Category Archives: Architectural

Soviet Kitchens Dissent

A typical Russian kitchen inside an apartment built during the early 1960s, when Nikita Khrushchev led the Soviet Union — what later became known as Khrushchev apartments.

Courtesy of The Kitchen Sisters

When Nikita Khrushchev emerged as the leader of the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death in 1953, one of the first things he addressed was the housing shortage and the need for more food. At the time, thousands of people were living in cramped communal apartments, sharing one kitchen and one bathroom with sometimes up to 20 other families.

“People wanted to live in their own apartment,” says Sergei Khrushchev, the son of Nikita Khrushchev. “But in Stalin’s time you cannot find this. When my father came to power, he proclaimed that there will be mass construction of apartment buildings, and in each apartment will live only one family.”

They were called khrushchevkas — five-story buildings made of prefabricated concrete panels. “They were horribly built; you could hear your neighbor,” says Edward Shenderovich, an entrepreneur and Russian poet. The apartments had small toilets, very low ceilings and very small kitchens.

But “no matter how tiny it was, it was yours,” says journalist Masha Karp, who was born in Moscow and worked as an editor for the BBC World Service from 1991 to 2009. “This kitchen was the place where people could finally get together and talk at home without fearing the neighbors in the communal flat.”

These more private kitchens were emblematic of the completely new era of Soviet life under Khrushchev. “It was called a thaw, and for a reason,” says Karp.

“Like in the winter when you have a lot of snow but spots are already green and the new grass was coming,” says Russian writer Vladimir Voinovich. “In Khrushchev times it was a very good time for inspiration. A little more liberal than before.”

The exterior of Khrushchev-era apartments in Kazan, Russia.


Kitchen Table Talk

The individual kitchens in these tiny apartments, which were approximately 300 to 500 square feet, became hot spots of culture. Music was played, poetry was recited, underground tapes were exchanged, forbidden art and literature circulated, politics was debated and deep friendships were forged.

“One of the reasons why kitchen culture developed in Russia is because there were no places to meet,” says Shenderovich. “You couldn’t have political discussions in public, at your workplace. You couldn’t go to cafes — they were state-owned. The kitchen became the place where Russian culture kept living, untouched by the regime.”

In a country with little or no place to gather for the free expression of ideas and no place to talk politics without fear of repression, these new kitchens made it possible for friends to gather privately in one place.

These “dissident kitchens” took the place of uncensored lecture halls, unofficial art exhibitions, clubs, bars and dating services.

“The kitchen was for intimate circle of your close friends,” says Alexander Genis, Russian writer and radio journalist. “When you came to the kitchen, you put on the table some vodka and something from your balcony — not refrigerator, but balcony, like pickled mushrooms. Something pickled. Sour is the taste of Russia.”

Furious discussions took place over pickled cabbage, boiled potatoes, sardines, sprats and herring.

“Kitchens became debating societies,” remembers Gregory (Grisha) Freidin, professor of Slavic languages and literature at Stanford University. “Even to this day, political windbaggery is referred to as ‘kitchen table talk.’ ”

Even in the kitchen, the KGB was an ever-present threat. People were wary of bugs and hidden microphones. Phones were unplugged or covered with pillows. Water was turned on so no one could hear.

“Some of us had been followed,” says Freidin. “Sometimes there would be KGB agents stationed outside the apartments and in the stairwells. During those times we expected to be arrested any night.”


As the night wore on, kitchen conversations moved from politics to literature. Much literature was forbidden and could not be published or read openly in Soviet society. Kitchens became the place where people read and exchanged samizdat, or self-published books and documents.

A samizdat collection of poems and song lyrics by Vladimir Vysotsky, published shortly after the famous Soviet bard’s death in 1980.

Courtesy of Rossica Berlin Rare Books

People would type hundreds of pages on a typewriter, using carbon paper to create four or five copies, which were passed from one person to the next — political writings, fiction, poetry, philosophy.

Samizdat is, I think, the precursor of Internet,” says Genis. “You put everything on it, like Facebook. And it wasn’t easy to get typewriters because all typewriters must be registered by the KGB. That’s how people got caught and sentenced to jail.”

Samizdat was the most important part of our literature life,” says Genis. “And literature was the most important part of our life, period. Literature for us was like movies for Americans or music for young people.”

In 1973, Masha Karp’s friend got hold of a typewritten copy of Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago. “She told me, ‘I’m reading it at night. I can’t let it out of my hands. But you can come to my kitchen and read it here.’ So I read it in four afternoons.”

Genis’ family read Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in the kitchen. “It’s a huge book, three volumes, and all our family sat at the kitchen. And we were afraid of our neighbor, but she was sleeping. And my father, my mother, my brother, me and my grandma — who was very old and had very little education — all sit at the table and read page, give page, the whole night. Maybe it was the best night of my life.”


What happened with samizdat books happened with music, too. Magnitizdat are recordings made on reel-to-reel tape recorders. Tape recorders were expensive but permitted in the Soviet Union for home recordings of bards, poets, folksingers and songwriters, made and passed from friend to friend. People had hundreds of tapes they shared through the kitchens.

“My songs were my type of reactions to the events and news,” says songwriter Yuliy Kim, one of Russia’s famous bards, who was barred from giving public concerts. “I would write a song about whatever was discussed. I would sing it during the discussion. If there would be someone with a tape recorder they would tape it and take it to another party. Songs were spread quickly like interesting stories.”

“The most famous bard was Vladimir Vysotsky, who was like Bob Dylan of Russia,” says Genis. “That’s what you can listen to in kitchen.”

During the 1950s, with vinyl scarce, Russians began recording rock ‘n’ roll, jazz and boogie woogie on used X-rays that they gathered from hospitals and doctors’ offices. They would cut a crude circle out with manicure scissors and use a cigarette to burn a hole.

Courtesy of Jozsef Hajdu (top); courtesy of Ksenia Vytuleva (bottom)

Bone Music

Before the availability of the tape recorder and during the 1950s, when vinyl was scarce, ingenious Russians began recording banned bootlegged jazz, boogie woogie and rock ‘n’ roll on exposed X-ray film salvaged from hospital waste bins and archives.

“Usually it was the Western music they wanted to copy,” says Sergei Khrushchev. “Before the tape recorders they used the X-ray film of bones and recorded music on the bones, bone music.”

“They would cut the X-ray into a crude circle with manicure scissors and use a cigarette to burn a hole,” says author Anya von Bremzen. “You’d have Elvis on the lungs, Duke Ellington on Aunt Masha’s brain scan — forbidden Western music captured on the interiors of Soviet citizens.”

