Category Archives: Architectural

Architectural Rumors in Baku

This article examines the agency of unrealized megaprojects in bolstering economic activity, legitimizing political regimes, and expanding designer’s portfolios. It argues that such proposals serve as a form of “Architectural Rumor,” providing politico-economic agency despite ultimate project infeasibility. Specifically, it looks at two case studies of proposed yet unrealized island megaprojects in the city of Baku, Azerbaijan: the 2009 Zira Island Master Plan and the 2010 Khazar Islands Plan. Spectacular urban design and architecture have long served as catalysts for development, investment attraction, and real estate speculation. As cities compete with one another to lure capital and boost their global status, many design proposals have become increasingly expensive, ostentatious, and technologically sophisticated. The high-risk financial nature of grand urban design proposals and their frequent associations with displacement or environmental destruction suggests that the megaproject model is becoming flawed. At the same time, there remain advantages for clients and politicians to proposing designs that are more spectacular than feasible. Using a mixed-methods approach, four key arenas in which unrealized proposals circulate are described. The various benefits and detriments of such an approach to architectural commodification are also discussed, foregrounding the broader societal costs.


Spectacular architecture and urban design have long served as catalysts for development, foreign investment attraction, and real estate speculation. As cities work to attract capital and boost their global status, design proposals have become increasingly ostentatious and technologically sophisticated in nature (Altshuler and Luberoff 2003Altshuler, Alan, and David Luberoff2003Megaprojects: The Changing Politics of Urban Public InvestmentWashington, DCBrookings Institute. [Google Scholar]; Orueta and Fainstein 2008Orueta, Fernando Diaz, and Susan S.Fainstein2008. “The New Megaprojects: Genesis and Impacts.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 32: 759767.10.1111/ijur.2008.32.issue-4[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). They have also grown overwhelming in scale, requiring billions of dollars for execution and decades of time to reach completion. Many such projects invariably end up scaled back or redesigned, bearing little resemblance to their original proposals. Others are left incomplete or frozen after the design phase. While on the surface this high-risk nature of grand urban design proposals would suggest that the megaproject model is flawed and bears great challenges for designers and their clients, there are a number of advantages to proposing designs that are more spectacular than they are feasible. Unrealized projects offer many opportunities to those deploying them. Not only are the costs of project construction avoided, images of the project can be positioned outside the daily reality of host cities – buildings can appear more populated, inhabitants more socially content, and public space more accessible to all. The technical engineering complexities of such megaprojects are also bypassed. The proposal phase is thus one of the most marketable moments of a project’s lifetime. As a vague, yet uncompromised visual imagining, such proposals communicate to the world a utopic vision of their host city’s future. There are also real-life financial gains to be made from the commodification and media circulation of unbuilt proposals since such projects can attract foreign investment by reinforcing an image of the city as more politically stable and economically prosperous than it may be in reality.

This article unpacks the distinct forms of agency embedded within unrealized design proposals and then examines four key arenas through which they circulate globally in order to gain greater notoriety and legitimization. The process of design proposals extensively circulating as media prior to their physical construction is referred to here as an “Architectural Rumor,” since the viability of these projects is often questionable and it is unclear as to whether or not they will ever be realized in their proposed form. Architectural rumors are project design proposals put forward by the government or private sector which travel widely as imagery and spoken word prior to their construction. They are presented as genuine endeavors, receive great media attention, corral public support, and even win awards, but rarely reach construction completion. As with traditional spoken rumors, architectural rumors function by circulating ideas with uncertain or doubtful truth. Beyond skepticism regarding project feasibility, architectural rumors propagate a selective narrative of present-day urban life, one that foregrounds prosperity, political stability, and civilian contentment, and which is not necessarily in keeping with the lived realities of the host city.

Using a mixed-methods approach, including field observations, media analysis, and interviews,11. All interviews have been left anonymous due to personal privacy concerns for the interviewees. Those interviewed were primarily members of the country’s intellectual class, including architects, engineers, journalists and academics, ranging from 26 to 55 years of age. They are all lifetime residents of Baku and are actively interested in events linked to its ongoing politics and urban development.View all notes this paper looks at the early stages of marketing and media circulation for two architectural rumors, both island megaprojects in Baku, Azerbaijan; the 2009 Zira Island Master Plan and the 2010 Khazar Islands development. It describes how the commodification of design proposals is distinct in its political and economic agency from that of constructed projects. The first case study is the luxury net-zero resort and residential project, Zira Island, designed by the Danish firm, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) on a former military island five kilometers off the coast of Baku in the Caspian Sea. The second case study is the Khazar Islands development, an artificial archipelago of over 50 islands also located in the Caspian Sea, 25 kilometers south of Baku (Figure 1). These two case studies show how design proposals are used to promote a new image of Baku both domestically and abroad, affording the ruling elite and project design professionals greater legitimacy.

Figure 1. Map of the two case study island megaproject sites in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Image by authors).

In 1991, the resource-rich nation of Azerbaijan emerged from the Soviet Union with great potential for economic growth as an independent country and regional hub of capitalist accumulation. As the world’s first center for oil and natural gas extraction, Azerbaijan has a long history of reflecting economic prosperity through built form (O’Lear 2001O’Lear, Shannon2001. “Azerbaijan: Territorial Issues and Internal Challenges in mid-2001.” Post-Soviet Geography and Economics 42: 305312.[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar]; Grant 2010Grant, Bruce2010. “Cosmopolitan Baku.” Ethnos 75: 123147.10.1080/00141841003753222[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Valiyev 2012Valiyev, Anar2012. “Baku.” Cities 31: 625640.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Koch and Valiyev 2015Koch, Natalie, and Anar Valiyev2015. “Urban Boosterism in Closed Contexts: Spectacular Urbanization and Second-Tier Mega-Events in Three Caspian Capitals.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 56: 575598.10.1080/15387216.2016.1146621[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Following independence, a capitalist class emerged from within the country’s governing elite, carried forward from Soviet times. It resulted in a coalition of state officials and entrepreneurs that have directed the nation’s development primarily in their own interests. Such was accomplished through large-scale urban projects and the hosting of mega-events (Valiyev 2012Valiyev, Anar2012. “Baku.” Cities 31: 625640.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Gogishvili 2018Gogishvili, David2018. “Baku Formula 1 City Circuit: Exploring the Temporary Spaces of Exception.” Cities 74: 169178.10.1016/j.cities.2017.11.018[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

Behind the façades of luxurious new development projects and spectacular mega-events, the ruling elite of Azerbaijan have been accused of gross human rights violations and of exacerbating the socioeconomic inequality of the country (Human Rights Watch 2012Human Rights Watch. 2012. “‘THEY TOOK EVERYTHING FROM ME’ Forced Evictions, Unlawful Expropriations, and House Demolitions in Azerbaijan’s Capital.” Accessed August 10, 2017. [Google Scholar]; Amnesty International 2017Amnesty International. 2017. “AZERBAIJAN 2016/2017.” Accessed January 10, 2018. [Google Scholar]; Destexhe 2017Destexhe, Alain2017. “Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe (PACE), Resolution 2185 (2017); Report of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights.” Azerbaijan’s Chairmanship of the Council of Europe: What Follow-up on Respect for Human Rights? October 11, 32nd setting. April 30. Accessed January 10, 2018. [Google Scholar]). Freedom of speech and the press are also overwhelmingly suppressed. Much new development has involved mass displacement and community demolition, with replacement projects benefitting mainly those affiliated with the Aliyev dynasty. Put succinctly by anthropologist Bruce Grant (2014Grant, Bruce2014. “The Edifice Complex: Architecture and the Political Life of Surplus in the New Baku.” Public Culture26: 501528.10.1215/08992363-2683648[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), “to speak in any critical way of the new construction in the city [is] therefore necessarily to criticize the government, a body politics with which most have their own clientelist relations” (514). Valiyev (2014Valiyev, Anar2014. “The Post-Communist Growth Machine: The Case of Baku, Azerbaijan.” Cities 41: S45S53.10.1016/j.cities.2014.06.008[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) similarly describes the ways in which the nation’s ruling elite directly profit from spectacular urban development, using Logan and Molotch’s (1987Logan, John R., and Harvey L. Molotch1987Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of PlaceBerkeleyUniversity of California Press. [Google Scholar]) term “urban growth machine.”

Megaproject proposals and spectacular architecture are particularly well suited for growth machine and urban boosterism development. Grant (2014Grant, Bruce2014. “The Edifice Complex: Architecture and the Political Life of Surplus in the New Baku.” Public Culture26: 501528.10.1215/08992363-2683648[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) describes the political life of Azerbaijan’s architecture as part of an “Edifice Complex” and shows how it is tied to various forms of capital surplus. His description of Baku’s “surplus of images” in particular relates to this paper’s notion of architectural rumors in that “many in Baku see a kind of surplus in the widely circulating images, posted online and plastered on billboards and construction sites across the city, that claim that the future is now” (2014Grant, Bruce2014. “The Edifice Complex: Architecture and the Political Life of Surplus in the New Baku.” Public Culture26: 501528.10.1215/08992363-2683648[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 507). Whereas Grant underscores the efficacy of “architecture as an opiate for the masses” (2014Grant, Bruce2014. “The Edifice Complex: Architecture and the Political Life of Surplus in the New Baku.” Public Culture26: 501528.10.1215/08992363-2683648[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 507), this paper foregrounds how the production of architectural rumors is taking place and discusses their related societal costs. We argue that the circulation of architecture through mediated images has reached an increased level of commodification and political agency in the twenty-first century, operating separately from that of built projects. Although completed urban megaprojects are also heavily mediatized and branded, their initial design proposals have distinct types of agency on account of their immateriality.

The following two sections provide summaries of literature on spectacular megaprojects and architectural image production before moving on to the case descriptions of the Khazar and Zira Islands and an analysis of the economic and sociopolitical ramifications of their proposals. Finally, the conclusion recognizes the shortcomings of architectural rumors resulting from the overuse of false project promises.

Spectacular megaprojects: the value of architectural superlatives

Global shifts in capitalist production since the mid-twentieth century have dramatically changed the landscapes of cities and generated new demands for forms of urbanism based on experience economies and mass spectacle rather than industrial production (Clark 2004Clark, Terry Nichols, ed. 2004The City as an Entertainment MachineAmsterdamElsevier. [Google Scholar]; Guggenheim and Söderström 2009Guggenheim, Michael, and OlaSöderström2009Re-Shaping Cities: How Global Mobility Transforms Architecture and Urban FormLondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]). In line with this trend, forms of city-to-city competition have also grown (Sassen 2001Sassen, Saskia2001The Global City: New York, London, TokyoPrinceton, NJPrinceton University Press.10.1515/9781400847488[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Roy and Ong 2011Roy, Ananya, and Aihwa Ong, eds. 2011Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being GlobalChichesterWiley-Blackwell.[Crossref][Google Scholar]). Within scholarly work examining the increased development of spectacular architecture over the past half-century, particular attention has been paid to the greater prominence of urban megaprojects (McNeill and Tewdwr-Jones 2003McNeill, Donald, and Mark Tewdwr-Jones2003. “Architecture, Banal Nationalism and Re-Territorialization.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 27: 738743.10.1111/ijur.2003.27.issue-3[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Siemiatycki 2013Siemiatycki, Matti2013. “Riding the Wave: Explaining Cycles in Urban Megaproject Development.” Journal of Economic Policy Reform 16: 160178.10.1080/17487870.2013.797904[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). The dramatic scope, size, and cost of megaprojects affords them the ability to draw international attention, engender national prestige – and crucially, attract investment money. But megaprojects also embody great precarity and risk (Flyvbjerg, Bruzelius, and Rothengatter 2003Flyvbjerg, BentNilsBruzelius, and Werner Rothengatter2003Megaprojects and Risk: An Anatomy of AmbitionCambridgeCambridge University Press.10.1017/CBO9781107050891[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Haines 2011Haines, Chad2011. “Cracks in the Façade: Landscapes of Hope and Desire in Dubai.” In Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, edited by AnanyaRoy, and Aihwa Ong160181. Chapter 6. ChichesterWiley-Blackwell.[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Flyvbjerg 2013Flyvbjerg, Bent2013. “Design by Deception: The Politics of Megaproject Approval.” Harvard Design Magazine 22 (Summer/Spring): 5059. [Google Scholar]; Müller 2014Müller, Martin2014. “After Sochi 2014: Costs and Impacts of Russia’s Olympic Games.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 55: 628655.10.1080/15387216.2015.1040432[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Deploying untested technologies and requiring decades to reach completion, megaprojects suffer the very real threat of physically malfunctioning or being rendered obsolete before they are even complete – all prior to a weighing of their social and environmental costs and benefits.

