be interested in, in this world.

During his presentation, Varouj presented the audience with a graph with 2 pairs of axes: interior-exterior and individual-collective. He then posed the question “which quadrant leads to the most desirable person?” I don’t know what the answer is to that question, but I can say that when it comes to a desirable community, a diversity of those quadrants is necessary. If I learned anything during Varouj’s enlightening presentation, it is that diversity is what leads to better quality of life, better communities and a better society overall.

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