Tbilisi: tearing down the past

Charming old buildings in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi, often listed, are being pulled down and the city disfigured. International organisations are pouring grants and loans into rebuilding projects, but there is little accountability and no building control, laments George Nonidze.

George Nonidze
23 November 2010

‘Every time I walk across Baratashvili bridge and raise my camera to take my favourite view of the Old Town, I now lower it thinking, where has it gone?’ said the tourist returning to Tbilisi after a year.

Tourists, local Georgians and the architectural community alike know very well that Tbilisi, Georgia possesses one of the classic old town landscapes of eastern Europe. For centuries the ramshackle network of friendly wooden, balconied houses and alleys has climbed the side of mountainside under the 4th century Narikala fortress. Its courtyards and winding cobbled streets, known as the ‘Asian’ quarter of the Old Town, have delighted visitors and inhabitants alike with one of the most friendly atmospheres of any of the world’s old towns. But over the last six months the pastime of strolling through this section of the Old Town has turned into one of the most dispiriting experiences for those who know and love this ancient city.

Freedom Bridge, Tbilisi

The crown jewel of the ongoing architectural assault on Tbilisi's charm and elegance must be the President’s new Freedom bridge.

The government of Georgia, primed with international money, launched a programme last year called ‘New Life for the Old Town’. But rather than restoring the Old Town, they have rebuilt it, in most cases from the ground up. The original structures have been demolished and replaced with concrete and breeze-block replicas – 90% of which are larger and bear only a rough resemblance to the former building. The new houses have then been rendered or brick clad and given traditional-looking wooden balconies – in the general style of the 18th/19th century originals. At night the rebuilt homes climb the flanks of the Kala district lit in garish floodlights like tinselled carcasses, their windows mostly black, eerily absent of the people who once breathed life into this historic Silk Road city.

It seems that the state-funded renovation only extended as far as the building exteriors, leaving the interiors unfinished and un-plastered. Most owners have not moved back and simply want to sell. During the daytime the sight is no less depressing as the ‘new Old Town’ looks down on a city roofed in uniform, cheap Turkish tiles, of the kind carpeting the skyline in dormitory towns across the world. It has left the haphazard, varied, highly individual quality of the Old Town stripped out in the name of a rushed restoration – the kind that uses the word ‘restore’ to disguise the real intent, which is to repossess.

‘More damage has been done to our city in the last two years than in the entire Soviet period,’ said one sad elderly inhabitant of the Sikhis Urbani district of Kala, adding that ‘new life’ should be renamed ‘new death.’ He stood on his new balcony looking at the house in front which had mysteriously grown an extra floor during the renovation and now blocks his view. Now, like everyone else, he just wants to sell his new home. Fifty families have already gone. The ‘two extra floors’ syndrome has been rampant in Georgia since the Shevardnadze period, as developers, granted permission to renovate, then add two extra, illegal, floors at the end of the construction process. They are more than happy to pay the fine, which has been deliberately set at around $250 per square metre, as they will still quadruple their investment. But with the recent Old Town renovation, this behaviour has now received official sanction.

The architectural tragedy and stark betrayal of urban planning policy in Tbilisi grows out of a lax and corrupt planning system blended with a fierce desire to renovate and to be seen renovating – hence the cheap roofing and floodlights. Although there is no argument that renovation was urgently needed, encouraged by the President Michael Saakashvili and Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, senior officials have blithely ignored their own building classification system – published in 2007 at the request of the Ministry of Culture, Tbilisi Municipality and Commission of Cultural Heritage (funded by well-meaning international organisations). In the last two years several red-listed (National Monument) buildings and many more yellow-listed (Façade must be preserved) have met the bulldozer. Mirzashape street, some say the oldest street in Tbilisi and directly above the historic baths, was erased from the map in its entirety over a few short days last December – and completely illegally. When one of the Municipality’s own planning officers, Marina Khartiashvili walked up to the contractor asking that he stop, she was laughed at and told the orders had come directly from the Mayor’s office. She was promptly dismissed from her job – and is now fighting through the courts to have her position re-instated.

While this may be no surprise to those familiar with the behaviour of developers in Russian and eastern Europe, a finger of blame must also be pointed at the international community – which has become complicit in the process. Money has been pouring into Georgia from all quarters (Georgia is still the third highest per-capita recipient of US aid), particularly from foreign governments.