One noticeable megaproject typology to rise in prominence over the past two decades is that of the urban island development. Islands function as prime sites of design innovation and fantasy that can provide their host nations with greater clout (Adham 2008Adham, Khaled2008. “Rediscovering the Island: Doha’s Urbanity from Pearls to Spectacle.” In The Evolving Arab City: Tradition, Modernity and Urban Development, edited by YasserElsheshtawy218257AbingdonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]; Jackson and Dora 2009Jackson, Mark, and Veronica della Dora2009. “‘Dreams So Big Only the Sea Can Hold Them’: Man-Made Islands as Anxious Spaces, Cultural Icons, and Travelling Visions.” Environment and Planning A 41: 20862104.10.1068/a41237[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Sheller 2009Sheller, Mimi2009. “Infrastructures of the Imagined Island: Software, Mobilities, and the Architecture of Caribbean Paradise.” Environment and Planning A 41: 13861403.10.1068/a41248[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Ouis 2011Ouis, Pernilla2011. “‘And an Island Never Cries’: Cultural and Societal Perspectives on the Mega Development of Islands in the United Arab Emirates.” In Macro-Engineering Seawater in Unique Environments, edited by V. Badescu and R. B. Cathcart5975BerlinSpringer-Verlag. [Google Scholar]; Gupta and Pamila 2015Gupta, Pamila2015. “Futures, Fakes and Discourses of the Gigantic and Miniature in ‘The World’ Islands, Dubai.” Island Studies Journal 10 (2): 181–196. [Google Scholar]). As sites of remote large-scale construction, islands offer characteristics distinct from those of other mega-developments, such as private waterfront access for residential and resort areas.

The high-end nature of private residential waterfront development on islands also dovetails with another unique offering of islands – their sense of security enclosure. In their locations off mainland coasts, islands represent a tension between urban proximity and distance, being near enough to selectively participate in the life of the city, yet sufficiently removed to afford maximum control and privacy. It is in this way that spectacular island geographies are coming to embody the promises of insularity tied to other private enclaved urban spaces such as gated communities and tourist resorts.

In the face of increased environmental volatility due to climate change, some islands further present a bound space of elite climate protection. In this manner, they follow global precedents in enclaved eco-development (Hoffman 2011Hoffman, Lisa2011. “Urban Modeling and Contemporary Technologies of City-Building in China: The Production of Regimes of Green Urbanisms.” In Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, edited by AnanyaRoy, and Aihwa Ong5576. Chapter 2. ChichesterWiley-Blackwell.[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Caprotti, Springer, and Harmer 2015Caprotti, FedericoCecili Springer, and Nichola Harmer2015. “‘Eco’ for Whom? Envisioning Eco-Urbanism in the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City, China.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 39: 495517.10.1111/1468-2427.12233[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). The bold claims of ecological urbanism and sustainable architectural projects are very much in keeping with architectural rumors in that critiques of “green-washing” also represent accusations of project overambition and desire to garner clout on false pretenses. The questionable use of sustainability rhetoric in architecture is covered at length by authors such as Crot (2013Crot, Laurence2013. “Planning for Sustainability in Non-Democratic Polities: The Case of Masdar City.” Urban Studies50: 28092825.10.1177/0042098012474697[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), Cugurullo (2013Cugurullo, Federico2013. “How to Build a Sandcastle: An Analysis of the Genesis and Development of Masdar City.” Journal of Urban Technology20: 2337.10.1080/10630732.2012.735105[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), Koch (2014Koch, Natalie2014. “‘Building Glass Refrigerators in the Desert’: Discourses of Urban Sustainability and Nation Building in Qatar.” Urban Geography 35: 11181139.10.1080/02723638.2014.952538[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), Rapoport (2014Rapoport, Elizabeth2014. “Utopian Visions and Real Estate Dreams: The Eco-City past, Present and Future.” Geography Compass 8: 137149.10.1111/gec3.12113[Crossref][Google Scholar]), and Pow and Neo (2015Pow, C. P., and Harvey Neo2015. “Modelling Green Urbanism in China.” Area 47: 132140.10.1111/area.12128[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

When overlaid with proposals for environmental sustainability, elite island geographies become laboratories for future ecological urbanism paradigms propounding utopic/dystopic visions of climate survival. For example, Sze (2015Sze, Julie2015Fantasy Islands: Chinese Dreams and Ecological Fears in an Age of Climate CrisisOaklandUniversity of California Press. [Google Scholar]) draws attention to China’s use of sustainable rhetoric in the Dongtan City project in Shanghai, which depicts the country as technologically advanced and environmentally focused, rather than polluted and overcrowded. Grydehøj and Kelman (2017Grydehøj, Adam, and Ilan Kelman2017. “The Eco-Island Trap: Climate Change Mitigation and Conspicuous Sustainability.” Area49: 106113.10.1111/area.2017.49.issue-1[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) similarly raise caution about the “eco-island trap,” where small islands continue to invest in inefficient environmental sustainability initiatives in order to benefit from eco-tourism.

On account of their artificial nature, man-made islands take on additional performative roles as works of technology and iconic communication. This is best exemplified in the Palm Islands of Dubai, which are shaped as palm trees, and other island megaprojects, such as the iconic Tulip-shaped island in the Netherlands. The engineered forms of these islands maximize waterfront property while branding new communities through their iconic shapes. As such, island megaprojects demonstrate that one of the most assured ways for a city to climb the ranks of international media attention is through superlatives and bold claims toward originality. Elsheshtawy (2009Elsheshtawy, Yasser2009Dubai: Behind an Urban Spectacle, Planning, History and EnvironmentNew YorkRoutledge. [Google Scholar]), Gupta and Pamila (2015Gupta, Pamila2015. “Futures, Fakes and Discourses of the Gigantic and Miniature in ‘The World’ Islands, Dubai.” Island Studies Journal 10 (2): 181–196. [Google Scholar]); Haines (2011Haines, Chad2011. “Cracks in the Façade: Landscapes of Hope and Desire in Dubai.” In Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, edited by AnanyaRoy, and Aihwa Ong160181. Chapter 6. ChichesterWiley-Blackwell.[Crossref][Google Scholar]), and Ouis (2011Ouis, Pernilla2011. “‘And an Island Never Cries’: Cultural and Societal Perspectives on the Mega Development of Islands in the United Arab Emirates.” In Macro-Engineering Seawater in Unique Environments, edited by V. Badescu and R. B. Cathcart5975BerlinSpringer-Verlag. [Google Scholar]) describe how Dubai’s heavy reliance on such superlatives was integral to its cultural branding and market transformation, while Domosh (1988Domosh, Mona1988. “The Symbolism of the Skyscraper.” Journal of Urban History 14: 320345.10.1177/009614428801400302[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) and King (2004King, Anthony2004Spaces of Global Cultures: Architecture, Urbanism, IdentityLondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]) explain the global drive toward increasingly taller skyscrapers in branding cities.

Image production and circulation

In the past few decades, scholarly work has begun unpacking the mediatization of architecture and the global circulation of its imagery. Biddulph (1995Biddulph, Mike1995. “The Value of Manipulated Meanings in Urban Design and Architecture.” Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 22: 739762.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) assesses the characteristics of signs and sign values in American housing markets and shows how housing developers manufacture signs to enhance their sales. Vale (1999Vale, Lawrence1999. “Mediated Monuments and National Identity.” The Journal of Architecture4 (4): 391408.10.1080/136023699373774[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar]) uses the term “Mediated Monuments” to describe how media campaigns aimed at controlling public interpretations of monuments are inseparable from the physical forms they describe. Likewise, Rattenbury (2002Rattenbury, Kester, ed. 2002This is Not Architecture: Media ConstructionsNew YorkRoutledge. [Google Scholar]) and Colomina (1996Colomina, Beatriz1996Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass MediaCambridge, MAThe MIT Press. [Google Scholar]) probe at the various relationships between architecture and representation and question the intrinsic nature of architectural production as one which deals in fictional imaginings. Focusing on the post-Soviet urban context of Astana, Kazakhstan, Laszczkowski (2011Laszczkowski, Mateusz2011. “Building the Future: Construction, Temporality, and Politics in Astana.” Focaal 60: 7792.[Crossref][Google Scholar], 1) describes how representations of Astana’s new buildings worked “to mobilize citizens’ agency and capture their imaginations, thus producing complicity” (See also Koch [2012Koch, Natalie2012. “Urban ‘Utopias’: The Disney Stigma and Discourses of ‘False Modernity’.” Environment and Planning A 44 (10): 24452462.10.1068/a44647[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]] for media depictions of Astana). Such works can be seen as building upon Marx’s more classic notions of surplus value in commodities (Marx1992Marx, Karl1992Capital: Volume I: A Critique of Political Economy. Translated by B. FowkesNew YorkPenguin Classics. [Google Scholar]), and specifically, on the relationship between surplus images and sign values (Mitchell 2002Mitchell, William2002. “The Surplus Value of Images.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 35: 123.[Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

Academic interest in image production in architecture, however, has remained primarily focused on examining the media surrounding realized projects – or comparing realized projects to their originally designed forms – rather than on the politico-economic opportunities afforded by project proposals in their own right. For example, while Jackson and Dora (2009Jackson, Mark, and Veronica della Dora2009. “‘Dreams So Big Only the Sea Can Hold Them’: Man-Made Islands as Anxious Spaces, Cultural Icons, and Travelling Visions.” Environment and Planning A 41: 20862104.10.1068/a41237[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) acknowledge that “many island projects are purely speculative, and act as attractants of capital, investment, and curiosity” and that “some will be built, but many will not” (2809), they abstain from probing further at the specific ways in which such speculations operate, the arenas through which they circulate, and the reasons behind why they may do so. Insight into the political agency of unrealized design proposals can be found more specifically in literature looking at the propaganda projects of the Soviet Union. Soviet officials put forward many ostentatious and ideologically ridden works of architecture that were never built, the most famous of which is Boris Iofan’s Palace of the Soviets intended for Moscow. However, there were dozens of others.22. For example, see, The Guardian, “Unbuilt Moscow: The ‘New Soviet’ City that Never Was” (Rogers 2017Rogers, Alexandra2017. “Unbuilt Moscow: The ‘New Soviet’ City That Never Was.” The Guardian, March 8. Accessed August 14, 2017. [Google Scholar]).View all notes Buck-Morss (2002Buck-Morss, Susan2002Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and WestCambridge, MAThe MIT press. [Google Scholar]) coins the term “utopian supplement” to describe the cognitive power of such dream images in conveying plans for the making of a new socialist society.

Understanding how such image production works under capitalism, and more specifically in each of the phases of building construction under capitalism, is an area of research with room for greater exploration. Lehrer (2003Lehrer, Ute2003. “The Spectacularization of the Building Process: Berlin, Potsdamer Platz.” Genre 36 (3–4): 383404.10.1215/00166928-36-3-4-383[Crossref][Google Scholar]) notes a trend toward “the specularization of the building process”; that is, toward the commodification of the experience of the project’s construction in its own right. In a similar vein, this paper looks at the commodification of architecture even before its construction phase and shows how, distinct from building commodification and construction commodification, design phase commodification affords its own great politico-economic agency. In drawing a distinction between the use of images of finished architecture and that of design proposals in branding, this paper’s analysis foregrounds the agency of architectural rumors that remain suspended in a protracted state of “near-future” development.

Project case descriptions

Zira Island

Officially announced on 27 January 2009, the Zira Island Masterplan proposed to redevelop the entire 1,000,000 m² of Nargin Island (Boyuk Zira) off the coast of central Baku in the Caspian Sea.33. Images of the project proposal are available online at all notes The project is located on the site of a former Soviet detainment camp and naval station currently being used for natural gas extraction. Construction of the project was estimated to cost USD $3 billion at the time of its announcement (Zero-carbon Living on Zira Island 2009Zero-carbon Living on Zira Island. 2009The Edge Markets. June 21. Accessed August 11, 2017. [Google Scholar]). The developer for the project is Azerbaijan-based Avrositi Holding (Eurocity Holding), whose self-declared mandate is “to create world-class real estate developments in Azerbaijan and Central Asia” (Holding 2009Holding, Avrositi2009. “Zira Islan Project Website.” Accessed August 11, 2017. [Google Scholar]). As an urban redevelopment project, this proposal promises to reactivate not only the island but also Baku’s wider harbor front, rebranding the city’s industrial image. Project renderings show small sailboats meandering across the harbor in some of the world’s most industrially contaminated water (Jafari 2010Jafari, Nasar2010. “Review of Pollution Sources and Controls in Caspian Sea Region.” Journal of Ecology and the Natural Environment2: 025029. [Google Scholar]). At present, the harbor’s boat traffic is almost exclusively from large government-run international ferries and tankers, with the exception of minimal high-end private yacht traffic.