Radio: ‘A Window To The Freedom’

Most kitchens had a radio that reached beyond the borders and censorship of the Soviet Union. People would crowd around the kitchen listening to broadcasts from the BBC, Voice of America and Radio Liberte.

“It was part of our life in the kitchen,” says Vladimir Voinovich, author of The Life andExtraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin. “It was a window to the freedom.”

Voinovich’s books were circulated in samizdat and smuggled out of the country. One of his pieces was broadcast by a foreign radio station. “I heard some BBC voice reading my chapters. After that I was immediately summoned to KGB.” Voinovich was expelled from the Writers Union and later forced to emigrate.

Moscow Kitchens

Dissident composer Yuliy Kim wrote a cycle of songs called “Moscow Kitchens” telling the story of a group of people in the 1950s and the ’60s called “dissidents.” It tells how they began to get together, how it led to protests, how they were detained and forced to leave the country. He describes the kitchen:

“A tea house, a pie house, a pancake house, a study, a gambling dive, a living room, a parlor, a ballroom. A salon for a passing by drunkard. A home for a visiting bard to crash for a night. This is a Moscow kitchen, ten square meters housing 100 guests.”

And, he adds: “This is how this subversive thought grew and expanded in the Soviet Union, beginning with free discussions at the kitchens.”

Memory Politics in Baku

Baku and the Soviet Heritage: Memory and Oblivion

The collapse of the Soviet Union launched the search for a new identity and the creation of new narratives in Azerbaijan just as in the entire ex-Soviet space. We cannot cover all aspects of the memory politics in Azerbaijan during and after the Soviet period in a single article. Instead, we highlight the most significant sites of the Soviet memory landscape of Baku and their post-Soviet transformations within the new politics of memory.

The Nagorny Park Named After Sergey Kirov

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The monument to Sergey Kirov. Location: Nagorny Park, Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: 1978. Photo Credits: Isaac Rubenchik, taken from

Immediately after the Sovietization of Azerbaijan, the urban development of Baku took a Soviet turn. In September 1920, the special committee on the development of city gardens in the Absheron peninsula created a plan on changing the appearance of the city. It included the development of the English Park in the place of the Chemberkent cemetery[1]. Later it became part of the Nagorny[2] Park.

In 1939, the Nagorny Park took the name of Sergey Kirov, a prominent political figure whose death of at the end of 1934 had made him one of the central heroes of the politics of memory of Soviet Azerbaijan[3]. Kirov’s monument was installed in the Nagorny Park as the latter dominated the panorama of Baku with a view on the bay. Kirov’s massive figure raising his hand over the city was placed at the center of a memorial that remained a prominent landmark of Baku until the collapse of the Soviet Union (Bertanitski 1971, 138-140).

The Architectural Complex Lenin Square

The design of Baku’s new central square began with the construction of the House of the Soviets (“Dom Sovietov” in Russian) or the Government House. Intended to accommodate large-scale events and serve the purpose of an ideological center, the square was the largest one in the USSR at the time of its completion (Bertanitski 1971, 146-149).

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The Government House. Location: Then Lenin Sqaure, Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: 1977-80. Photo Credits: Leonid Kondratyev, taken from

The construction of the House began in 1930 and was completed in 1952. According to the architects of the House, the exterior of the building was designed in the Baroque style, using also elements of the national Azerbaijani architecture. This style was reflected in the three rows of columns located along the edges of the building, the prototype for which was the colonnade of the reception hall of the medieval Shirvanshah palace in Baku. The construction of the adjacent Lenin Square ended in the Fall of 1951. It became an ideal location for military parades and demonstrations of workers. The first large-scale event took place on November 7 of 1951 on the commemoration of the October Revolution of Bolsheviks.

The House of the Soviets itself was designed as a “memorial-building” dedicated to the “father of the revolution” Vladimir Lenin. His monument was installed in the square on November 6 of 1954. For many years, the expressive 11-meter bronze sculpture of Lenin, the leader of the proletariat, portrayed at the time of addressing the people, was the central element of the whole complex. The last Soviet demonstration in the square took place in May 1987. The mass rallies in the following years went down history as the events that contributed to the collapse of the USSR.

The 26 Baku Commissars Square

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26 Baku Commissars Memorial. Location: Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: 1980. Photo Credits: taken from

On September 10 of 1920, a solemn ceremony of reburial was taking place in the Freedom Square (the former Stock Exchange Square or “Birzhevaya” in Russian) of Baku. The remains of the Baku Commune members were brought from Krasnovodsk, where they had been executed by a firing squad in 1918. Since then, they have been referred to as the “26 Baku Commissars”, with the Soviet propaganda putting upon them a halo of martyrdom and turning their story into an important Soviet historical and ideological narrative. The four main commissars, Meshadi Azizbekov, Prokofy (Alyosha) Dzhaparidze, Stepan Shahumyan, and Ivan Fioletov, with their respective backgrounds of an Azerbaijani, a Georgian, an Armenian, and a Russian, were to symbolize the international spirit of Baku. The Soviet ideology turned their burial site into a place of memory and glorification.

The square and the park around it went through several transformations and were renamed after the 26 Baku Commissars. The first memorial was constructed in 1923 in time for the fifth anniversary of the commissars’ death. For the 40th anniversary in 1958, a high relief sculpture, the “Execution of the 26 Baku Commissars” was installed in the park. In another ten years, the entire site went through a redesign. The Eternal Flame was added and the structure made of marble, reinforced concrete, and granite was erected above the graves, creating a ring-shaped pantheon. The structure was inscribed with the words “26 Bakı Komissarı”. A massive bust of an oilman bent over the Eternal Flame was placed in the center of the composition.

In the Soviet politics of memory, the cult of the commissars took up an extremely important place as a symbol of proletarian internationalism and a selfless struggle against oppression. In the 1970s and 80s, in addition to this memorial complex, personal monuments to some of the commissars were established in different parts of Baku – in 1975 to Stepan Shahumyan, in 1976 to Meshadi Azizbekov, in 1980 to Prokofy Dzhaparidze, and in 1985 to Ivan Fioletov.

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The statue of Meshadi Аzizbekov. Location: Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: Unknown. Photo Credits: Isaac Rubenchik, taken from

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The statue of Ivan Fioletov. Location: Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: Unknown. Photo Credits: taken from

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The statue of Stepan Shahumyan. Location: Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: 1981. Photo Credits: Isaac Rubenchik, taken from the Photobook “Azerbaijan”.

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The statue of Prokofy Dzhaparidze. Location: Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: 1981. Photo Credits: Isaac Rubenchik, taken from the Photobook “Azerbaijan”.

