Osep Sarafian Presents Legacy of Armenian Architecture

The Detroit Armenian community responded in magnificent fashion to the invitation to an Oct. 21 lecture by well-known area architect (jardarabed) Osep Sarafian on “The Legacy of Armenian Architecture in the Ottoman Empire.”

Osep Sarafian

The evening was co-hosted by the Armenian Engineers and Scientists of America, Michigan Section, the Cultural Society of Armenians from Istanbul (CSAI), and the Tekeyan Cultural Association. It was held in the library of the Southfield, Mich. Alex and Marie Manoogian AGBU School.

Osep Sarafian has been a fixture in the Detroit area since his arrival here from Bolis (Istanbul) in 1980. Together with wife Dr. Nadya Sarafian, a retired principal of the AGBU Day School, the Sarafians are one of this area’s premiere couples. They’ve generously shared their immense intellectual talent for the enrichment of this community, reaching beyond the boundaries of Michigan.

Over 125 people gave rapt attention to the speaker, anxiously wanting to know about these Armenian architects who transformed the Ottoman landscape with their amazing buildings. Sarafian unfolded the no-longer-secret details of the men who shared the same Armenian blood as those in the audience, bringing prestige to the word “Armenian” through their art of architecture.

Sarafian was introduced by a fellow member in the Engineers and Scientists group, George Mouradian, who referred to him as a modest, energetic gentleman who began his career in Istanbul operating his own firm there for 23 years. “Sarafian has won numerous awards for his professional endeavors, which have been published in many professional books and magazines. He says he is retired but don’t believe it,” Mouradian said.

Sarafian, 79, was born to Armenian parents in Istanbul. He graduated from the Technical University of Istanbul with a master’s in architecture and engineering in 1956. He then received a scholarship from University of Pennsylvania to study in the U.S., graduating with a second master’s in city planning.

Upon returning to Istanbul, he opened his own private architectural office, which he ran for 22 years. He designed hospitals, schools, university campuses, sports facilities, stadiums, governmental buildings, and commercial and tourist facilities in Turkey.

In 1980, he immigrated with his family to Michigan and Sarafian was offered a job at the renowned Minoru Yamasaki Association architectural firm, where he worked as a vice-president until retirement in 1994.

It was on a trip to Istanbul on his way to Armenia in spring 2010 that Sarafian was pleasantly surprised to find an extraordinary first-ever exhibition in Turkey, on the works of Armenian architects during the Westernization period of the Ottoman Empire.

The same exhibit was displayed at three different galleries in Istanbul, later traveling to Ankara, and due to popular demand was then transported to Yerevan, where it was welcomed with great enthusiasm.

What a wonderful tool for building friendly relations between the Turkish and Armenian peoples, giving recognition to Armenians who built magnificent structures.

Sarafian recalled how during the 1970’s Para Tuglaci had published a book on the life and works of the renowned and well-respected Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, and had revealed with documents and verifications that Sinan was the son of an Armenian family from Kesaria, taken from his family when he was a young boy and raised as a Turk.

An art historian by the name of Suheyi could not bear to think of Sinan as an Armenian and took Tuglaciyan to court for making “false Armenian propaganda,” but he lost his case.

The word “Armenian” often became a derogatory adjective and creative people were never given credit for their accomplishments, so often their names were changed. The shooting of Hrant Dink caused an awakening in Istanbul in the Armenian youth, who are now researching their past and courageously writing about it. Some intellectual Turkish writers now admit that “Without Armenians the Ottoman culture would have been rather plain.”

Turkish architect Hasan Kuruyazici decided to publish a book highlighting the input of Armenian architects during the Westernization period of the Ottoman Empire, corresponding to the 18th and 19th centuries. The books created a sensational surprise because it showed all the beautiful architecture designed and built mostly by Armenians, a reality no one could deny.

With Kuruyazici, the curator/architect, and with the sponsorship of Hrant Dink Foundation and Haycar Association (the association of Armenian architects and engineers), the pictures from the books have been made into large panels and are traveling from city to city. They are making public all the Armenian architects whose names were not revealed before.

This exhibition was the topic of Sarafian’s talk. He expressed his gratitude to Nazaret Binatli and to Hasan Kuruyazici, who did not hesitate to give him a copy of the pictures he had taken.

Sarafian introduced 40 Armenian architects to the Southfield audience, and showed a slide presentation of their best-known works included in the exhibition.