In terms of the project program, the master plan for Zira Island offers multiple high-end private beaches, resorts, and residential developments, including approximately 300 private waterfront villas, all physically linked through an elaborate landscaping design. The project’s grand vision is said to get its design inspiration from the seven mountain peaks of Azerbaijan, the forms of which have been parametrically reconfigured into shiny glass and steel inhabitable objects using sophisticated design and imaging software. The particular molding of these islands into buildings can be seen not only as a reflection of the geography of Azerbaijan, but also a trademark of the project’s architect, famous Danish firm, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), which has proposed similar terraced, mountain-shaped designs in cities as disparate as Copenhagen and Los Angeles.

Beyond the branding provided by its star architect, Zira Island has sought acclaim through its innovative approach to environmental sustainability. Sometimes referred to as Zira Zero Island, the project has proudly declared itself the first carbon-neutral project in the region, rendering it an example of the aforementioned coming together of “green-washing” and architectural rumors. In order to obtain this environmental goal, the island claimed it would deploy not only traditional sustainable design approaches (such as solar heat panels, photovoltaic cells, waste water and rainwater collection, and an offshore wind farm), it would also become,

An autonomous ecosystem where the flow of air, water, heat, and energy are channeled in almost natural ways. A mountain creates biotopes and eco-niches, it channels water and stores heat, it provides viewpoints and valleys, access and shelter. The Seven Peaks are conceived not only as icons but engineered as entire ecosystems (Holding 2009Holding, Avrositi2009. “Zira Islan Project Website.” Accessed August 11, 2017. [Google Scholar]).

The coming together of high-end residential architecture with technologically advanced environmental design approaches reflects global real estate trends to commodify environmentalism and package it as a luxury product (Hoffman 2011Hoffman, Lisa2011. “Urban Modeling and Contemporary Technologies of City-Building in China: The Production of Regimes of Green Urbanisms.” In Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, edited by AnanyaRoy, and Aihwa Ong5576. Chapter 2. ChichesterWiley-Blackwell.[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Crot 2013Crot, Laurence2013. “Planning for Sustainability in Non-Democratic Polities: The Case of Masdar City.” Urban Studies50: 28092825.10.1177/0042098012474697[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Cugurullo 2013Cugurullo, Federico2013. “How to Build a Sandcastle: An Analysis of the Genesis and Development of Masdar City.” Journal of Urban Technology20: 2337.10.1080/10630732.2012.735105[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Rapoport 2014Rapoport, Elizabeth2014. “Utopian Visions and Real Estate Dreams: The Eco-City past, Present and Future.” Geography Compass 8: 137149.10.1111/gec3.12113[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Hudson 2015Hudson, Kris2015. “Builders’ New Power Play: Net-Zero Homes.” The Wall Street Journal, January 20. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]; and Pow and Neo 2015Pow, C. P., and Harvey Neo2015. “Modelling Green Urbanism in China.” Area 47: 132140.10.1111/area.12128[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). At the same time, the design appears completely indifferent to the socioeconomic exclusivity that it proposes for Azerbaijan, or to the necessary fuel requirements associated with daily travel to and from an urban island. As such, the Zira Island proposal carries forward both the existing socioeconomic disparity of local Azeri society and the contaminated water legacies of the Caspian Sea (Jafari 2010Jafari, Nasar2010. “Review of Pollution Sources and Controls in Caspian Sea Region.” Journal of Ecology and the Natural Environment2: 025029. [Google Scholar]). Descriptions of the project as being completely self-dependent and removed from Baku intend to celebrate the net-zero accomplishments of this proposal. But they could equally describe its exclusionary social characteristics and broader nature as a restricted island enclave.

Khazar Islands

The Khazar Islands Development is an artificial archipelago megaproject situated 25 km south of Baku on the Caspian Sea. It was designed to consist of 41 artificial islands located in 19 different new districts and intended to occupy almost 31 km2 of land (Figure 2). The project’s central connective boulevard was designed at an astounding 50 km long (Valiyev 2012Valiyev, Anar2012. “Baku.” Cities 31: 625640.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). The project was launched in 2010 by Avesta Concern, a local Azerbaijani development company founded by the Azeri billionaire Ibrahim Ibrahimov. Ibrahimov was known for his extensive ties to the ruling Aliyev family, which deteriorated in 2015, when he was arrested on allegations of unpaid state debts (Snip 2017Snip, Inge2017. “Azerbaijan’s Corrupt Construction Sector to Blame for Cut Corners.” MeydanTV, March 5. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]). The overall cost to realize the project was estimated at USD $100 billion and it was optimistically slated for completion in three phases over a 15-year period.

Figure 2. Conceptual rendering of Azerbaijan Tower and the Khazar Islands on a billboard advertisement in Azerbaijan. (Image by authors).

The first phase of the project emphasized land massing and the installation of basic site infrastructure, including the development of parks and boulevards. It was intended to provide a period for further investment attraction through the circulation of the project’s design images and the pre-sale of the second phase residential units. It is in this manner that despite actual work commencing on the project’s foundations, the proposal still very much functions as an architectural rumor, distributing information about the latter phases least likely to get built.44. Here, it is particularly the use of images of the world’s tallest building and Formula One race track that serve as rumors on the project.View all notes The relative attractiveness of investing in the area has consistently been framed in relation to the extravagance and novelty of the future phases of the project. The central skyscraper of the islands, “Azerbaijan Tower,” was rumored to become the tallest building in the world at 1050 m and would consist of 186 floors (compared to Dubai’s Burj Khalifa at 828 m and 160 stories). The tower was aimed to stand in dramatic juxtaposition to its surrounding proposed towers, the majority of which were designed to range in height from 19 to 25 floors, or up to 80 floors for a few prominent hotel proposals.

According to various news sources, if built, the Khazar Islands would have the capacity to house between 400,000 and 1 million residents and host up to 200,000 tourists – staggering figures considering Baku’s population of 2.25 million (The State Statistical Committee of the Republic of Azerbaijan 2017The State Statistical Committee of the Republic of Azerbaijan. 2017. “Population.” Accessed January 10, 2018. [Google Scholar]). In support of this dramatic influx of residents, the project design entails the additional construction of 150 new schools, 50 new hospitals, and a variety of support facilities such as parks, retail areas, university campuses, cultural centers, and an airport. All these facilities would be elaborately connected by 150 bridges weaving throughout the project. Considering that Azerbaijan is in a relatively active seismic zone, the buildings would need to be built with reinforced concrete able to withstand a dramatic nine-point magnitude earthquake. As with Zira Island, the Khazar Islands claim to be a model sustainable, low-emission development. The proposal includes a tram network, boats, and bicycles for site mobility and limits the number of roads provided for vehicles.

As of October 2016, satellite imagery showed the first project phase underway. Avesta Concern had also finalized some bridges and road infrastructure and started constructing a few of the residential buildings envisaged in the original project proposal (Figure 3). It was initially announced that by 2013 the central boulevard as well as its adjacent restaurants and beaches would be opened to the public (First Residents Will Settle in Khazar Islands in 2014, 2012“First Residents Will Settle in Khazar Islands in 2014.”. 2012Today.AZ. , December 25. Accessed August 13, 2017 [Google Scholar]). This was later adjusted and re-announced for May 2014 (First Phase of Khazar Islands Project to be Accomplished by May 2014“First Phase of Khazar Islands Project to be Accomplished by May”. 2014Azernews. , April 22. Accessed August 13, 2017 [Google Scholar]). When Ibrahim Ibrahimov was arrested in 2015, skepticism and rumors began to surround the project’s completion. Despite a high degree of controversy regarding Ibrahimov personally, intellectuals interviewed expressed their strong opinion that the project always seemed dubious in nature, particularly on account of Ibrahimov’s overwhelming lack of experience in the construction industry and the sheer size of the proposal. As of February 2018, author site visits confirm that no new work has commenced. Avesta Concern has also suffered mass employee resignations due to non-payment and the project’s frozen development (Çağtürk 2018Çağtürk, Fərhad2018. “Mass Resignation at ‘Avesta’ Concern.” AzEuroNews, February 4. Accessed February 10, 2018. [Google Scholar]). Unlike the Zira Island Masterplan, the Khazar Islands project does not have a famous architectural affiliation. Instead, its notoriety has come through the overwhelming scale and ostentatiousness of the programming. A lot of emphasis has been placed on the project’s island geography, the housing of a Formula One-grade race track, and the world’s tallest building. These spectacular rumors generate hype around what would otherwise be a somewhat banal yet elite gated residential community.

Figure 3. Image of the frozen construction of the Khazar Islands, taken 20 December 2016. (Image by authors).

The agency of architectural rumors

Both the Kazar Islands and Zira Island projects have brought increased international attention to the city of Baku and to the nation of Azerbaijan solely through the ideas they put forward in their unrealized proposals. Their wide circulation as speculative designs in a diverse range of media outlets – from local newspapers to international design journals and press conferences – has worked to draw attention to this geographically small and under-recognized post-Soviet country. Those interviewed from the local intellectual class described how these projects were being used to improve the image of Azerbaijan internationally. For example, one interviewee who works as a local journalist and a policy analyst stated, “with these projects, the developers are getting money from the state budget, but the architecture is also definitely part of an image-building project to show off Azerbaijan.” Another, an academic specializing in the political economy of local urban development, further stated,

even though the project of the Khazar Islands was not considered serious by knowledgeable locals, Ibrahimov used his political ties and networks to get the largest loan from the International Bank of Azerbaijan by claiming that the project would “make Azerbaijan great.”

Such nationalistic rhetoric coupled with initial signs of foreign investment interest open the doors for official state sponsorship and investment loans for these projects. The strategic circulation of architectural rumors thus has the potential for real-life benefits.In order to better understand the ways in which these two projects have impacted the image of the city and the reputation of its ruling elite, this section breaks down four arenas where architectural rumors circulate and explains how these arenas were used specifically to promote the image of Baku and improve the reputation of powerful Azeris. These arenas can be understood as coexisting and overlapping with one another. They have no clear hierarchy or chronological order. It is acknowledged that there may be any number of additional potential arenas for circulating architectural rumors around the globe. As such, this is not intended to be a definitive list but serves more as an initial identification of the arenas relative to these two specific case studies.

As utopic imaginings of urban space, architectural rumors serve a number of key, and at times inter-connected, objectives:

(1) They promote a city and/or country as an emerging destination rivaling that of its global competitors. This works toward attracting foreign investment dollars and boosting the local economy, whether for the specific rumored project itself or for others that will benefit indirectly from the promises of that project.
(2) They work to engender public complacency by informing local populations that their nation is prosperous and globally competitive. This has the potential to legitimize the government, especially under relatively fraught, authoritarian circumstances – something that is particularly important during periods of nation building. At the same time, such projects can buttress the legitimacy of the ruling elite by depicting them as generous purveyors of philanthropy to the country, however disingenuous are such efforts. Citizens are shown images of Azerbaijan as an emerging global actor, implicitly reminding them that any personal discomfort should be seen as necessary sacrifice for achieving a greater nationalistic cause.
(3) Tied to the first two points, architectural rumors financially and ideologically support specific key individuals behind the country’s growth machine, affording them great personal wealth, notoriety, and power. These projects allow elites to financially speculate on real estate and receive government loans in order to do so. On a personal level, architectural rumors perform akin to bragging and function as a type of proof of group membership for the elite ring of politico-economic actors in Baku’s real estate sector.
(4) For projects that remain as rumors and that are never built, the above three objectives can be accomplished while avoiding many of the costs and uncertainties surrounding the realization of a megaproject. The costs of actual project construction are avoided and technical construction issues associated with the engineering complexity of such proposals are bypassed. There is also no risk of the project prematurely going out of fashion, becoming a poor investment, or failing to live up to customer demands. In sum, the project is incapable of failing in any of the traditional architectural senses because it is never actually built.