The Collapse of Ideals: The Alley of Martyrs in Nagorny Park and the New Freedom Square

The collapse of the Soviet Union, which coincided with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, led to a dramatic reconstruction of Baku’s memory landscape. The Baku residents who were killed during the tragic events of January 1990[4] were buried in the Nagorny Park[5]. A grandiose funeral demonstration began on Lenin Square, transferring the bodies of the dead to the territory of the park, that from that moment on, became the site of the Alley of Martyrs (“Şəhidlər Xiyabanı” in Azerbaijani).

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The Alley of Martyrs. Location: Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: 2013. Photo Credits: Urek Meniashvili, taken from

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The entrance to the funicular in the Upland Park. Location: Near the Martyrs Lane Mosque, Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: February 6, 2018. Photo Credit: Saadat Abdullazade.

Kirov’s memorial was demolished in 1991. Later the graves of the heroes of the Nagorno-Karabakh war of 1992-1994 were also placed here. Regardless of when they died, those buried here are called martyrs. This is a religious term applied to people who died for their faith, and in a broader sense, for a just cause – in this case, for the independence and territorial integrity of the country. The grand opening of the memorial complex of the Eternal Flame took place on October 9 of 1998. Currently, the ally continues to serve as a reminder of Azerbaijan’s Soviet past, but now exclusively in a negative sense – as a period of oppression and deprivation of independence that was restored thanks to the martyrs buried here.

The January 1990 tragedy in Baku became a point of no return. The more heated the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh became, the louder the nationalist slogans got, which, in turn, further fueled the conflict. The later events of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, as well as the explicit and implicit Russian assistance to Armenia, gave momentum to the discourse of Soviet oppression and antagonism with it. As a result, everything Soviet, Russian, and Armenian was declared alien and subject to demolition and distancing. In a new Azerbaijan, the Soviet monuments were perceived to embody the crimes of Russians and Armenians towards the Azerbaijani people and the loss of independence. The “fight” against these monuments inevitably became an important part of the de-Sovietization that was already underway.

One of the first monuments to disappear from the streets of Baku in 1990 was the bust of Stepan Shahumyan[6] . With the transition to independence, the head of the Baku Commune had become nothing but the worst enemy of Azerbaijanis and a hidden Dashnak – affiliated with the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation Party (“Dashnaktsutyun” in Armenian).

Immediately after the failed attempt of the August 1991 Coup in Moscow, Lenin Square was renamed into Freedom Square (“Azadlıq Meydanı” in Azerbaijani). Soon after that, Lenin’s statue in front of the Government House was demolished, and the state flag of Azerbaijan was erected in its place. The square kept its status of the central square in the country and was now associated with the fight for independence. Military parades continue to take place here nowadays. The first one took place in October of 1992, and the latest one was in June 2018.

The New Interpretation of the Soviet Past

On October 18 of 1991, the Constitutional Act on the State Independence of the Republic of Azerbaijan, signed by President Ayaz Mutalibov, became the document laying out the foundation of the official politics of memory in independent Azerbaijan. It referred to centuries-long traditions of statehood of the Azerbaijani people and the Russian aggression towards Azerbaijan in 1920. The document described the seventy years of the Soviet rule as a period of colonialism, a ruthless exploitation of natural resources and plunder of national wealth, and infringement on national dignity.

This reinterpretation of the Soviet past was also derived from the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and was sealed by its consequences. It reflected the vision of history of the nationalists from the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (“Azərbaycan Xalq Cəbhəsi Partiyası” in Azerbaijani). However, this approach remained the cornerstone of the public consensus also under the leadership of President Heydar Aliyev. Later, it gained a fresh momentum in the form of another wave of de-Sovietization under President Ilham Aliyev. Heydar Aliyev’s decree “On the Genocide of Azerbaijanis”, adopted in 1998 for the bloody events of March 1918, was also an important landmark of the de-Sovietization process.

The dismantling of memorial plaques was the latest stage of de-Sovietization, as a policy to put the Soviet past to oblivion. For example, the Soviet plaque “Palace of Happiness” was removed from the Palace of Marriage Registrations during its reconstruction. The plaque also noted that the building used to house the Women’s Club named after Ali Bayramov and that the Club played an important role in the “emancipation of the Azerbaijani woman”. Similarly, after the reconstruction of the Nizami Cinema Center, the memorial plaque that indicated that the cinema received a commemorative banner did not find a place on its walls.

The Sahil Park in the Place of the 26 Baku Commissars

The demolition of the memorial complex of the 26 Baku Commissars began in the early 1990s. First, the Eternal Flame was put out, and then in 1993, the high relief sculpture “The Execution of the Baku Commissars” was destroyed. The inscription “26 Bakı Komissarı” was removed from the pantheon, and the area was renamed into Sahil Park.

For many years, the memorial remained abandoned. Stripped of its usual symbolism, the pantheon over the graves of commissars in the center of the city was creating an obvious dissonance. Finally, in January 2009, the park was closed for reconstruction. The structure around the Eternal Flame was demolished, and the remains of the commissars were reburied in the Hovsan cemetery in the suburbs of Baku. The renovated the Sahil Park, with a three-tier fountain installed in the middle, opened in May 2009.

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The fountain in Sahil Park built in the place of 26 Baku Commissars memorial. Location: Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: February 5, 2018. Photo Credit: Saadat Abdullazade.

As noted above, with the wind of change, the monument to the Armenian commissar Stepan Shahumyan was the first one demolished in 1990. In 1992, the monument to the Russian commissar Ivan Fioletov followed. Monuments to the Azerbaijani Meshadi Azizbekov and Georgian Prokofy Dzhaparidze stayed significantly longer and were demolished only in 2009 on the night of April 26 and 28 respectively.

The authorities react fervently to the slightest attempt at the revival of the symbolism associated with the commissars and the former name of the park. In 2017, the café “26” near the Sahil Park was closed by the city authorities, and their property was confiscated. The owners of the café were blamed for fulfilling an “Armenian order” and speculated to have family ties with the deceased commissars of Armenian origin.

The “Untouchable” Narimanov

Among the monuments to the Soviet state and its party leaders, there is one that survived all the stages of de-Sovietization and de-communization. It is the monument to Nariman Narimanov. He was the de facto leader of Soviet Azerbaijan during the first half of the 1920s when the first anti-Soviet armed demonstrations were suppressed. Through his participation in the central structures of the Soviet state, Narimanov also cemented the Soviet ideology of internationalism, which in modern Azerbaijan is viewed nothing more than a way of Russian and Armenian dominance over the indigenous population – the Azerbaijanis. Then how did Narimanov’s monument survive de-Sovietization?

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The monument to Nariman Narimanov. Location: Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: February 6, 2018. Photo Credits: Saadat Abdullazade.