A good example occurred in 2008-9 when a prominent and perfectly sound, 19th century building in Tbilisi’s Freedom Square (formerly Lenin Square) was demolished – again in direct contravention of its ‘Façade must be preserved’ listing. Street protests calling for 2 Leonidze Street to be saved made it to the BBC News and Washington Post – but to no avail. Quickly razed to the ground it now stands again, re-built and re-designed with one extra floor and a bizarre all-glass wall-section. What the journalists failed to report was that the building’s new owner - Republic Bank - is also part owned (and funded) by Société Générale and, more significantly, the EBRD, the banking arm of the EU. In justification the new owners proffered an engineer’s report claiming the original building was unstable. But as the protestors standing directly below it pointed out, in Tbilisi such reports are easily purchased for around $2000. Furthermore if its stability really was an issue, why didn’t the City close the street on which it stood?

In the meantime the properties of the poor living in the choicely-located Old Town are quickly and silently being transferred into the hands of the rich as part and parcel of this rampant ‘gentrification.’ In its defence the government claims that the only way to save the crumbling Old Town is to attract inward investment from outside, so the sites should be made as attractive as possible. But this all too often means bending over backwards to the siren call of Western investment groups and funds – literally in many cases, by inverting their own laws.

Marxism Institute Tbilisi

Tbilisi's Institute of Marxism and Leninism is an important monument for Georgian and Tbilisi History. After the building was deprived of the status of cultural heritage, the authorities began to demolish it.

One of the many examples of this came in 2006 when they illegally evicted the inhabitants of a tower block on Tabukashvili street in the city centre, then razed it to the ground to howls of local outrage. Shortly afterwards they began the illegal demolition of another classic historic building, the neighbouring former Institute of Marxism and Leninism on Rustaveli Avenue (now stopped). Everything was done to make the site attractive to the Kempinski group who promptly hung a huge banner over the building’s frontage, showing a bizarre, turreted post-modern re-interpretation of the Communist, neo-Classical edifice. Recently the investment group announced they’d changed their minds. As a result dozens of local people lost their homes and a historic building was part destroyed – all to please the caprices of a large corporation, which then simply dropped the project. Meanwhile the evicted locals continue to wait to receive their compensation.

However the crown jewel of the ongoing architectural assault on the charm and elegance that once was Tbilisi must be the President’s new bridge. In itself it stands as an OTT piece of modernist fantasy that many would find quite acceptable in the right place. But… this glowing ‘glass slug’ in the guise of a pedestrian bridge has been dropped across the Mtkvari river just 100 metres from Sioni Cathedral, one of Tbilisi’s most sacred and historic churches, in the heart of the Old Town. Ex-pat Georgians returning to their city after several months working abroad can hardly believe their eyes. This 12 million USD glass-canopied footbridge with its own lighting system dazzles the city at night, directly below the new Presidential palace standing on the Avlobar cliffs. It shouts out the clear message of the new aesthetics now attacking this ancient city from within, ‘steel and glass are beautiful; old is ugly.’ For historians watching the evolution of this formerly Communist country, the new architectural mood bears an eerie resemblance to the cries of the Russian Futurists like Mayakovsky who, at the dawning of Georgia’s glinting Bolshevik future, called for the old to be swept away in the name of the proletariat.

Freedom Bridge Tbilisi

The 12 million USD glass-canopied footbridge shouts out the clear message of the new aesthetics now attacking this ancient city from within, ‘steel and glass are beautiful; old is ugly.’

But now the proletariat themselves are being swept away as the authorities use a number of catch phrases to justify their new Futurism. One is ‘for tourism.’ International grant applications and loans are more readily approved because tourism is seen as a ‘sustainable’ restorative for the flagging Georgian economy, now propped up mostly by outside money. But the vast majority of tourists who visit this once picturesque Caucasian capital are baffled or horrified by the developments they are now asked to praise – like the renovated Signaghi village in Kakhetia (a World Bank inspired project, now also rebuilt and decorated in cheap Turkish tiles). Their protestations are met with a kind of benevolent dismissiveness on the part of the local architects and planning organisations. ‘But some tourists do like them…’ is a common riposte. Another is ‘when the tiles have aged, it’ll look just as it was…’ an untruth well attested by the many ageing dormitory towns across Western Europe. It is ironic that Western money is in fact helping to blight the future of tourism in Georgia in the name of saving it.