Arena one: architectural rumors in media

One of the greatest arenas for the international circulation of architectural rumors is in design-related media. This includes design-specific newspapers, magazines, and journals showcasing architecture and design culture, as well as the news, travel, and design sections of popular media outlets. The announcement of the Zira Island master plan in a number of design magazines exemplifies this phenomenon. The website Inhabitat described the project as such:

Located in the bay of the capital city Baku, Zira Island is a ferry ride away from a growing metropolis and will stand as an example to a region so dependent on oil, that it is possible to live off the wind and the sun. (Meinhold 2009Meinhold, Bridgette2009. “Azerbaijan’s Carbon Neutral Zira Island.” Inhabitat, February 2. Accessed August 14, 2017. [Google Scholar]) (emphasis added)

In a two-part feature covering Baku’s futuristic architecture, including both the Zira Island and Khazar Island projects, the personal website of Architectural Digest correspondent Anna Kovalchenko, gushes about how “it looks like Baku, Azerbaijan seriously has taken the route to becoming the most ultra-modern city in the region” (Futuristic Architecture of Baku, Part 2: New Incredible Projects 2013“Futuristic Architecture of Baku, Part 2: New Incredible Projects”. 2013L’essenziale. March 2. Accessed August 14, 2017. [Google Scholar]). Similarly, DesignBoom declared, “unlike some of the extravagant development in the Middle East, this new development takes the particular climate of the area into account, hoping to pave the way for future eco-conscious projects” (Archer 2009Archer, Nate2009. “BIG Architects: ZIRA Island Masterplan.” Designboom. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]). Fast Company states that “compared to the eco-smashing excesses of the equally futuristic artificial islands built and planned in Dubai, the intentions for Zira Island appear to really be clean and green” (Eaton 2009Eaton, Rik2009. “Azerbijan’s Futuristic Eco-Island Plans.” Fast Company. March 2. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]). Here, Azerbaijan is framed as surpassing its rival global cities and becoming an even greater paradigm for responsible sustainable and eco-friendly architectural development. Since it is not in keeping with the agendas of such media outlets, there is no mention of the country’s high levels of social inequality, corruption, and human rights violations, painting an entirely uneven impression of the living conditions in Azerbaijan.The overwhelming majority of media outlets, however, simply replicated the text descriptions provided by project press releases, quoting large passages verbatim and offering no critical interpretation.55. For example, such is the case with the posts on ArchDaily; and Dezeen all notes Thus, how “constant irrigation and fertilizing of the island supports the lush green condition of a tropical island, with a minimal ecological footprint,” could be found referenced dozens of times (Holding 2009Holding, Avrositi2009. “Zira Islan Project Website.” Accessed August 11, 2017. [Google Scholar]). However, none of the editorials questioned how this might work within Azerbaijan’s existing high levels of soil toxicity and water pollution. Similarly, there are no present-day images of the city of Baku in the project announcements. Particularly in the design articles mentioned above, the only images shown are artificial computer renderings, many of them hazily illuminated at night and conveying no sense of reality in the city.

The publication dates of these articles also vary greatly from the initial date of the project announcement. For example, on 24 June 2013, the design website eVolo released the article “Zira Island is Central Asia’s First Carbon Neutral Master Plan in Baku, Azerbaijan,” over four years after the project was first announced (Marija 2013Marija, Bojovic2013. “Zira Island is Central Asia’s First Carbon Neutral Master Plan in Baku, Azerbaijan.” Evolo, June 24. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]). Even later, 88DesignBox, an online magazine of architecture, interiors, and home design, announced the Zira Island project on 27 February 2015, a full six years after its initial announcement and well after it was clear to our interviewed Azeri intellectuals (journalists, academics, architects, and engineers) that the project would not be realized (Zira Island Masterplan 2015Zira Island Masterplan. 201588designbox. February 27. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]). The updated recirculation of the project proposal in the media supports the rumor of it continuing to be a genuine development in-the-making, despite the perpetual lack of project commencement. Field research by the authors in June 2016 revealed absolutely no sign of construction related to the BIG Master Plan on Boyuk Nargin (Zira Island). Instead, through information obtained from the operators of freight shipping services that travel past the island, it was revealed that the site continues to be used for industrial-scale natural gas extraction. The confusion surrounding the project’s status – even in the face of determined investigation – underscores how once an architectural rumor begins circulating, it is very difficult to disprove.

The specific project element of the Khazar Islands that has afforded Azerbaijan the most branding support as an architectural rumor is the USD 2 billion, 1050 m Azerbaijan Tower, which Business Insider Magazine boasts as being 27% taller than Dubai’s Burj Khalifa (Taylor 2012Taylor, Adam2012. “Forget the Burj–Azerbaijan is Planning to Build the World’s Next Tallest Building.” Business Insider, January 26. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]). Between the Khazar Islands’ original construction announcement in 2010 and 2018, headlines describing how the world’s tallest building has been planned for Azerbaijan appeared in news outlets as diverse as The Otago Daily TimesThe New York TimesReuters IndiaBusiness InsiderTime, and the International Business Times. Each underscores the currency of architectural rumors in news outlets and shows the diversity of the type of news provider (from business newspapers to international affairs sections) in which they circulate.

One more area where news outlets provide a lot of agency for architectural rumors is through their persistent announcement of false project construction dates. An article in The New York Times stated that construction on Zira Island is expected to begin in 2010 (Brass 2009Brass, Kevin2009. “Design Unveiled for Sprawling Eco-Complex on Island off Azerbaijan.” The New York times, March 18. Accessed February 10, 2017. [Google Scholar]). An investment news site also stated that construction would commence in 2010 and that the project would “be built in stages, with completion due in 8 to 12 years” (Zero-carbon Living on Zira Island 2009Zero-carbon Living on Zira Island. 2009The Edge Markets. June 21. Accessed August 11, 2017. [Google Scholar]). Yet none of these timelines could be verified and none are mentioned on the official project websites. Similarly, local Azeri news expressed great confidence in the project timeline for the Khazar Islands. An article from 25 December 2012 leads with the title “First residents will settle in Khazar Islands in 2014” (2012“First Residents Will Settle in Khazar Islands in 2014.”. 2012Today.AZ. , December 25. Accessed August 13, 2017 [Google Scholar]), and only later inside the body of text is it clarified that this is an optimistic statement from the development company’s president. Nine months before this, the state-controlled Azernews carried the confident title, “First phase of Khazar Islands project to be accomplished by May,” another project deadline that was not realized (First Phase of Khazar Islands Project to be Accomplished by May 2014“First Phase of Khazar Islands Project to be Accomplished by May”. 2014Azernews. , April 22. Accessed August 13, 2017 [Google Scholar]).

Rumors also circulated in local and international press regarding who would invest in the construction of the Khazar Islands. Over multiple years, investors from countries as disparate as Canada (Orujova 2013Orujova, Nigar2013. “Canada to Lend $4 Bln for Khazar Islands Project.” Azernews, March 4. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]), China (Chinese Investors Have Agreed to Invest $12.5 bn in Khazar Islands Construction Project 2015“Chinese Investors Have Agreed to Invest $12.5 bn in Khazar Islands Construction Project.” 2015Abc.AZ. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]), and The Czech Republic (Orujova 2014aOrujova, Nigar2014a. “Czech Company to Build Artificial Islands in Azerbaijan.” Azernews, October 31. Accessed August 12, 2017. [Google Scholar]) were named in the media as being stakeholders. Various other news pieces announced a range of “interested” investors from around the globe, including from Turkey (Ahmedov 2012Ahmedov, Ali2012. “One of the Biggest Investors of Turkey is Interested in Khazar Islands Project.” APA.AZ. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]) and the United States (“Khazar İslands” Project Arouses Great Interest in USA 2014“Khazar İslands” Project Arouses Great Interest in USA”. 2014Azertac. December 17. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]) in order to attract further capital to the project. In one particularly confusing example of an architectural rumor circulating in local Azeri news, a 12 July 2012 article from Today.Az titled “Qatar Interested in Khazar Islands Project” describes investment interest in the Khazar Islands, but features an adjacent incorrect picture of the Zira Island proposal (Qatar Interested in Khazar Islands Project 2012Qatar Interested in Khazar Islands Project. 2012Today.AZ, July 12. Accessed August 14, 2017. [Google Scholar]).

Arena two: architectural rumors on project and team websites

Many of the architectural rumors discussed above originate on the websites of the project design teams and developers. They are then copied and presented as new pseudo-news announcements elsewhere. Both Zira Island and the Khazar Islands have their own project websites that provide project information.66. all notes The continued operation of these websites alone stands as a form of perpetual rumor circulation, as it attenuates skepticism about possible project cancellations. In line with this, the undated “News” section of the Khazar Island website leads with the statement, “construction of the Khazar Islands, a new city to be built by Avesta on artificial islands, is in full swing” (Concern 2011Concern, Avestia2011. “Khazar Islands Project Website.” Accessed August 11, 2017. [Google Scholar]). Features from the news section of Avesta Concern’s website similarly include updates related to prominent visitors to the project site, such as the Iranian Deputy Minister and the Italian Ambassador, while not providing any actual information about the development of the project itself. Revealingly, the photos accompanying these prominent visits show officials overlooking a scale model of the project or sitting in its sales office since there is not much of a project site to visit.

Similarly, visitors to the Zira Island website can navigate through sections providing information on the project’s vision, sustainability approach, and design team. A PDF project book is also available for free download, and there is a three-and-a-half-minute film with flyover footage and animated diagrams explaining how the new buildings have inherited their sustainable mountainous forms. The architect’s and engineer’s websites identically replicate much of this information and visuals about the project (Riemann 2009Riemann, Lars Ostenfeld2009. “Zira Island Master Plan.” Ramboll.Com, Accessed August 13. [Google Scholar]). All feature the same design narrative and particularly replicate how, “as a young post-Soviet democracy, Azerbaijan is rediscovering its national identity by imagining Zira Island as an architectural landscape based upon the country’s dramatic natural setting” (Holding 2009Holding, Avrositi2009. “Zira Islan Project Website.” Accessed August 11, 2017. [Google Scholar]). The resulting message of this architectural rumor is that Azerbaijan is a model nation and a true democracy, one that is rising to become an excellent leader in environmental design. This stands in contrast to the fact that since independence Azerbaijan has possessed one of the worst environmental degradation and human rights records of all the post-Soviet countries (Freedom House 2015Freedom House. 2015. “Azerbaijan Country Report: Freedom of the Press 2015.” Accessed November 11, 2017. [Google Scholar]; Transparency International 2016Transparency International. 2016. “Country Profiles.” Accessed September 9, 2017. [Google Scholar]; Amnesty International 2017Amnesty International. 2017. “AZERBAIJAN 2016/2017.” Accessed January 10, 2018. [Google Scholar]).

The rebranding of Azerbaijan away from its legacy of oil production is also brought to attention on the corporate website of the project’s engineering firm, Ramboll (Riemann 2009Riemann, Lars Ostenfeld2009. “Zira Island Master Plan.” Ramboll.Com, Accessed August 13. [Google Scholar]). Elsewhere, Ramboll’s Group Director of Buildings & Design, Lars Ostenfeld Riemann is quoted as saying:

Zira Island will be an important step into the future of urban development in the Caucasus and Central Asia. By the help of the wind, the sun and the waste the Island will produce the same amount of energy as it consumes. In a society literately built on oil, this will serve as a showcase for a new way of thinking sustainable planning.(Etherington 2009Etherington, Rose2009. “Zira Island Masterplan by BIG.” Dezeen. January 30. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]) (emphasis added)

Coming from a professional authority on sustainable design, these comments do much to legitimize the growth machine of Baku while reiterating the engineering firm’s own expertise. Although the Bjarke Ingels Group website identifies the project’s status as “Idea” (Bjarke Ingels Group 2009Bjarke Ingels Group. 2009. “Zira Island Masterplan.” Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]), Ramboll makes no mention of the project as unrealized. It instead lists only the “Services Provided,” giving the impression that the project may have already been completed (Riemann 2009Riemann, Lars Ostenfeld2009. “Zira Island Master Plan.” Ramboll.Com, Accessed August 13. [Google Scholar]). In a similar fashion, the Khazar Islands website uses relative timeframes such as “a year ago” and “nowadays” without providing any concrete reference dates (Concern 2011Concern, Avestia2011. “Khazar Islands Project Website.” Accessed August 11, 2017. [Google Scholar]). The text on the website also uses slippery language that sometimes makes it sound as though the project is already a reality. Website visitors learn how the “Khazar Islands are the gateway to a new life” and how “In a city like this, the benefits of civilization ally with nature; the harmonious combination of environmental security, esthetics, and cutting-edge technology make this an ideal place for both family and successful business” (Concern 2011Concern, Avestia2011. “Khazar Islands Project Website.” Accessed August 11, 2017. [Google Scholar]).