The new official discourse in independent Azerbaijan claimed that people had been fighting for independence throughout the Soviet period. And it was this persistent struggle, carried forward despite Moscow’s policy, that explains any achievement and success of the Soviet period. The argument is that despite Moscow’s anti-national policies, the Azerbaijani identity was preserved thanks to local political leaders whose national-patriotic spirit outweighed their adherence to Soviet ideology. Thus, their legacy is still honored as they are believed to have done everything possible to protect Azerbaijan’s interests. This clause of “despite” allows the selective attitude towards the monuments of the Soviet political leaders, and Narimanov is one of them.

Narimanov is credited for keeping Nakhijevan and Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan in the 1920s. It is widely believed that he was the one who saved prominent Azerbaijani generals Samed Mehmandarov and Aliagha Shikhlinski from Bolshevik repressions. He is portrayed as the politician who blocked the demands of Armenian nationalists acting under the patronage of Russian Bolsheviks. More recently, theories have appeared suggesting that Narimanov was deliberately pushed out of Baku and later poisoned in Moscow. Articles and books defending his ideas have been published. And the large-scale monument to Narimanov put up in 1972 continues to stand in one of the Baku squares.

Between Memory and Oblivion

The monuments, memorials, and places of memory discussed in this article appear to us as the most significant in the context of Soviet politics of memory and its post-Soviet transformations. Nevertheless, many other memorials were produced both in Soviet and independent Azerbaijan, and one article cannot cover them all. It is noteworthy that a number of monuments related to the Second World War (or its Soviet “equivalent” of the Great Patriotic War) have been completely preserved. At the same time, “that war” has largely lost its significance and ceded its memory to the events around the collapse of the Soviet Union and the current Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. As a result, the monuments, memorials, and places of memory, created for the commemoration of the “Black January” of 1990 or the Khojaly tragedy[7] , currently occupy a central place in the modern memory landscape in Azerbaijan.


[1] The Chemberkent cemetery was also the burial site of the British soldiers who died during the civil war of 1918 in Baku. That’s why initially the park was often called “English”.

[2] “Nagorny” means “upland” in Russian, and the park was named so because it is situated on a high platform in Baku.

[3] As a member of the 11th Unit of the Red Army, Kirov had taken part in the establishment of Soviet power in Baku. Later he was elected First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan.

[4] On the events of January 1990, see the 2003 book of Thomas De Waal “Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through peace and war” published by New York University Press.

[5] This decision might have been motivated by the fact that the Chemberkent cemetery used to be located here. It was believed that the Muslim victims of the bloody events of March 1918 in Baku were buried here. And indeed, during the ground preparations for the burial of the victims of January 1990, the remains of three people were found in the park and were reburied. The tombstones indicate that these are the “martyrs of 1918”. For more details on these events, see the 2010 translation into Russian of the book by Jörg Baberovski “The Enemy is Everywhere: Stalinism in the Caucasus” («Враг есть везде: Сталинизм на Кавказе») published by Rosspen in Moscow.

[6] For the biography of Stepan Shahumyan, see the 2012 work of Eldar Ismailov “Stepan Shahumyan – doomed to oblivion: a portrait of the “legendary communard” without retouching” («Степан Шаумян – обреченный на забвение – портрет «легендарного коммунара» без ретуши») published by Sharg-Garb publishing house in Baku.

[7] For more on the Khojaly tragedy, see the 2003 book of Thomas De Waal “Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through peace and war” published by New York University Press.


Bertanitski, Leonid. 1971. Баку [Baku]. Leningrad-Moscow: Iskusstvo.

* 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.

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

Armenian Soviet Monuments

The dirt shone red-orange in the car headlights, the road little more than a trench cutting through endless miles of dry terrain. Night had caught us by surprise, still hours from our destination. We sped through the moonlit wilderness, one single light in a rocky land dotted with pylons, ruined churches, and every few miles or so, looming ghostlike out of the darkness, the vestigial remains of Armenia’s Soviet monuments.

Monument to World War II Victims (1970). Bagravan, Armenia.
Monument to World War II Victims (1970). Bagravan, Armenia.

Somewhere near the village of Dashtadem, down in the southwest corner of Armenia, we lost the road altogether. The tarmac, half hidden under dust, took a sudden, sharp turn to the right while we carried on straight ahead. The car shuddered into the dirt, bouncing to a violent halt; and the small halo of light that had surrounded us erupted into a glowing cocoon of dust and smoke.

Nearby, an invisible siren whooped. In all these empty miles we had managed to plough into the verge just a stone’s throw from a police patrol car (I wondered how long it had waited there, like a trapdoor spider, for anyone to pass), and now we were due for a reckoning.

As one officer leaned down to the driver window, we told him we didn’t speak Armenian. We might have just about got by in Russian, but we told him – in English – that we didn’t speak that either. We assumed that the harder we made this, the more likely the police would just send us on our way… and it worked, though not without one final test to pass.

This Armenian police officer motioned the driver to get out of the car, then he cupped his hands and mimed a gesture of breathing into them. Our driver – an American – did as he was told, he emptied his lungs into the man’s palms and the officer took a good hard sniff. If he’d been expecting vodka breath, he was pleasantly surprised: we weren’t drunk, just tired.

As we reversed back onto the road the two police officers had a good laugh at our expense. They waved us off, muttering something that I can only guess meant “Stupid tourists.”


Monument to Mother Armenia (Architect: Rafik Yeghoyan, Sculptors: Ara Sargsian & Yerem Vartanyan, 1975). Gyumri, Armenia.
Monument to Mother Armenia (Architect: Rafik Yeghoyan, Sculptors: Ara Sargsian & Yerem Vartanyan, 1975). Gyumri, Armenia.


Armenia has an incredible number of monuments, and many of those that stand today were built between 1922 and 1991 in what was then known as the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. According to Garnik S. Shakhkian, author of the 1989 collection Architectural Monuments in the Soviet Armenia, more than 40,000 such structures were built.


Monument to World War II Victims (Architect: Z. Terteryan, Sculptors: D. Simonyan & G. Yeproyan, 1970). Vagharshapat, Armenia.
Monument to World War II Victims (Architect: Z. Terteryan, Sculptors: D. Simonyan & G. Yeproyan, 1970). Vagharshapat, Armenia.
Monument to World War II Victims. Yaghdan, Armenia. One of the countless monuments that stand seemingly abandoned near rural communities.
Monument to World War II Victims. Yaghdan, Armenia. One of the countless monuments that stand seemingly abandoned near rural communities.

