Georgia’s capital is undergoing a massive rebuilding programme, with shabby historical buildings being replaced with facsimiles, complete with plastic ornamentation. But, as documentary filmmaker Salomé Jashi writes, an iconic square in old Tbilisi is being threatened with an even more radical remake.
It feels like we’ve lost the battle with Big Brother. No 2 Gudiashvili Square is now being demolished. This is an early 19th century building standing right in the heart of old Tbilisi. Popularly known as ‘the Blue House’, it is one of the architectural gems of Georgia’s capital, and is officially recognised as part of Tbilisi’s cultural heritage.
Both the Blue House’s new owner, a company called Irao Magnat Gudiashvili, and the city authorities claim they are just preparing the building for restoration, but it doesn’t take much to see that they are going about it in a strange way. Part of the roof has been removed and some of the architectural details which gave it its unique character have been destroyed.
No 2 Gudiashvili Square was built by Russians two centuries ago. The right hand section, the earliest part of the building, dates from the 1830s, and has Early Classical features, stone columns and a balcony with details in Mozarabic style.
The rest of the house probably dates from the 1840s and 50s. ‘The massive pillars in the courtyard and the balconies with lacy arches on the left are of the same period’, explains Maya Mania, an architectural historian and passionate champion of Old Tbilisi. The building initially served as a guardhouse for Russian troops, and in Soviet times it was the home of ‘Literaturuli Sakartvelo’, the organ of the Georgian Writers’ Union.
'The majority of Tbilisi’s historic buildings are being irrevocably destroyed and replaced with concrete-and-steel structures in mock-traditional style. What we get as a consequence are embarrassing duplicates, fakes, that all look alike.'
No 2 Gudiashvili Square is not a stand-alone building. It is part of the architectural unity of the whole square, where the majority of buildings have cultural heritage status. Most of these buildings have been affected by age and neglect and are in need of restoration. The paradox is that under an agreement made with the Old City Development Fund, a Tbilisi local government beneficiary, the investor is authorised to demolish the buildings on the square and construct in their place new ones with either the old facades or new facades mocked up to look like the old ones. But clearly, demolition and rebuilding will destroy the square’s authenticity.
Private passion, official indifference
I didn’t realise how precious the square and its history were to me until one day in December last year when I stumbled upon the Gudiashvili Square development plan. This was a day that would change my everyday routine.
I happened to hit upon a link on Facebook which directed me to computer-generated images of a concrete-smooth square, with ugly contemporary-looking buildings with double-glazed windows housing designer boutiques. These were apparently going to replace the nineteenth and twentieth century houses in
'Looking at the computer-generated pictures, I felt that it was not just the square that was in danger, but that I was in danger, too. It seemed as though someone was taking away a space which was precious to me.'
This outrageous and entirely unexpected design was the work of the Austrian company Zechner & Zechner, which according to the World Architecture News website had won a competition for the redevelopment of Gudiashvili Square.
Looking at the computer-generated pictures, I felt that it was not just the square that was in danger, but that I was in danger, too. It seemed as though someone was taking away a space which was precious to me because of its beauty and charm, because of its diverse authenticity. I felt an urge to prove that it was also my space, that I also existed in there.
I suppose the catalyst for my outrage was the Georgian government’s general policy towards cultural heritage and historic architecture. First it was Sighnaghi, a picturesque old Georgian town rendered bland by restoration. Then it was the newest Tbilisi buildings – gigantic tasteless metal-plastic-glass constructions - and the “restored” old part of the city adorned with decorative plastic detail. The majority of Tbilisi’s historic buildings are being irrevocably destroyed and replaced with concrete-and-steel structures in mock-traditional style. What we get as a consequence are embarrassing duplicates, fakes, that all look alike.
So, now, when someone was threatening Gudiashvili Square too, it was time to speak out.
The NGO Tiflis HamKari had already been active on this issue. I and some others, previously unknown to each other, joined them to plan a unique rally, something that had never been done in Tbilisi before, something that would make people aware of the danger to the square.
Here is part of the announcement we made through Facebook:
Minifest! As Manifest!
Come one, come all to Gudiashvili Square on Friday from 4:00 pm. Don’t miss the MiniFest!
For the first time in Georgia: A People’s Carnival - A New Year Fair dedicated to saving Gudiashvili Square.
Hot mulled wine and free palm reading
by wise gypsy women!
Let’s keep authenticity! No to
Free the space – take over the square!
Right after that very first rally, the city mayor raised the question of Gudiashvili Square during a television appearance and stated, with feigned anger, that it was under no threat. Later, though, he refused to meet with us to discuss the subject, despite all our efforts.
The carnival-style event was a success. Up to a thousand people showed up and demonstrated that they thought that this space was free, and that it belonged to them too. One girl, for example, walked through the crowd with a banner reading, ‘Dance with me for one lari’. A hobo joined the musicians and inspired some truly innovative hip-hop. Donations raised 1500 laris (nearly £600), which was spent on organising the next event, a peaceful protest against window dressing and fakery in the form of a festival. Most importantly, it was the first non-political protest in the history of modern Georgia.
The amount of attention created by the first Minifest! As Manifest! was so huge that it inspired a highly creative and provocative performance at the next gathering. Natalia Nebieridze, a breastfeeding mother, sat at a low table, bared her breast, expressed some milk using a special pump, poured it into glasses and sold each for one lari. It goes without saying that the performance had more viewers than milk drinkers. It also remained a hot topic for a whole month, with Nebieridze the subject of numerous television programmes and press articles. Both parties benefited: Nebieridze made a name for herself as a performance artist and the Gudiashvili Square issue was brought to an even wider audience.
Yet the demolition goes ahead
The funny thing was that the pro-government TV channel covered the performance, but ignored its Gudiashvili Square context. The only two TV stations which reported the events properly were those sympathetic to Georgia’s opposition parties, which have little coverage. One popular anchor at the public broadcaster, whom we cannot name here for obvious reasons, wanted to devote a whole programme to the protests. Later, she told us in private that she had been advised against it by the channel’s management.
‘There have been no ‘Minifests! As Manifests!’ in Gudiashvili Square since spring. However, small protest actions and various activities have been popping up every once in a while. But sometimes it all seems useless, as the most important building on the square, No 2 Gudiashvili, is now being demolished and most probably others will follow.’
One outcome of the demonstrations was that the Old City Development Fund and the investor agreed to meet us (it is the Old City Development Fund, by the way, that must carry the blame for the terrible state of the majority of buildings on the square, as it is responsible for the upkeep of our cultural heritage). At the meeting we voiced our fear that soon ordinary people would have no place in Gudiashvili Square, because it would be rebuilt to appeal only to the tastes of the most privileged members of society. The investor tried to calm us down: ‘What nonsense! We plan to have an artist’s studio in the attic of one of the buildings. The artist will be walking up and down the stairs with an easel and brushes.’ It was clear that he saw the artist as some sort of decorative element.
There have been no ‘Minifests! As Manifests!’ in Gudiashvili Square since spring. However, small protest actions and various activities have been popping up every once in a while. But sometimes it all seems useless, as the most important building on the square, No 2 Gudiashvili, is now being demolished and most probably others will follow. A representative of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), hired by the investor to act as a quality guarantor and supervise the works, made the following statement after visiting the site: ‘I point out that not only does such an act have nothing whatsoever to do with the basic principles of restoration, it actually runs entirely contrary to them … this is a negative act which conflicts with the cultural values of the country’.