Arena three: architectural rumors in exhibitions

Only a few weeks after the January 2009 Zira Island project announcement, the design was already being featured in an exhibition chronicling the work of its architect, Bjarke Ingels Group. Titled “Yes is More,” the much-celebrated event showcased the work of the firm in their home city of Copenhagen, Denmark at the Danish Architecture Center between 21 February and 31 May 2009. It was the first solo exhibition of the firm’s portfolio and included a large quantity of content, ranging from 30 project models to 19 animated films and a 130 m long portfolio comic strip (Jordana 2010Jordana, Sebastian2010. “YES IS MORE Exhibition: An Archicomic on Architectural Evolution.” ArchDaily, June 16. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]). Featured prominently in the center of the floor space of the exhibition was the large illuminated master plan model of Zira Island with all seven of its mountain-inspired buildings. A year later, the exhibition traveled on to Bordeaux, France, where “Yes is More” was exhibited at the Arc en Rêve between June and November 2010. The content of the exhibition was later compiled into a book published by Taschen under the same “Yes is More” name (Ingels 2010Ingels, Bjarke2010Yes is More: An Archicomic on Architectural EvolutionLondonTaschen. [Google Scholar]).

Just as the original Zira Island proposal had done, news of the “Yes is More” exhibition and images of its content began circulating widely in online design publications (Jordana 2010Jordana, Sebastian2010. “YES IS MORE Exhibition: An Archicomic on Architectural Evolution.” ArchDaily, June 16. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]). The exhibition announcement on DesignBoom featured the image of the Zira Island model but with no caption to identify it as an unrealized design (Kim 2010Kim, Erika2010. “BIG Architects: Yes is More Exhibition.” Designboom, June 30. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]). It is in this fashion that the initial architectural rumor of the Zira Island Masterplan gained greater legitimacy through its repeated circulation. As with the original proposal announcement, there was no contextual information discussing the city’s social, political, or environmental conditions.

If the “Yes is More” exhibition was tailored toward attracting the particular attention of design professionals and members of the public interested in art and architecture, then the simultaneous displaying of the Zira Island project at the Cityscape Abu Dhabi exhibition in April 2009 targeted an alternative audience of international investors. Cityscape is an annual real estate event taking place in Abu Dhabi, UAE that includes real estate exhibitions, seminars, and conferences. It is attended by government representatives, consultants, and architects, as well as international real estate professionals. In 2009, the event attracted over 30,000 attendees from 34 different countries. Beyond an arena for showcasing real estate, Cityscape Abu Dhabi features an awards ceremony with eight categories of project recognition. It assigns awards to both architects and developers. As of 2016, the awards now further distinguish between “built” and “future projects,” but this was not the case in 2009 when the Zira Island Master Plan was shortlisted for an award. The ability for a highly speculative design proposal to receive award attention in a real estate forum speaks to the benefits of producing radically innovative, yet mostly infeasible proposals as a means of improving the branded image of a country. The award performs as a source of exterior validation not only to the quality of the design but also to the host-city and nation.

Arena four: architectural rumors on billboards, in sponsorships, and local advertising

The first three arenas for the circulation of architectural rumors have been mainly focused on online forums and the impact of designs on international audiences. Yet, architectural rumors also circulate throughout the physical spaces of their host cities on billboards, at pubic events, and through word-of-mouth. Local event sponsorships by project developers can serve as an additional opportunity to normalize the rumors of future megaprojects in passing.

For example, the 2014 Miss Globe International Contest was hosted in Azerbaijan by Avesta Concern, and the Khazar Islands are listed as a prime sponsor for the event (Orujova 2014bOrujova, Nigar2014b. “Miss Globe International Contest Comes to Azerbaijan.” Azernews, May 15. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]). Promotional material for the beauty contest even directly featured marketing support for the project. One of the main official slogans for the event was, “Go to Azerbaijan to see the venue for the tallest building in the world!” while another slogan declared more broadly, “Witness the history!!” (Miss Globe International 2014Miss Globe International. 2014. “Results Information.” Miss Globe International. Accessed August 14, 2017. [Google Scholar]). Physical posters used to promote the event around Baku carried a number of related images complementing these slogans. While a few simply featured an image of the previous year’s winner, Brazilian Jakelyne Oliveira De Silva, others contained a silhouette of the Khazar Islands’ future Azerbaijan Tower. These posters were displayed around Baku for two months and were also shown in Istanbul, Turkey on billboards and metrobus lines . A local news article from 15 May 2014 announcing Azerbaijan’s hosting of the Miss Globe International Contest states, “world-known Khazar Islands is a general sponsor of the project” (Orujova 2014bOrujova, Nigar2014b. “Miss Globe International Contest Comes to Azerbaijan.” Azernews, May 15. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]). Here, the reader is not only reminded of the purported concrete existence of the Khazar Islands, but also informed that the project developer, Ibrahim Ibrahimov, is an active philanthropist.

Two of the local intellectuals interviewed during fieldwork described at length how Ibrahimov worked perpetually to bolster his local image and authority, relying heavily on the ostentatiousness of the Khazar Islands and his role in transforming Baku to afford him local respect. Billboards for the Khazar Islands have likewise been featured across Baku for years. Some are now starting to show signs of physical deterioration. Their poor condition is an early signal of the future collapse of this architectural rumor. In contrast, there was less local advertising of the Zira Island proposal, which only had a few months of video promotion on social media and local television. The reasons why local billboards supporting the Zira Island project were not utilized could not be identified.

An eco-chamber of rumors

In keeping with the broader nature of spoken rumors, architectural rumors gain much of their currency from repeated circulation, elaboration, obfuscation, and combination with other rumors. Amidst the chaos of all the actual real estate development underway in Azerbaijan, it is easy for unrealized proposals to be mistaken as genuinely underway, particularly by an international audience that lacks local exposure. This is supported by the fact that media releases for new projects in Baku have a propensity to mention in passing other megaprojects being built in the city. For example, a local AzerNews article boasting the architectural success of the completed Flame Towers in Baku further describes the Khazar Islands as invariably being one of the city’s next big architectural successes (Dadashova 2013Dadashova, Gulgiz2013. “Architectural Pearl of Baku Named ‘Best Hotel and Tourist Center.” AzerNews, April 30. Accessed November 10, 2017. [Google Scholar]). As such, architectural rumors rely on one another to amplify a false sense of hype and real estate prosperity across the city. The long-term development periods associated with megaprojects are a key factor that affords early design-phase rumors power. Megaprojects typically take years to complete and have very few visual clues in the early phases, which are usually focused on excavation and earth mounding.

The compounding of architectural rumors occurs not just within a city, where one project leads the way and provides an investment lure for subsequent others. It can also take place internationally, as projects get grouped thematically or categorized based on their geographic locations. Architectural rumors about the tallest buildings in the world circulate together and support one another, clustering development in cities such as New York, Shanghai, Dubai, and Kuala Lumpur with new development in Baku. Likewise, innovative sustainable development master plans are published together and juxtaposed based on their various environmental attributes, leading to the Zira Island master plan being compared to other eco-city projects like Dongtan in China and Masdar in Abu Dhabi (Riemann 2009Riemann, Lars Ostenfeld2009. “Zira Island Master Plan.” Ramboll.Com, Accessed August 13. [Google Scholar]). The sheer global breadth of locations pandering to megaprojects as a vehicle toward their global legitimization makes it highly unlikely that news readers will ever be in a position to thoroughly verify their degree of final completion, or the amount of deviation they possess from the proposed design.


Through an analysis of the project designs for the Zira Island and Khazar Islands master plans in Baku, Azerbaijan, this paper has described how the commodification of design proposals is distinct in its political and economic agency from that of built projects. It further argued that the agency of outlandish design proposals to promote urban boosterism and regime security can be preferable to that of realizing such high-cost, technically complex, and rapidly obsolete projects. Given the fleeting half-life of superlatives in design, where projects can loose their titles of “largest,” “tallest,” and “first” even before their construction is complete, the power of architecture and urban design to legitimize governments and to assert a nation’s role on the international stage is increasingly focusing attention on schematic design phases. Here, the use of dramatic architectural imagery to legitimate and brand a nation is reciprocated by the use of regime money to legitimate and brand the architectural and engineering firms behind their designs.

Each of the four arenas through which architectural rumors circulate were shown to target slightly different audiences. Arena One’s design publications overwhelmingly targeted designers, investors, and the general public. This arena worked to alert design professionals to the types of megaprojects that they might inevitably end up producing in the future, and to draw investors’ attention toward new project opportunities. Arena One further perpetuated a culture of consequence-free design speculation focused on the fashion of esthetics more than architecture’s capacity for social transformation. Local news articles directed toward mass public audiences worked as a source of soft propaganda – both domestically and abroad – conveying Azerbaijan as a thriving modern democracy and global economic player.

For Arena Two, the circulation of architectural rumors on project and team websites targeted a very broad audience. It included everyone from the general public to prospective real estate investors. The content producers of Arena One’s media outlets are also the targets of Arena Two’s project and team websites, since this is where most of their published content is extracted from. Local news releases further perpetuated a sense of development anticipation to be shared among the local population, albeit one that risked turning into fatigue and cynicism when overused. Arena Three specifically targeted developers, investors, and architects, using exhibitions as a space to inflate the rumored reputation of a project while also soliciting investment. Likewise, the final arena of physical billboards, local sponsorships, and advertisings showed how architectural rumors could be normalized though their circulation within the public life of their host cities.

In considering the compounding effects of these four rumor arenas, it was shown how megaprojects and architectural rumors work together to create broader investment fervor, as it becomes a challenge to differentiate between what is actually being constructed and what is not in a city. As long as images are circulating and cranes are erected, the promise of new things to come can live on.

Architectural rumors seek to be economically effective by captivating prospective investors through images of Baku’s bright future of development. If convincing, they turn artificial hype into actual development investment. This leads to the more challenging question of what the actual cost is of circulating architectural rumors. In the face of the many existing failed and under-utilized megaprojects around the world, such as those produced for Olympic games, theme parks, and shopping experiences,77. For example, Athens and Rio have been struggling with underused mega-event related infrastructure (Mangan 2008Mangan, James A.2008. “Prologue: Guarantees of Global Goodwill: Post-Olympic Legacies – Too Many Limping White Elephants?” The International Journal of the History of Sport25: 18691883.10.1080/09523360802496148[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar]; Boukas, Ziakas, and Boustras 2013Boukas, NikolaosVassilios Ziakas, and Georgios Boustras2013. “Olympic Legacy and Cultural Tourism: Exploring the Facets of Athens’ Olympic Heritage.” International Journal of Heritage Studies 19: 203228.10.1080/13527258.2011.651735[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Kaiser 2017Kaiser, Anna Jean2017. “Legacy of Rio Olympics So Far is Series of Unkept Promises.” The New York times, February 15. Accessed August 14, 2017. [Google Scholar]), while Chinese cities are facing the new problem of ghost towns with empty residential complexes or gigantic shopping malls (Banerji and Jackson 2012Banerji, Robin, and Patrick Jackson2012. “China’s Ghost Towns and Phantom Malls.” BBC. Accessed August 14, 2017. [Google Scholar]; Wang et al. 2015Wang, Xin-RuiEddie Chi-Man HuiCharlesChoguill, and Sheng-Hua Jia2015. “The New Urbanization Policy in China: Which Way Forward?” Habitat International47: 279284.10.1016/j.habitatint.2015.02.001[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).View all notes it may not be entirely bad that some proposals advance no further than the rumor stage. Still, large amounts of state capital are consumed producing and circulating architectural rumors, and such projects work to exacerbate already precarious conditions of real estate speculation and government corruption.