Another phrase is ‘humanitarian’ referring to the living conditions of the Old Town inhabitants, most of whose homes could do with serious refurbishment (along with 90% of Tbilisi’s low income homes). For the most part the houses are crowded, cracked, dirty, some even leaning. While foreigners waving cameras might say ‘but how charming…’ a survey by Georgian ICOMOS in the Sikhis Urbani, Betlemi area found that 60% of the inhabitants would, given half the chance, be happy to swap their picturesque, wonky balconies for a clean new high-rise.

So… no surprise then, that in the new western-fuelled Caucasian land-grab this is what many are being offered. The rich ‘new Georgians’ with international backing are hurrying to buy, then ship out the existing owners into newly constructed high-rises on the outskirts of town.

Some outside observers watching this tragedy unfold are calling for Western organisations to stop funding the new Georgian banks, governmental organisations and the hidden faces behind so much of this architectural disaster which will be visible for generations to come. If the Georgian President and the Tbilisi Mayor refuse to follow their own guidelines, after so many promises, this is the only option left. As one Georgian historian put it ‘will the American Government, EBRD and World Bank be proud of their sponsorships in ten years time, when everybody turns round and regrets what was done in the Saakashvili years?’

Sikhis district Tbilisi

The rich ‘new Georgians’ with international backing are hurrying to buy old Tbilisi, before shipping out the existing owners to newly constructed high-rises on the outskirts of town.

Meanwhile the call to sustain this ongoing tragedy has now reached the Western press and international journals are being corralled into the call for new investment money.  In a recent article in the Architectural Review (22Sept 2010) written by a Georgian developer, the magazine announced a bid for more money under the guise of ‘a campaign to save historic Old Tbilisi town,’ claiming that the EBRD praised the new first stage of the Old Town as a ‘role model.’ A similarly toned article in The Economist (6 Oct 2010), which referred to the AR piece, also praised the first stage of the New Life project as ‘positive.’

But both articles were poorly researched and made similar, crucial mistakes in respect of the Old Town’s relationship with UNESCO. The Economist referred to a failed bid for World Heritage Status in 2007, when in fact UNESCO had deferred the bid as far back as 2001 because their commissioned ICOMOS report recommended the site be deferred subject to establishment of an appropriate legal framework, the management structures and guidelines for the rehabilitation, restoration and control of change in the proposed nomination area.’

Since that date there has been no sign that any of the above requirements are being implemented, so UNESCO’s hopes for Tbilisi Old Town have long been dead. The ICOMOS office in Tbilisi’s Betlemi region was apparently not consulted for the article - which seems odd to say the least, and a further example of how this small but heroic organisation is being ignored, not only locally but now internationally.

The AR piece claimed the Old Town was actively ‘on the tentative list of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites.’ This is not only untrue, it is an extraordinary distortion of the facts. Half of the Kala, Sikhis Urbani district of Tbilisi Old Town has now been turned into Tbilisi New Town in flagrant disregard of most UNESCO guidelines. To then appeal for further investment, quoting love for UNESCO, is an example of the developers’ cavalier attitude towards Tbilisi’s Old Town’s last hopes of remaining old.

But the love of UNESCO for Georgia and particularly its President Michael Saakashvili (who recently expressed his wish to become an architect) is now scraping the barrel. Georgia currently has three World Heritage Sites; Ushguli in the mountainous upper Svaneti region; Mtskheta, the ancient former capital just north of Tbilisi; and the Bagrati and Gelati cathedrals near Kutaisi. But soon it could have only one. Mtskheta is now on the endangered list (one stage before de-listing as a World Heritage Site) and Bagrati cathedral is about to receive the same categorisation as the ruined 12th century church has its stones metal-pinned, concrete pillars added, all in the process of its re-doming.

The World Bank, European Commission and EBRD have, it is claimed, been played like full orchestras by the Georgians. Grants, loans and consultancy fees have been doled out, full of good intentions. Many of the senior managers/executives of these venerable organisations truly do want to see these delightful, but collapsing old city streets restored. But like the proverbial road to hell… and in all-too-familiar style, the loans have not been adequately policed. Under their breaths they have been known to defend themselves by saying that the Georgian government has just taken the money, then done exactly what it liked.

What is the solution, apart from withholding money? In other eastern European countries, old town regeneration projects work slowly and carefully over the long term, helping the residents remain the life of its people, thus maintaining the important beating heart of any old-town district. Some of these ideas were presented at a four-day conference organised by the British Council, Tbilisi, this June. But, as one of the speakers, the architect and campaigner, Nestan Tatarashvili, put it so succinctly, ‘at the moment we can say anything we like, but nobody listens.’

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