The photos took our breath away with their symmetry and beauty. Exterior and interior views were offered leaving us amazed at the talent of the architects, who in the beginning had no formal school to attend to learn their craft.

The Balians were certainly among the most prominent among these architects, according to research conducted by Kevork Pamukciyan. Their genealogy starts somewhere back in the late 1700’s. Nine architects carried this family name. They continued a productive professional life for almost a century.

They were involved in the design and construction of numerous large-scale buildings. Apart from a few Armenian churches, the entirety of the Balian designs belong to palace and state institutions.

Architect Afife Batfur writes in her book An Influential Name in the 19th-Century Ottoman Architecture: The Balians: “The architectural style and practices of the Balians provide important clues to comprehending the content and program of Westernization in the Ottoman Empire.”

The Balians operated as a private architectural office, although they were not given the title of chief architect. They were called kalfas, or chief builders. They had learned their skills through practice since no formal schools of training were available at the time.

They were community leaders presiding over the Istanbul Armenian community, reaching the peak of their power in the early part of the 20th century. They engaged in rebuilding churches and monasteries, supporting preachers and printing books and establishing schools, thus revitalizing the Armenian community.

Garabed Balian was the architect of Dolmabahce Palace. Some of Krikor Kalfa’s important works include the Imperial Mint, the Valide Sultan Palace, the St. Mary Church in Kumkapi, and the Taksim Artillery Barracks.

Garabed Balian sent his sons Nigoghos, Hagop, and Sarkis to Paris for formal professional studies. Bafur writes: “The architectural style of Sarkis Bey and his brothers displays a rich background of knowledge and unique interpretations in a spectrum extending from a classical concept to the diversity of the eclectic approach. These architects’ designed buildings should be considered touchstones in the study of late Ottoman architecture.”

It is important to note that the Balians incorporated thousands of Armenian workers in the construction of their designs, even bringing men from outside villages to work. Factories were built where Armenians manufactured furniture and fabric for the structures. All in all they ran a remarkable, well-organized machine incorporating design, construction, and fine furnishings. Predominately Hye all the way.

Since his retirement, Osep Sarafian has devoted all his time to speed up the recovery of Armenia. He has made 40 trips there for that purpose, focusing his efforts on raising funds for specific projects through the World Bank. So far he has raised $660,000 enabling projects in 83 villages.

His related mission is to assist architects in Armenia to improve the quality of their new construction by using international codes and standards, especially since, as readers well know, Armenia is located in an earthquake-prone location.

Sarafian is a member of the International Union of Architects. He is n Honor Member of the AGBU and a member of the Liturgical Arts and Architecture Commission of the Eastern Diocese. He also has membership in a number of non-profit and charitable organizations. He serves on the Board of Trustees of the Armenian Academy of Sciences, as well as on the Board of Directors of AGBU Alex and Marie Manoogian School, St. John Armenian Church in Southfield, Armenian Apostolic Society, Armenian Assembly of America, Friends of Yerevan State University, Board of Trustees of the Armenian Academy of Sciences, Cultural Society of Armenians from Istanbul, and of the Armenian Engineers and Scientists of America.

Sarafian is devoted to extending a helping hand to the rebirth of Armenia. Sharing the excitement, the joy, and the happiness of the local people gives him a fulfillment that helps him to stay young, healthy, and happy. What a remarkable human being.

It was an impressive group of slides attributed to these Armenian architects. A visit to Istanbul would surely be a worthwhile investment to tour these magnificent structures attributed to the talent and vision of Armenian architects.

The Sarafians are the parents of three, and the grandparents of six.


Betty Apigian-Kessel

Betty (Serpouhie) Apigian Kessel was born in Pontiac, Mich. Together with her husband, Robert Kessel, she was the proprietor of Woodward Market in Pontiac and has two sons, Bradley and Brant Kessel. She belonged to the St. Sarkis Ladies Guild for 12 years, serving as secretary for many of those years. During the aftermath of the earthquake in Armenia in 1988, the Detroit community selected her to be the English-language secretary and she happily dedicated her efforts to help the earthquake victims. She has a column in the Armenian Weekly entitled “Michigan High Beat.”


  1. Mr. Sarafian has had quite the career. What a life he’s led. 

    <a href=”http://www.boston-architect.com”>Architect in Boston</a> 

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