A lot of these monuments have a distinctly Armenian feel about them. Yerevan, the Armenian capital, is sometimes known as the ‘Pink City’; its buildings characterised by the use of tuff, a volcanic stone formed from Armenia’s ancient lava flows and which glows red-pink or orange in the Caucasian sun. The same stone appears frequently throughout the Soviet-era monuments that scatter the landscape, so that even generic Soviet memorial themes – monuments to the victims of the Great Patriotic War, monuments to the Red Army – are here unmistakably Armenian in construction.

Yerevan is reported to be one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. It was founded by King Argishti I in 782 BC, on land that had been settled even for some three thousand years before that. Back then, it was known as Erebuni.


A Soviet-era monument formed from local stone welcomes visitors to the Armenian capital: Ереван or Yerevan.
A Soviet-era monument formed from local stone welcomes visitors to the Armenian capital: ‘Ереван’ or ‘Yerevan.’
A statue of Alexander Tamanyan stands before the Yerevan Cascade.
A statue of Alexander Tamanyan stands before the Yerevan Cascade.

The city grew rapidly with the influx of refugees after 1915, Armenians escaping Ottoman oppression in the west, and after WWI Yerevan was declared the new capital: Armenia’s twelfth. Armenia entered the Soviet Union in 1922 and the following year the Russian-born Armenian architect Alexander Tamanyan relocated to Yerevan – where he would oversee the creation of a Soviet-style neoclassical metropolis. A model Soviet city rendered here in glorious pink stone.

There is plenty of fine monumental work in the capital alone. The Yerevan Cascade is one of the city’s defining landmarks, a stepped ensemble that rises from the centre, level by level, all the way up to Victory Park on the hilltop above. Construction began in 1971, to the design of architects Jim Torosyan, Aslan Mkhitaryan and Sargis Gurzadyan. The idea was that each successive gallery would detail a different period of Armenia’s ancient history, time beginning at the bottom and flowing upwards, to finally reach the Victory Monument: an obelisk at the top of the steps that symbolised the arrival of Soviet socialism.


Yerevan Cascade (Architects: Jim Torosyan, Aslan Mkhitaryan & Sargis Gurzadyan, 1971-1980). Yerevan, Armenia.
Yerevan Cascade (Architects: Jim Torosyan, Aslan Mkhitaryan & Sargis Gurzadyan, 1971-1980). Yerevan, Armenia.

Phase One of construction was completed in 1980, though the Cascade was still far from finished. Despite another burst of activity, 2002–2009, the Cascade remains unfinished today and the current of time, at least to my eyes, appears to have reversed from the original design. Time seems to flow down the Cascade these days, not up, moving from the tired-looking Soviet monument at its peak down into the lively cafés, the modern sculptures and contemporary street culture that surround the lower end of the installation.


Detail of stylised fountains at the Yerevan Cascade, Armenia.
Detail of stylised fountains at the Yerevan Cascade, Armenia.
War Memorial. Gyumri, Armenia.
War Memorial. Gyumri, Armenia.

The Yerevan Cascade survives today as a national symbol but in the capital, as with elsewhere in Armenia, those monuments and monumental installations focussed on more generic Soviet themes seem to be largely abandoned.

In Gyumri, up in the northwest of Armenia, we spied one Soviet monument hiding behind a fence in someone’s yard. Whatever this building was once it had since been privatised; garden walls growing up to cocoon the forgotten memorial site. The silver figure now stood on display for no-one, facing into the bushes at the corner of the garden while around it the outline of a grass-choked plaza disappeared beneath the new-built fence dividing this garden from the next.

Another day we visited the city of Vanadzor. Armenia’s third largest city, Vanadzor reported a population of 148,876 people in the 1979 census. Since then it has halved, its parks, plazas and apartment blocks now beset on all sides by the smoke-stained hulks of abandoned Soviet industry.

In Chemical Factory Workers’ Park a supersize bust of a Soviet soldier in white stone looks out across the remains of a dilapidated fairground. Brambles poke through rusted holes in the carousel. A local man passed me as I photographed the monument; “Это было красиво,” he said, simply, gesturing around the park – It was beautiful – then shook his head and moved on.


Monument to World War II Victims (Zhirayr Ketikyan, 1969). Vanadzor, Armenia.
Monument to World War II Victims (Zhirayr Ketikyan, 1969). Vanadzor, Armenia.

Across the country monuments to the Red Army, monuments to the Socialist Revolution and monuments to Soviet leaders were generally amongst the most decayed, unloved structures I saw. Though there were exceptions, of course – and notably in the case of local heroes.


Stepan Shaumian Memorial. Stepanavan, Armenia.
Stepan Shaumian Memorial. Stepanavan, Armenia.
Monument to Stepan Shaumian (Ara Haroutounyan, 1982). Stepanavan, Armenia.
Monument to Stepan Shaumian (Ara Haroutounyan, 1982). Stepanavan, Armenia.

The town of Stepanavan – situated on the Yerevan-Tbilisi highway – is named after Stepan Georgevich Shahumyan: a homegrown Bolshevik revolutionary whose role in the Russian revolution earned him the nickname ‘the Caucasian Lenin.’ In post-Soviet Stepanavan his likeness still rises proudly from plinths throughout the town.

In Alaverdi, a former mining community where rusted cable cars hang like cobwebs over the streets, a monument to the Armenian aircraft designer Artem Mikoyan – the ‘M’ in MiG – still looks relatively well cared for by the people of his hometown. Behind his bust a MiG-21 forms part of the memorial ensemble while a nearby museum charts his life’s achievements. But in Yerevan, controversy surrounded the proposal to build a new monument to Artem’s brother, Anastas Mikoyan: a Minister of Foreign Trade under Stalin and later, under Brezhnev, Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. Of these two Armenian brothers, the engineer remains a celebrated local hero while the politician has become problematic.


Monument to Artem Mikoyan (1971). Alaverdi, Armenia.
Monument to Artem Mikoyan (1971). Alaverdi, Armenia.

However, these overtly Soviet memorial themes – Soviet heroes, Soviet victories, Soviet ideals – account for only one portion of the Soviet-era monuments scattered throughout Armenia’s wild and violently rocky landscapes. Of the others an incredible number, rather, were dedicated to the memory of the Armenian Genocide.



I never expected it to be so hard to find food in Armenia. We would get hungry on the road, and tell ourselves we’d pull over at the first restaurant we saw. Two hours and six villages later we’d have seen nothing, barely a shop.