Ideologically, architectural rumors also bear costs, as they risk portraying nations as more inclusive and prosperous than they are in reality. Such obfuscation builds up the hopes of local residents for a better, more desirable future – a future that may never come or that has not taken their needs into consideration. Clearly, any approach to attracting investment and building population consent that is founded on falsities will have a limited lifespan. As with all rumors, there exists a particular tension in the ongoing deployment of architectural rumors. In order to compete globally, a city cannot get away with only circulating promises while constructing nothing. There needs to be at least a core of new projects to substantiate rumored claims. But within that flexible and ambiguous space between reality and rumor there exists much room for elaboration and fabrication in a manner that bolsters the city’s branded image without relying upon final construction.

As the initial two sections of this paper have shown, the production of architectural imagery has always been a projective and somewhat utopic endeavor – one relying heavily on esthetic, financial, and programmatic imaginings of a best-case scenario in order to carry forward their designs. Today, despite the overwhelming desire of the Azerbaijani Government to be dissociated from its Soviet past, much of the ideological foundations of state-sponsored utopia communicated through architecture carry forward from these earlier periods. If Azerbaijan is to truly advance past the challenges of its history through new development, there will need to be genuine initiatives undertaken to implement state reforms and to reduce urban boosterism. Paradoxically, only after the country switches its focus from architectural rumors toward more concrete political reforms may the type of utopic futures envisioned actually have a chance at becoming reality.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.


The authors would like to thank Bruce Grant and Anar Valiyev, as well as the journal editors and reviewers, for their thoughtful comments and support toward this article.


1. All interviews have been left anonymous due to personal privacy concerns for the interviewees. Those interviewed were primarily members of the country’s intellectual class, including architects, engineers, journalists and academics, ranging from 26 to 55 years of age. They are all lifetime residents of Baku and are actively interested in events linked to its ongoing politics and urban development.

2. For example, see, The Guardian, “Unbuilt Moscow: The ‘New Soviet’ City that Never Was” (Rogers 2017Rogers, Alexandra2017. “Unbuilt Moscow: The ‘New Soviet’ City That Never Was.” The Guardian, March 8. Accessed August 14, 2017. [Google Scholar]).

3. Images of the project proposal are available online at

4. Here, it is particularly the use of images of the world’s tallest building and Formula One race track that serve as rumors on the project.

5. For example, such is the case with the posts on ArchDaily; and Dezeen


7. For example, Athens and Rio have been struggling with underused mega-event related infrastructure (Mangan 2008Mangan, James A.2008. “Prologue: Guarantees of Global Goodwill: Post-Olympic Legacies – Too Many Limping White Elephants?” The International Journal of the History of Sport25: 18691883.10.1080/09523360802496148[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar]; Boukas, Ziakas, and Boustras 2013Boukas, NikolaosVassilios Ziakas, and Georgios Boustras2013. “Olympic Legacy and Cultural Tourism: Exploring the Facets of Athens’ Olympic Heritage.” International Journal of Heritage Studies 19: 203228.10.1080/13527258.2011.651735[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Kaiser 2017Kaiser, Anna Jean2017. “Legacy of Rio Olympics So Far is Series of Unkept Promises.” The New York times, February 15. Accessed August 14, 2017. [Google Scholar]), while Chinese cities are facing the new problem of ghost towns with empty residential complexes or gigantic shopping malls (Banerji and Jackson 2012Banerji, Robin, and Patrick Jackson2012. “China’s Ghost Towns and Phantom Malls.” BBC. Accessed August 14, 2017. [Google Scholar]; Wang et al. 2015Wang, Xin-RuiEddie Chi-Man HuiCharlesChoguill, and Sheng-Hua Jia2015. “The New Urbanization Policy in China: Which Way Forward?” Habitat International47: 279284.10.1016/j.habitatint.2015.02.001[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).


Memory Politics in Tbilisi

Published in the Journal of Conflict Transformation  Feb. 2018

Identity Construction and the Politics of Memory

The collapse of the Soviet Union brought to the creation of 15 independent states that faced the necessity to construct their new identity – both internally and externally. The latter would pave the way to joining the “international community”. “To some extent, identities create opportunities and constraints for foreign policy-making, and also frame relations between countries.”[1]

The identity construction of a new state is a complex process requiring special instruments. Modern political communities use a collectively shared notion of the past as one of the main tools. Appealing to the past is a convenient instrument and resource for the legitimization of the existing political order. How the shared past is conceptualized and processed constitutes the politics of memory within a society.

In its turn, the politics of memory uses various instruments for the construction of a shared notion of the past. The official historical narrative is the principal of such instruments and is complemented, disseminated, and popularized by others. Among them, nation-wide holidays and commemoration days, school programs, national symbols, the creation of memorial sites and museums are the most efficient tools for the instrumentalization of the past and the construction of the state’s official narrative of history.

Undoubtedly, in this process those who carry out and experience the politics of memory have to deal with the heritage of the previous periods as well. “The history of most post-Soviet countries is characterized by the rise and triumph of nationalism and a radical revision of approaches to the history writing that dominated in the previous periods.”[2]Across the post-Soviet space, these revisions brought an overhaul of not only the official historical narratives but also the entire memory landscapes of the societies. This analysis looks into the post-Soviet transformations of the memory landscape in Tbilisi by re-visiting its memorial sites and monuments.

Georgia: History Revaluation

Caucasus Edition

The area of today’s Rike Park in the Soviet period. Electronic copy of the photograph obtained from the National Archives of Georgia.

Georgia was one of the first countries that gained independence from the Soviet Union. Ever since, the state is seeking to form its identity. Like virtually every former Soviet Union country, Georgia started a revaluation of history as part of this quest. The political elites had to provide a memory project aimed at establishing a new foundation narrative, or a new “story” of beginnings, bringing back the “lost” historical memory[3]. The revaluation of history manifested also in commemoration policies and the memory landscape. Before delving into the examination of memorial sites and monuments in Tbilisi, let’s look at a few milestone events catalyzing this revaluation of history.

From Shevardnadze to Saakashvili

In Georgia, due to the chaotic political processes of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, a new state politics of memory was not systematic or targeted. The ethno-political conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia followed by their independence claims as well as the economic and political crises in the country drew all efforts towards policies aimed at stability. Consequently, in the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union, neither attention nor resources were directed towards conceptualizing and implementing a new politics of memory.

The shaky times of the first decade of independence unfolded under the rule of one of the most prominent Soviet politicians Eduard Shevardnadze, who used to be the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union. This period ended with the so-called Rose Revolution highlighted by massive protests against the results of the 2003 parliamentary election, skewed in favor of political parties supporting Shevardnadze. The name of the Rose Revolution derives from the culminating moment of the protests, when demonstrators led by Mikheil Saakashvili stormed the Parliament session with red roses in hands. Shevardnadze resigned in November 2003, and Mikheil Saakashvili won the presidential elections.

The Rose Revolution

The Rose Revolution and the developments that followed marked a new direction for the independent Georgian state. The Saakashvili government made an unambiguous choice to prioritize integration with Western institutions and adoption of its system of values. As Saakashvili took the presidential office, the politics of memory emerged as the key instrument for constructing a new, modern, and pro-Western Georgia.

History was the first target of revision. The events of the eras of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union were reassessed, reinterpreted, and revised. Even though since 2003 Georgia has changed 3 presidents and even switched from the presidential system to the parliamentary system, the politics of memory of the country remains sufficiently consistent. Perhaps the August 2008 war was the next milestone cementing this politics.

The August 2008 War

The August 2008 war played a crucial role in the formation of the new Georgian identity and became a catalyzer for the revision of history. The August 2008 events were perhaps the junction point where not only the relations between Russia and Georgia split into periods of “before” and “after”, but the entire Georgian politics of memory and identity.

It is true that starting from the early 1990s, Georgia’s major foreign policy objective has been balancing Russian power and influence, which is seen as key to enhancing the country’s national security. Yet this foreign policy was the result of the quest, driven by political elites, for a new national identity rather than pragmatic considerations[4]. Thus, the 5-day war of 2008 was a “logical” extension of the Georgian identity-driven foreign policy struggling to be within Western and Euro-Atlantic spheres of influence, contrary to Russia’s aspirations to keep Georgia in its own zone of influence. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, the events of August 2008 reinforced this identity-driven foreign policy. The Georgian politics of identity and memory turned into a radical rejection of the country’s Soviet past and of any Russian influence at large.

One of the consequences of the war was the adoption in May 2011 of the Charter of Freedom with three main tenets: strengthening national security, prohibiting Soviet and Fascist ideologies and eliminating any symbols associated with them, and eventually creating a special commission to maintain a black-list of persons suspected of collusion with foreign special forces.

These events both influenced the emergence of a new politics of memory and were influenced by it. Moreover, their reverberations spread across the physical appearance of Tbilisi. As we view the transformations of the post-Soviet memory landscape, manifested in the memorial sites and monuments of Tbilisi, we have considered both those created in the Soviet period and those constructed in the independence period.

Soviet Memorial Sights of Tbilisi

The 70 years of Soviet rule had a huge impact on the political, economic, and cultural domains of life in all Soviet Republics as well as the countries of the communist bloc. Bolsheviks, coming to power after the fall of the Russian Empire and the emergence of another empire – the Soviet Union, started creating a new cultural heritage that would reflect the communist view on political and social structures, their meanings and functions. The memory landscape and urban environment of the Soviet Union were the direct projections of the prevailing political system and its values. And of course, Tbilisi was not an exception.

As everywhere else in the communist world, in Tbilisi too there sprung up monuments bearing the mark of the Soviet political and social system. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the meaning of those monuments and even their very construction was revised.

“[…] it is not a surprise that during times of political turbulence and change, some of the monuments gain an extra meaning and significance and become objects symbolizing or externalizing societal dynamics and changes.”[5]

The extra meaning and significance of monuments in times of political turbulence can mean both the construction and celebration of new ones as well as the destruction and demise of old ones. The early 1990’s was a period of Georgia’s release from the Soviet past and many monuments embodying the Soviet culture were dismantled from Tbilisi. The Rose Revolution and the August 2008 war brought a new wave of revolutionary changes to the urban environment of Tbilisi.

And yet, despite all the effort of the new Georgian political system to erase the legacy of the Soviet past, rather than to deal with the past, there is still political, social, and cultural memory that persists. And of course, there are still monuments of Tbilisi that date back to the Soviet times. In the new political system, these monuments gain new interpretations, meanings, and significance for the Georgian society.

We have examined two monuments erected during the Soviet times, preserved until now, and – in our opinion – significant for their social and political value. We have looked at how they have been reframed within the modern political system of Georgia and the construction of the new Georgian identity.

The Mother of Georgia Monument on the Sololaki Hill

The monument Mother of Georgia or Kartlis Deda was designed by sculptor Elguja Amashukeli and erected on the top of the Sololaki hill in 1958, the year Tbilisi celebrated its 1500th anniversary. The 20-meter-tall aluminum statue, wearing a Georgian national dress and holding a cup of wine in one hand and a sword in the other, is said to symbolize the Georgian national character; wine stands for hospitality and the sword represents every Georgian’s strive for freedom.

The notion of a “mother of the nation” and embodiment of this notion into a monument of a woman is not unique to Georgia; many states of the former Soviet Union have the very same statue. Moreover, these statues are all in the style of socialist realism hovering over Kiev, Volgograd, Yerevan, and other cities of the post-Soviet space.

Caucasus Edition

The “Mother Armenia” monument in Yerevan, Armenia. Photo Credits: Tatev Bidzhoyan.

Caucasus Edition

“The Motherland Calls” monument in Volgograd, Russia. Photo Credits: Yuliya Drachenko, taken from

Caucasus Edition

“The Motherland” monument in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo Credits: Maria Karapetyan.

Nevertheless, the modern Georgian society by and large does not perceive Kartlis Deda as a cultural remnant of the Soviet Union but rather as a collective image of the Georgian people. Not manifesting a specific individual, Kartlis Deda was easily integrated into the new national discourse and is supposed to be a figure that every Georgian could identify themselves with. Mother Georgia is “the most important woman in all Georgia: its protector and a standing definition to others of what Georgia is”[6].

Memorial of Glory in Vake Park

Another colossal monument erected during the very last years of the Soviet Rule, more specifically in 1985, is the Memorial of Glory, dedicated to the 300,000 citizens of Georgia that lost their lives during the years of the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 and the victorious triumph of May 9 over Nazi Germany.

The then Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union Eduard Shevardnadze conceived the idea of the monument, aiming to prove his loyalty to the central Soviet government. This was an effective move since “Victory Day has become the quintessential ritual of a Soviet culture and society in which Russia – or rather, the Russian-speaking world – was presented as its epicenter”[7].