In Yerevan, grill restaurants (serving the national barbecue cuisine, khorovats) dotted the cartwheel of roads leading into and out of the capital – sometimes alternating with seedy-looking strip clubs, of which Armenia has a prolific number – but the further we drove the harder it became to find sustenance. Village shops existed, of course, but they were very often small, unsigned establishments, tucked away in rows of pink stone buildings. Restaurants, meanwhile, appeared almost non-existent in these rural provinces… but even the smallest nub of a village, sparse settlements adrift in the endless rolling plains, had a prominent monument commemorating Armenia’s historic struggle against the Ottoman Empire; the massacre of Armenians under Ottoman rule, and the bloody Turkish–Armenian war that followed.


Monument to the Heroic Battle of Musa Dagh (Architect: Rafael Israelyan, Sculptor: Ara Haroutounyan, 1976). Musaler, Armenia.
Monument to the Heroic Battle of Musa Dagh (Architect: Rafael Israelyan, Sculptor: Ara Haroutounyan, 1976). Musaler, Armenia.
Monument to the Heroic Battle in Aparan (Rafael Israelyan, 1979). Another reminder of Armenian-Turkish conflict, this one at Aparan, Armenia.
Monument to the Heroic Battle in Aparan (Rafael Israelyan, 1979). Another reminder of Armenian-Turkish conflict, this one at Aparan, Armenia.

In 1915, the Ottoman Empire had begun the systematic arrest, deportation and execution of Armenians living within its borders. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians died as they were marched to the Syrian desert, and those that survived the journey were processed at a network of concentration camps. Whole villages were burned, and mass graves were filled with tens of thousands of bodies at a time. Many scholars put the number of Armenian victims at around 1.5 million people, and 29 countries have officially recognised these events as constituting a genocide; that is to say, an attempt by the Ottoman authorities to entirely extinguish the Armenian race and its cultural legacy.

The Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic was born the same year the Ottoman Empire died. No doubt the Bolsheviks must have looked like angels back then, at least compared with Armenia’s western neighbours.


Monument to World War II Victims (Architect: V. Sahakyan, Sculptors: E. Vardanyan & K. Karakhanyan, 1970). Sardarapat, Armenia.
Monument to World War II Victims (Architect: V. Sahakyan, Sculptors: E. Vardanyan & K. Karakhanyan, 1970). Sardarapat, Armenia.

During Armenia’s Soviet period an absolute fortune was spent on preserving the memory of the genocide victims. In the countryside we drove past old Soviet monuments that rose as ruins, broken fingers of orange stone – occasionally even with storks’ nests perched on top – but the genocide memorials in town and village squares were altogether different, treated as places of enduring pride and respect.


Memorial to the Seven Militiamen (Yuri Minasyan, 1989). Ujan, Armenia.
Memorial to the Seven Militiamen (Yuri Minasyan, 1989). Ujan, Armenia.

We stopped in Ujan to visit the Monument to the Seven Fidain.* As we walked around the sun-blasted plaza beneath the memorial two local men, quite elderly, crossed over the road to join us. They wanted to know what we thought about their town’s monument – and they were patient enough that we could exchange a few comments in broken Russian.

[*Fidain is a local word for a commando or guerrilla.]

“These, our heroes,” one man explained, gesturing towards the memorial with its bloom of seven sculpted faces. “The war,” he added then, as if any further clarification were needed. “The war of Armenia and Turkey.”

The other man then told us to wait, said something about a translator and started making a call. The sun was baking my head, so I took a stroll beneath the trees while we waited. At the lower end of the park, a pool and fountain would have welcomed visitors at the original entrance to Ujan’s memorial complex. A sculpture of Mother Armenia sat enthroned above the pool; though the water had long since turned to dust.


A likeness of Mother Armenia overlooks empty water fountains in a memorial complex at Ujan, Armenia.
A likeness of Mother Armenia overlooks empty water fountains in a memorial complex at Ujan, Armenia.

I followed the path back up towards the central monolith. There was a chamber beneath it, built into the earth under the plaza, but the door was locked. One of the old men was watching me: It’s empty, he said. That’s when the translator arrived but it seemed there was some confusion; this young man – someone’s nephew, I think I understood – did not in fact speak a word of English either. He was no less friendly than his elders though, and after a few more strained exchanges in Russian we bid the group farewell and made back for the car.

The Ujan monument was loved and remembered, but many others we saw that week were treated with almost religious respect. Even now, even in otherwise meagre settlements with broken roads, poor plumbing and sparse employment, amidst closed-down shops and crumbling industry, these stone and marble monuments are often maintained to a slavishly fine condition. Flags fly, and spotlights set them ablaze by night.


Sardarapat Heroic Memorial Complex (Architect: Rafael Israelyan, Sculptors: Ara Haroutounyan, Arsham Shahinyan & Samvel Manassyan, 1968). Araks, Armenia.
Sardarapat Heroic Memorial Complex (Architect: Rafael Israelyan, Sculptors: Ara Haroutounyan, Arsham Shahinyan & Samvel Manassyan, 1968). Araks, Armenia.

Perhaps the most extraordinary we saw was the Sardarapat Heroic Memorial Complex, opened in 1968 to commemorate the place where the Ottoman Empire, having already begun the extermination of Armenian minorities on its own soil, crossed into eastern Armenia in 1918 to be turned back by Armenian forces in the Battle of Sardarapat. That battle was a turning point in the war. Discussing the possibility of an Ottoman victory, the British historian Christopher J. Walker wrote: “it is perfectly possible that the word Armenia would have henceforth denoted only an antique geographical term.”

Above the one-horse town of Araks, two towering red-rock oxen face off across a courtyard, their powerful forms reminiscent of the deific guardians at ancient Assyrian temples. The memorial complex spills back behind, all landscaped gardens, museums and sculpted stone reliefs. A team of staff worked diligently amongst the hedges and flowerbeds as we explored; squatting, weeding, and splashing these plants with more water than I had seen in all the past hundred miles of dry Armenian terrain.


A 26m bell tower rises above the Sardarapat Memorial Complex, symbolic of the bells that rang to call Armenians to join the fight against the invaders.
A 26m bell tower rises above the Sardarapat Memorial Complex, symbolic of the bells that rang to call Armenians to join the fight against the invaders.
A 1979 Soviet monument to the victims of WWII stands derelict at Getk, Armenia.
A 1979 Soviet monument to the victims of WWII stands derelict at Getk, Armenia.
Meanwhile, in Araks, a dedicated team of staff weed and water the flower beds at a monument to a historic battle between Armenia and the Ottoman Empire.
Meanwhile, in Araks, a dedicated team of staff weed and water the flower beds at a monument to a historic battle between Armenia and the Ottoman Empire.

At Sardarapat, and not for the first time in this trip, I got to wondering exactly what percentage of Armenia’s GDP is today spent maintaining its lavish monuments to the victims of Ottoman atrocities, and to the victors of anti-Ottoman struggle. While generic Soviet monuments have been allowed to slip into ruin, anything associated with the conflict with Turkey appears to get almost sacred treatment. From an outsider’s perspective these monuments appear to be more than Armenia can afford; both in terms of upkeep, and effect.

Regional conflicts have left Armenia without many neighbours to trade with. It shares four borders: to the west, the Armenian-Turkish border has been closed since 1993 (and though attempts were made in 2008 to restart diplomatic conversations, those conversations were dropped in 2009 and in March 2018 Armenia annulled the normalisation protocols). To the east is Azerbaijan, a country Armenia is still officially at war with over post-Soviet border disputes (the most recent clashes occurred in 2016, in the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region, and cost the lives of roughly 350 people). In the south, Iran is under heavy sanctions itself which leaves only Georgia in the north, and Russia beyond that. As a result Armenia, a landlocked country, is cut off from any easy access to international commerce.


Nor Arabkir Monument (G. Ghambarian, 1985). Yerevan, Armenia.
Nor Arabkir Monument (G. Ghambarian, 1985). Yerevan, Armenia.

It may be that Turkey will never acknowledge nor attempt to atone for the genocidal crimes committed against Armenians by the Ottoman Empire a hundred years ago. But if Armenia cannot find a way to rebuild diplomatic relationships with modern Turkey regardless of this historical injustice, then it denies itself access to European trade routes to the west; thus forcing the country into ongoing economic hardship, and greater dependency on Russia. Meanwhile the Soviet-era memorial sites that Armenia still chooses to maintain – totems of victimhood and monuments to Turk-killers – don’t feel particularly conducive to any kind of change in this status quo.

Perhaps this effect is no accident. From the 16th century up until WWI, a total of 12 wars were fought between the Russian and Ottoman Empires. After WWI Armenia joined Russia in the Soviet Union, becoming a border country between the lands of Russian influence and of Russian enemies. Naturally it would have been in Moscow’s best interests, back then, to support and even fund the construction of extravagant monuments that fanned the flames of the long-standing animosity between Armenia and Turkey. As was ever the case, the USSR defended its borders not only with tanks, but with dogma.


Peace Monument in Victory Park (Architect: Felix Zargaryan, Sculptor: Vahan Khachikyan, 1977). One of numerous Soviet-era monuments inhabiting the park at the top end of the Yerevan Cascade.
Peace Monument in Victory Park (Architect: Felix Zargaryan, Sculptor: Vahan Khachikyan, 1977). One of numerous Soviet-era monuments inhabiting the park at the top end of the Yerevan Cascade.
Elsewhere in Victory Park, this Mother Armenia Monument (Architect: Rafael Israelyan, Sculptor: Ara Harutyunyan, 1967) replaced an earlier statue of Josef Stalin (Sculptor: Sergey Merkurov, 1950).
Elsewhere in Victory Park, this Mother Armenia Monument (Architect: Rafael Israelyan, Sculptor: Ara Harutyunyan, 1967) replaced an earlier statue of Josef Stalin (Sculptor: Sergey Merkurov, 1950).

The Soviets had sought to secure Armenian loyalty with a volatile gift; a physical heritage which perpetuated the region’s perceived conflicts, and yet which no self-respecting Armenian could ever allow to fall into disrepair.



Armenia is still building monuments. Some of the newer ones are positively uplifting – such as the Armenian Alphabet Monument at Artashavan, around an hour from Yerevan. Opened in 2005, the characters of the Armenian alphabet have been carved from stone and spread across the hillside in a celebration of national culture. This gesture in itself is almost an act of defiance, in the context of Armenia’s difficult history, and like most of the other contemporary monuments in the country this one is modest and manageable… setting it well apart from those lavish Soviet-era marble-and-fountain affairs.


Armenian Alphabet Monument (Architect Fred Afrikyan, Concept by Aghvan Hovsepyan, 2005). Artashavan, Armenia.
Armenian Alphabet Monument (Architect Fred Afrikyan, Concept by Aghvan Hovsepyan, 2005). Artashavan, Armenia.

The problem of maintenance is not unique to Soviet monuments in Armenia, of course: communist architecture in general was very often characterised by huge, overblown statements, the kind of monuments built by people who were blind to the possibility of their own eventual downfall. It’s a fact that makes communist heritage sites the world over doubly difficult to reconcile – it’s not just the sociopolitical implications of these places that need to be addressed, but also the steep price that many would cost to maintain.

Other new Armenian monuments sometimes adhere to design aesthetics made popular by the Soviets (for example, the striking Socialist-modernism of the Monument of Gratitude in Yerevan), but these newer ones are much smaller and less extravagant than their predecessors. Increasingly, they seem also to celebrate the positive – rather than commiserate the negative – aspects of Armenia’s history. Contemporary sculptures of Armenian artists and composers, not to mention anonymous street sweepers and backgammon players, add vibrancy to the streets of Yerevan in place of former Soviet monuments to the Red Army.


Monument of Gratitude (Megurditchian & Megurditchian, 2010), in Yerevan.
Monument of Gratitude (Megurditchian & Megurditchian, 2010), in Yerevan.
Gates of Goris (Sevada Zakaryan, 2001). Goris, Armenia.
Gates of Goris (Sevada Zakaryan, 2001). Goris, Armenia.

Nevertheless, the citizens of post-Soviet Armenia have inherited a national identity defined by a history of struggle. Search for Things to Do in Yerevan on TripAdvisor, and the first result is a mountain range not actually in Yerevan (or, indeed, entirely in Armenia). Result number two is the Armenian Genocide Museum and the third result is the Genocide Memorial, technically a part of the same memorial complex on Tsitsernakaberd Hill.


Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex (Architects: Arthur Tarkhanyan & Sashur Kalashyan, Sculptor: Van Khachatur, 1968). Tsitsernakaberd Hill, Yerevan.
Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex (Architects: Arthur Tarkhanyan & Sashur Kalashyan, Sculptor: Van Khachatur, 1968). Tsitsernakaberd Hill, Yerevan.
Harsh angles and sheer stone walls create an atmosphere of oppression inside the Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex.
Harsh angles and sheer stone walls create an atmosphere of oppression inside the Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex.

It rises like a barrow: stone fingers clutching around a single eternal flame, a half-formed fist against the distant mountains. The Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex was opened in 1968, and it adheres closely to the familiar Soviet template. A gas-gobbling fire within a cell of contemplation, visitors dwarfed by heavy geometry.

The monument seems to mirror the shape of Mount Ararat on the horizon: the mountain where, in Christian tradition, Noah’s ark came to rest after the flood. Both Ararat and the ark appear on Armenia’s coat of arms, and the name is synonymous too with Armenia’s celebrated Ararat cognac.