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, pursuing de-Sovietization policies, made efforts to change the meaning of the monument and the significance of the victory day itself. For example, in 2005, he celebrated the victory in World War II, and no longer in reference to the Great Patriotic War, with the US President George Bush in Liberty Square, and not in Vake Park. A further attempt to downplay the Soviet meaning of the monument was the multiple depiction of the modern Georgian flag on the lower part of the monument.

In 2011, in another move aimed at re-focusing attention between historical events, Saakashvili’s government initiated a project that would mount a new memorial in Vake Park, dedicated to the 1924 anti-Soviet riots. The site was to commemorate Kote Abkhazi, a well-known leader of the liberal nobility of Georgia, and his division that the Communist regime shot in Vake Park in 1923[8]. The installation of the monument was planned for February 2012. However, the monument was not erected. The Georgian government that came after the defeat of Mikheil Saakashvili’s political party returned the celebration of the victory in World War II to Vake Park. Nevertheless, in both official and public discourses, the celebration is said to commemorate the victory in World War II, and not in the Great Patriotic War.

Memorial Sites of Modern Tbilisi

Caucasus Edition

The cityscape of Tbilisi from Rike Park. Photo Credits: Katie Sartania.

Modern Tbilisi is a dynamic city with a multi-layer architecture. It is an eclectic mix of the medieval, the imperial, the Soviet, and the modern. The most remarkable monuments of the memory landscape in the capital of independent Georgia were constructed after the 2003 Rose Revolution. The then president Mikheil Saakashvili and his government paid a special attention to the politics of memory and symbols.

We have examined three monuments crowning the city-scape of Tbilisi and that – in our opinion – best illustrate the new politics of memory of independent Georgia.

The Statute of Saint George on Freedome Square

The statue of Saint George tops the column in the middle of Freedom Square in Tbilisi. The square itself, or rather its name, deserves a small excursion into its own layers of transformation. Its name unveils the turns in Georgian history. When Georgia was part of the Russian Empire, the square bore the name of Knyaz Ivan Paskevich-Erivanskiy and was called Erivanskiy Square. This name lasted until the Sovietization of Georgia. In the Soviet era, it was initially named after Lavrentiy Beria and later on renamed after Vladimir Lenin, with his statue erected in the square in 1956. Following Georgia’s independence, the place was renamed Freedom Square. This was the name of the square at the time of the first Georgian republic that existed in 1981-1921, between the fall of the Russian Empire and Sovietization. Despite this change that bridges the old and the new, even today, some of the older residents of Tbilisi call the place Lenin’s Square.

In the place of the dismantled statue of Lenin’s, a new one dedicated to Saint George was mounted on November 23 in 2006. Designed by the well-known Georgian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, the monument embodies Saint George killing a dragon.

In the new political mythology of Georgia, Saint George is not only the patron saint of Georgia and its protector, it is the symbol of Georgia’s fight for freedom and independence. In this new interpretation, the defeated dragon on the monument symbolizes the imperial legacy – both Russian and the Soviet. Hence the monument not only echoes the distant mythological past but also the recent past. Moreover, as literary scholar Zaal Andronikashvili argues, it promises a future victory as well. The mythological past is projected onto the modern political context and foreshadows the future[9].

Heroes Memorial

One more remarkable example of Mikheil Saakashvili’s sophisticated politics of symbols was the opening of the Heroes Memorial on the Heroes Square in 2009 right after the August 2008 war. The 51-meter memorial is dedicated to Georgians who died in the fight against the Red Army in 1921, the anti-Soviet revolt of 1924, the war in Abkhazia in 1992-1993, and the August 2008 war in South Ossetia. Around 4,000 names of soldiers are engraved on the marble tiles of the memorial.

The Heroes Memorial not only fuses together the past events by the mechanism of analogy but also alludes to the future. As former president Saakashvili noted, the memorial is not only for the heroes who have already died for their country but for the heroes who will sacrifice their lives for the country in the future as well. In his speech at the opening ceremony, he made a clear point: “If we want Georgia to exist, we should all be ready to put on this uniform [referring to the military uniform he was wearing]; we should all be ready to take arms in the decisive moment; and we should all be ready to fall on our land and ready to inscribe our names on the empty parts of this monument. That is the genetic code and historic experience of our country and a major guarantee of our future”[10].

Earlier, in 2003, near the same square, another memorial to Georgians fallen in the wars of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was put up again following the initiative of Mikheil Saakashvili who was then the head of the Tbilisi City Council[11].

The opening of both memorials gave two specific messages made by the government of Georgia to its society and the international community. The first message is that Georgia’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity are absolute values. And the second message was about the government’s perception of who is perceived as a threat to those absolute values. The Russian support for the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the 1990s, as well as the August 2008 war followed by the recognition of their independence, contributed most to the formation of the perception of Russia as the number one foe of Georgia.

The Statue of Ronald Reagan in Rike Park

New memorial sites and monuments appeared in Tbilisi not only to mark the distancing from the Soviet past but also to mark new alliances. The relatively new statue of the 40th US President Ronald Reagan is an example of that element of the new politics of memory and symbols in Georgia. Unveiled in November 2011 near the Mtkvari River in Rike Park, the statute depicts Ronald Reagan, sitting on a bench with crossed legs, smiling, and looking off into the distance towards north, perhaps in the direction of Russia? Inscribed on the bench is one of Reagan’s remarkable phrases: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction”.

Following the pattern, Mikheil Saakashvili presented the statue as a symbol of freedom and victory over the biggest evil – the Soviet Union. During his speech on the opening ceremony of the statue he said in reference to the then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s words: “the leader of our invader state has announced that the collapse of the Soviet Union – the Soviet Union that was brought down by Ronald Reagan – was the 20th century’s biggest geopolitical catastrophe. […] While they [Russia] have restored the anthem of the Soviet Union, we are unveiling a statue of Ronald Reagan as a sign of the difference between our ideology and theirs”[12]. Referring to the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union between Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, Mikheil Saakashvili once again associated the Soviet Union with Russia only and made an attempt to distance Georgia from its undesirable past.

Dealing – Away – With the Past

A changing politics of memory is always indicative of a changing political course and is called to justify that course. In this analysis, we looked at a number of memorial sites in Tbilisi both from the soviet and post-Soviet periods, analyzing them from the perspective of the modern Georgian political system, the quest for and construction of a new Georgian identity, and the politics of memory and symbols.

The revaluation of Georgia’s past in the Imperial Russian and Soviet realms, the celebration of freedom and independence, and Georgia’s turn towards a pro-Western path of development are at the core of this politics. Some old monuments that have no hope of surviving in the new system of coordinates are demolished. Others are revised and reinterpreted into the new paradigm. Yet new ones are mounted and unveiled.


[1] Kakachia, Kornely. 2013. “European, Asian, or Eurasian?: Georgian Identity and the struggle for Euro-Atlantic Integration.” In Georgian Foreign Policy: The Quest for Sustainable Security, 41-53.

[2] Kirchanov, Maksim. 2017. “Politics of Memory as Historical Politics in Georgia: From Desovietisation to the Invention of the Sovietness.” Georgia Monitor. Accessed January 6, 2018.

[3] Toria, Malkhaz. 2014. “The Soviet Occupation of Georgia in 1921 and the Russian-Georgian War of August 2008. Historical Analogy as a Memory Project.” In The Making of Modern Georgia, 1918-2012: The First Georgian Republic and Its Successors, edited by Stephen F. Jones, 316-335. New York: Routledge. Accessed January 6, 2018.

[4] Kakachia, Kornely. 2012. “Georgia’s Identity-Driven Foreign Policy and the Struggle for Its European Destiny.” Caucasus Analytical Digest 4-7. Accessed January 6, 2018.

[5] Javakhishvili, Jana. 2016. “Stones Speaking: Reading Conflicting Discourses in the Urban Environment.” Caucasus Analytical Digest 8-11. Accessed January 6, 2018.

[6] Constable, David. 2012. “Kartlis Deda: The Importance of Georgia’s Most Famous Woman‏.” Huffington Post. October 29. Accessed January 6, 2018.

[7] Edwards, Maxim. 2016. “Victory Day in Tbilisi.” Open Democracy. May 10. Accessed January 6, 2018.

[8] 2011. “In Vake Park the Memorial to be Installed in Commemoration of 1924 Riot.” GHN News Agency. August 28. Accessed January 7, 2018.

[9] Andronikashvili, Zaal. 2011. “The Glory of Feebleness. The Martyrological Paradigm in Georgian Political Theology.” In Identity Studies, Volume 3, 92-119. Tbilisi: Ilia State University. Accessed January 7, 2018.

[10] 2010. “Saakashvili Addresses Nation on Independence Day.” Civil.Ge. May 26. Accessed January 7, 2018.

[11] 2004. “В Тбилиси у мемориала воинам, погибшим в боях в Абхазии и Южной Осетии, установлен почетный караул.” Ria Novosti. February 26. Accessed January 7, 2018.

[12] 2011. “Ronald Reagan Statue Unveiled in Tbilisi.” Civil.Ge. November 23. Accessed January 7, 2018.

* This story has been produced with support from the US Embassies in the South Caucasus. The opinions expressed in the publication reflect the point of the view of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the US Embassies.

** All photos of this story were taken by Katie Sartania and Tatev Bidzhoyan unless credited otherwise.

*** This story is part of a series on post-Soviet transformations of the memory landscapes, memorial sites, and monuments in Tbilisi, Yerevan, and Baku.

Designing the Soviet Union

Soviet architecture had diverse and ambitious ideas for transforming the spaces people live, work, and travel in.

An abandoned Soviet-era bus stop in Chiatura, Georgia. orientalizing / Flickr

For the last few years, the best-selling architectural coffee-table books have all shared the same subject: Soviet buildings. They are part of a strange but popular cult, where the ruins of the Soviet Union are contemplated and documented as an alien landscape.Agata Pyzik, in her 2014 diatribe Poor But Sexy, describes this trend as a form of intra-European Orientalism. Books like this year’s success story — Christopher Herwig’s Soviet Bus Stops — explore what she calls an “obsolete ecology,” an irradiated yet magical wasteland, an Urbex paradise littered with wonderfully futuristic ruins. It is a seductive approach, and many Western writers (like me) have joined in.

Herwig’s contribution is a gorgeous example: page after page of bus stops, in an elegant, almost pocket-sized hardback volume, with a terrific design by the Anglo Sovietophile publisher FUEL.

But why bus stops? Because Herwig discovered that the long, straight, often potholed highways that run between the former Soviet Union’s big cities are dotted with hundreds, maybe thousands, of architecturally imaginative bus shelters.

There are none in the cities themselves — urban bus shelters are far more likely to be the sort of metal and glass canopies found in any metropolis. But tiny towns, villages, and hamlets commissioned, through processes that the two introductions to the book manage to leave totally unexplored, a series of exceptionally striking and original designs, in a raw style that combines the local vernacular (Baltic, Central Asian, etc.), concrete futurism (all jagged angles and cantilevers), and bright colors.

It’s fabulous stuff, but to paraphrase Brecht, a photograph of a Soviet bus stop tells us almost nothing about the society that brought it into being.

Tellingly, many of these hit books are made by professional photographers who have chanced upon their subjects — something Herwig shares with the French photographer Frederic Chaubin, author of the smash hit CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed. This means they don’t share the compulsion that an academic or journalist might have to include editorial condemnations of the Soviet Union.

Until recently the subject has produced little good work in the English language. Prewar Soviet architecture has been well-served with studies by the likes of Catherine Cooke, Selim Khan-Magomedov, and Vladimir Paperny, but post-Stalin design has been oddly obscure. However, several recent publications combine the innovation of Soviet aesthetics with excellent writing. There’s no excuse to just stare at pictures of incredible Soviet ruins when there are books that can tell you what they are and why they’re there.

Theory and Practice

Zurab Tsereteli — one of the designers of Herwig’s totally awesome Soviet bus stops —maintained a successful career well into the post-Soviet period. The Russian-based Georgian sculptor shifted from expressive, mosaic-clad organic modernism to a monstrous form of figurative, neo-imperialist sculpture in bronze, leaving a trail of horrors in his wake.

Moscow’s Peter the Great statue is Tsereteli’s most notorious creation, set on its own artificial island. German scholar Philipp Meuser christened this style — which combines late Tsarist, high Stalinist and Las Vegas aesthetics — capitalist realism in other words.

As editor at Dom Publishers, Meuser has been responsible for an impressive program of Soviet and post-Soviet architecture publications. In just the last year, these have included a series of city guides for the Latvian capital Riga, one of the most western of ex-Soviet cities, and for Slavutych, an extraordinary planned city in northern Ukraine designed to rehouse workers displaced by the Chernobyl disaster.

The small housing estates in Slavutych were “donated” by various Soviet republics. You can find a Tallinn Quarter, a Baku Quarter, a Leningrad Quarter and so forth, each reflecting the styles and spatial ideas of their namesake republics. The guide, from Ukrainian architectural historian Ievgeniia Gubkina, strikingly demonstrates how diverse Soviet architecture had become on the eve of its collapse.

However, other recent Dom books, such as Hidden Urbanism — on the astonishing underground palaces of the Moscow Metro — reveal a remarkable level of continuity in Soviet design. The subway stations all share a similar, space-age crypt idiom, whether they were built in 1985 or in 2005.

Another recent Dom book, Meuser and Dmitrij Zadorin’s Towards a Typology of Mass Housing in the USSR, focuses on the flipside of special projects like the Metro, Slavutych, and the bus stops. Instead, it examines the immense prefabricated house program, the largest experiment in industrialized housing ever attempted. This deadpan, obsessive-compulsive book attempts to catalog each apartment building series, which were rolled out of specialized, assembly-line factories like automobiles.

Towards a Typology of Mass Housing reveals that by the 1970s Soviet architecture had almost entirely eliminated the figure of the individual architect, who traditionally works on a specific design for a specific site. For this massive urban housing initiative, the USSR transformed architects into industrial designers, except when it came to the creation of showcase public buildings.

Some of Dom’s recent publications focus on these prestige designers — like Felix Novikov, a mercurial figure whose career included Stalinist palaces for the nomenklatura in the 1940s, Khrushchev-era mid-century modernism like the Moscow Palace of Pioneers, and neo-Persian bathhouses and bazaars in Central Asia in the 1970s and 1980s.

Perhaps the saddest of these books, Galina Balashova: Architect of the Soviet Space Program, focuses on the engineer-architect who designed the ergonomic interiors and streamlined casings for space capsules and stations. Balashova created real, constructed human environments that floated in space or rotated in orbit, but her most recent work consists of watercolors of her family in Tsarist-era military costumes. Whatever else could be said about it, Soviet collectivism made people do things that they wouldn’t have considered possible, before or since.

One of the few books in the Moscow Institute of Modernism’s series of publications on Soviet architecture to be translated into English is Anna Bronovitskaya and Olga Kazakova’s heavy volume on another prestige architect, Leonid Pavlov.

All the facets of Soviet architecture appear on his resume: he began as a Constructivist, passed through the Socialist Realist period of opulent, elite classicism, and then found his metier in the 1960s as an architect for Gosplan, the agency that officially planned the Soviet economy.

As readers of Francis Spufford’s novel Red Plenty will already know, in the 1960s the Soviet Union made an abortive attempt to computerize its economy in hopes of solving the socialist calculation problem. Pavlov designed several Moscow-based computer centers for Gosplan, using a pure, mathematical, and finely detailed modern idiom of clean lines and precisely calculated grids, sometimes integrated with abstract sculpture — a Soviet cousin to postwar America’s corporate architecture.

However, the construction industry couldn’t keep up with the pace of Pavlov’s ideas, and most of the centers were completed at least a decade after their design. By that time computers had shrunk, and the computer rooms were changed into conference rooms or left unused; an apt metaphor for the gulf between theory and practice in Soviet planning.

Pavlov’s late work, tellingly, was devoted to sacred spaces for the cult of Lenin — like the Lenin Funerary Train Museum in central Moscow or the Lenin Museum at Gorki, where Lenin lived and slowly died in the early 1920s. These designs borrow from ancient religious architecture and Miesian high modernism in an attempt to create an appropriate architectural language for a secular cult.

One historical study and one city guide — both published in the last year — provide the most interesting analyses of what Soviet architecture actually was and what (if anything) sets it apart from ordinary capitalist architecture.

The first is Richard Anderson’s Russia: Modern Architectures in History, which presents a panoramic history of pre-Soviet, Soviet, and post-Soviet architecture from the late nineteenth century to the present. It starts with Victorian eclecticism, “style modern,” and Constructivism, then turns to the eclectic, anti-modernist Socialist Realism of the Stalin era and the standardized and plural modernisms of the 1960s through the 1980s, and ends with a very mixed picture of contemporary Russian architecture, dominated — especially outside Moscow — by an overbearing, unplanned, and speculative monumentality.

Whereas the book covers profound social changes, Anderson pulls out an unexpected thread of continuity, as institutions such as Mosprojekt — the municipal architecture-construction department of Brezhnev-era Moscow — reinvented themselves in the 1990s by designing horrific mirror-glass and marble edifices for the new rich.

Anderson’s book also adroitly uncovers some of the lesser-known aspects of twentieth-century “socialist architecture.” Beyond the famous icons of the avant-garde, Russia: Modern Architectures in History takes in the garden cities in Lenin’s Moscow, the oddly Finnish low-rise housing in post-Blockade Leningrad, the entirely new territory Brezhnev attempted to create through a series of planned towns strung along the Baikal-Amur Mainline, and the various imperial exports found both within the Soviet Union — in the Soviet “East” of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan — and in the imperial baroque style that represented the central power in Eastern European capitals like Warsaw, East Berlin, and Riga.

The most politicized recent book on Soviet and post-Soviet architecture deals precisely with this imperial legacy. The collectively produced The Book of Kyivwas published to mark the city’s biennale last year, largely by affiliates of the Visual Culture Research Centre (VCRC), a leftist non-governmental organization.

The Book of Kyiv works as a guide to the city by presenting a series of carefully chosen buildings, almost all from the Soviet era: a ghost mall known as the House of Clothes; a Metro station left half-finished just outside the city center; the National Museum of Ukraine, done in the Stalinist Roman Empire style; the haunting, organic Crematorium, designed in the 1970s; various emblematic spaces like the former Dzherzhinsky Square, which features a flying-saucer-shaped Institute (featured in no less than Chaubin’s CCCP) and a gigantic monument to the Cheka, only demolished last month; and various soon-to-be de-Communized mosaics and monuments.

Among the spaces that feature in The Book of Kyiv is the dramatically authoritarian, late Stalin-era Independence Square, best known by the Ukrainian word for square: maidan. The VCRC supported the 2013–14 uprising there, and combine this with a sharp critique of the Ukrainian built environment’s de-Communization, now underway through a legally enforced process of renaming and vandalism.

But what makes The Book of Kyiv a real antidote for the likes of Soviet Bus Stopsis its sympathetic account of Soviet architecture and planning, which lets equal stress fall on its failures, continuities, and successes, and trains a ruthless eye on the capitalist city, which has survived by cannibalizing the Soviet legacy, building on its interstices, slathering its public spaces with advertising and cheap commerce, straining its infrastructure, and maintaining a violent divide between rich and poor.

This becomes all the more poignant when it’s enforced on an urbanism that, for all its serious flaws made a serious attempt to create an egalitarian metropolis defined by public space, equality, and planning. It is in that contrast that you can begin to understand what that elusive thing — Soviet architecture — actually was, and what distinguishes it from capitalist architecture. Appropriately, the book is made for the pocket, rather than the coffee table.

The Mysterious Tbilisi Courtyards

The Mysterious Tbilisi Courtyards
Published by The Cultural Spotter

By Alyona Kustovska

Alyona is an architect from Ukraine who is currently exploring Georgia. Her main interests are the history of architecture, ethnography, backpaking travelling, hiking and climbing. She often hitchhikes alone or with friends. Strongly interested in discovering interconnections between architecture – especially folk architecture- and people’s mind and way of life.
May 9, 2015

It will never stop embarrassing me in Tbilisi: few garishly renovated streets are always full of tourists but when you turn to any side street from restaurants, hotels, souvenir shops, various tradesmen gazing on you, you might be alone and only cats jumping and staring on you. However the most interesting sights of the city are used to be outside from the main touristic routes. And one of them is mysterious Tbilisian courtyards.



People often name this type of courtyards ‘Italian’, but it were rather Persian caravanserais which influenced to Georgian tradition structure of houses. Unlike the both of them mostly square shaped and surrounded by solid stone arcades, the Georgian ones will impress you by unpredictable shapes, light and elegant wooden arcades richly decorated by carving with unique combination of Classicist and Oriental motifs; crazy combination of numerous superstructures, overhanging bridges connecting houses , spiral staircases, glazed loggias, patches of various materials used during renovations, picturesque bunches of pipes and wires, riot of greenery ( thanks to the wet Georgian climate) – the effect is breathtaking.

Typical Georgian houses have huge balconies on facades. The balconies were used to be the place of gathering and entertainment. People had tea, breakfast, dinner and sometimes even slept on the balconies. On Sundays Tbilisi inhabitants would keep an eye on the city life from their balconies. During the 19th century the Russian imperial politics provided the construction of houses with mostly neoclassicist facades without traditional giant balconies, but these official faces of the houses successfully coexisted with the traditional courtyards inside. Next years the Art Nouveau style has left it’s impact in the architecture of courtyards themselves. The crossroad of cultures shaped the unique face of Tbilisi and made it’s people tolerant.

Inhabitants of the courtyards often tell that their neighbors are almost families for them; they are always ready to help each other, or just to spend time around the table in the middle of courtyard or on someone’s balcony eating, talking, singing songs and playing board games. Yards are always full of children running and playing here.

By the way, it was not their own choice to live so close to each other. In the beginning of 1920th when the Soviet regime established here, the living space of wealthy citizens used to be reduced by so called ‘uplotnenie’ (compression): private apartments were forcibly settled by additional residents in them. Several families often were forced to use one shower and one tap with water out-of-doors. And now the conditions of life of most of them don’t getting better in the new century. These houses are decaying, their inhabitants don’t have enough money to renovate 19th century structures, and Georgian officials don’t care.

When somebody notices me standing and sketching, almost every time he or she goes out and proposes to bring a chair for me, a cup of coffee, a glass of wine or a bottle of lemonade. One man gifted me a drawing of his child. People are used to know well the history of houses they live in, proud of it and gladly tell it to me and make a small excursion around their home. Nobody asked me to go away from the private property even when I come up on their balconies. Entrance doors of the houses are always open.

This beauty and this way of life are going to die one day. People are leaving their decrepit homes. Dirt-encrusted, decrepit and wasted by years of neglect, buildings of Tbilisi have long been desperately in need of serious renovation, but the usual technique is to knock down the original building then to reconstruct it around a reinforced concrete shell re-faced by old bricks, in a rough approximation of its former self. The structures usually carry an extra floor, often topped mansard-style by uniform roofs made from cheap Turkish tiles. According to customers’ or builder’s tastes, without any proper laboratory researches the plastered facades have been renovated with cement lining and new paint; the metal details have been coated. A lot of authentic details were lost. Tbilisi is losing its face.

A couple years ago, when Georgia was more economically successful, you could leave the city for the couple of months, then return and see – johnny I hardly knew ye – a construction site instead of several houses you’d fallen in love with. Building normatives are simplified for the purpose of preservation from corruption, but now customers can legally and paying no bribes destroy 100-years old house. But all these sad things are the real life of the city, not the streets with souvenirs. Enjoy it, deepen in it, while it is still alive.

Do-it-yourself urbanism: vertical building extensions in the urban landscapes of Skopje and Tbilisi

 Do-it-yourself urbanism: vertical building extensions in the urban landscapes of Skopje and Tbilisi
The architectural and social landscapes of many post-socialist cities have been 
transformed by an emergent urban phenomenon: the construction of vertical building extensions (VBEs) on the balconies and façades of multi-storey residential buildings.
While such structures are often of a makeshift, improvised character, many of them possess reinforced concrete frame constructions that often parallel the ‘host’ building in terms of size and function.
This paper examines the social and spatial underpinnings of such extensions, with the aid of a field study based in Skopje and Tbilisi – the capitals of, respectively, Macedonia and Georgia. We highlight the embeddedness of this phenomenon in a set of policy decisions and economic practices specific to the post-socialist period, as well as their complex implications for the
present and future use of urban space. One of our key arguments is that VBEs ‘spatialize’ coping strategies in post socialism, embodying a kind of ‘DIY urbanism’ that has deeply transformed the conduct of everyday life in the city.