That Mount Ararat itself is located now within the borders of neighbouring Turkey, not Armenia, is a bitter irony; the Armenian people can’t even contemplate the core symbols of their nation without looking west and remembering what they lost there. Meanwhile in every village, town and city throughout the country, Soviet-built obelisks list the names of the victims: a mantra against ever forgetting the past’s injustices.

Tbilisi’s Megaprojects

Is There Any Way to Stop a Billionaire-Backed Megaproject?

A battle over the fate of one of Europe’s oldest city centers has pitted preservationists and urban planners against a powerful oligarch.

STORY BY David Lepeska

If you were looking to cast the villain in an urban development battle, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better candidate than Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Worth about $5 billion, or a third of Georgia’s gross domestic product, he’s the country’s wealthiest person by a long shot. A former prime minister and the founder of the ruling party, he’s also Georgia’s most powerful figure, infamous for pulling government strings from behind the scenes since leaving politics in late 2013. His name appeared several times in the Panama Papers, a cache of leaked tax documents revealing how the world’s richest people exploit tax havens. He’s eccentric enough to dig up and ship a lone 650-ton tulip tree across the Black Sea, and his Tbilisi home is tailor-made for an evil mastermind: a 108,000-square-foot steel and glass palace, poised on a hill overlooking the city and complete with helipad and shark tank.

No surprise, then, that not only is Ivanishvili behind the largest real estate development in Georgia’s history — a controversial project known as Panorama Tbilisi — until recently he owned some of the land slated for development. If all goes as planned, Panorama would bring three new hotels, two cable cars, 1,800 underground parking spaces, luxury residences and a convention center to the Georgian capital. The project has become a lightning rod amid a nationwide boom that has attracted international developers, including one Donald Trump — who until January had planned to back construction of the country’s two tallest towers.

As rapid construction has taken hold in the capital, Tbilisians have watched green space shrink in the city center and the horizon crowd with towers. The number of cars in this city of 1.5 million people has doubled in the past seven years. Meanwhile, Georgia’s per-capita rate of air pollution-related deaths ranked number one among the world’s nations in a 2012 report from from the International Energy Agency.

As construction begins on Panorama, locals fearing more congestion, deadlier pollution and the loss of their beloved Old City have rallied to the cause. Some want to kill the project, but most would be happy to move it to a different location, or shrink it to better fit to its surroundings. “Look at Amsterdam, Paris, you don’t have great skyscrapers in the main heritage areas in those cities,” said Tbilisi urban planner and architect Irakli Zhvania.

The municipal government, meanwhile, finds itself squeezed between modernization and preservation, between an oligarch who controls the purse strings and power and an electorate increasingly concerned about the impact of unfettered development. “The result is that city officials don’t want to upset the public, or Ivanishvili, and are always looking to find a balance,” Erekle Urushadze, program manager for the anti-corruption program at Transparency International Georgia, said in a recent interview in a Tbilisi cafe.

That balance is rarely found. As a result, Georgians are learning the extent to which committed citizens can participate in development, if at all, in the face of an all-powerful developer-oligarch. And whether Ivanishvili is indeed a villain.


Dusty, 15th-century-old Tbilisi is a head-spinning crossroads of culture and religion. Periods of rule by Arabs, Mongols, Iranians and Russians have left their mark, sandwiching eras of independence. Tbilisi grew to some 100,000 people during the Georgian Golden Age in the 12th-13th century, emerging as a regional power, a node of Silk Road trade and a center of culture. From the early 19th to the early 20th century, it served as the capital of the Caucasus.

Today, dozens of conical-roofed churches dot the Old City skyline beneath the imposing stone walls of Narikala, a rebuilt fourth-century fortress, and the gleaming steel statue of Mother of Georgia. Sleek, modern buildings rise from streets radiating like spokes from Freedom Square, site of 2004’s Rose Revolution. The nearby neighborhood of Sololaki is seeing swift gentrification, with hip locally-sourced restaurants and a busy farmer’s market. Up Shota Rustaveli Avenue, the Soviet-era institute of Marx, Engels and Lenin has been topped with a gleaming blue skyscraper and transformed into the Biltmore Hotel. Along the Kura River, two gherkin-shaped glass towers are rising, set to become the high-end King David Residences. There’s also Axis Towers (a five-star hotel, with residences, retail and office space), a new Sheraton across the river in Avlabari, and talk of a new Radisson next to the Biltmore. After decades of post-Soviet instability, Georgia appears to have found its stride: Economic growth peaked at seven percent in 2011 and 2014, and Tbilisi is booming.

The New York Times’ T Magazine recently dubbed Georgia “the California of the Caucasus,” in apparent reference to its wine, natural beauty and casual hipness. But the makings of a tech industry have also begun to emerge, thanks to new incubators and coworking spaces, the recently opened Tech Park, a sleek government-backed mentoring space, and Silicon Valley Tbilisi, an Israeli-supported IT academy, with satellite offices of 60 foreign firms. Outside town, construction recently began on Georgia’s Technological Institute. A Chinese conglomerate is building a new city along the Tbilisi Sea, in an effort to revive Silk Road-style trade. Nearby, a Slovakian firm is building an “Eco Green City” of its own. It’s expected to cost up to a billion dollars, with 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources.


Some credit Georgian Dream, the ruling party, for Tbilisi’s growth spurt. The party rose to national power in 2012 behind the backing of Ivanishvili, who served as prime minister for about a year. Weeks before he stepped down, in late 2013, he announced the creation of the $6 billion Georgia Co-Investment Fund (GCF), to which he contributed $1 billion of his own money. With investors like Ras Al Khaimah (one of the seven emirates of the U.A.E.) and the State Oil Fund of the Republic of Azerbaijan, the fund aims to spur foreign investment and economic growth in Georgia and has already backed some $2.1 billion worth of projects in industry, agriculture, energy and tourism.

In March 2014, GCF presented plans for Panorama, showcasing a 10-story, “seven-star” hotel at Freedom Square, luxury apartments and a convention center overlooking the Old City from Sololaki Hills, near Ivanishvili’s mansion. Toss in two other GCF projects — Tabori recreation area, with a golf course, hiking paths, planetarium and aquarium, to be built further above the city on Sololaki Rise and linked to Panorama by cable car; and Galleria mall, already under construction across the street from the Freedom Square hotel site — and the total cost comes to about $580 million. (Consider that at a Georgian bar a beer costs about $1 and you begin to appreciate the relative scale of $580 million.)

New development is popping up around Freedom Square.

One of the largest-ever private developments in the Caucasus, Panorama would be built amid some of Tbilisi’s oldest buildings, on protected land. City Hall swiftly rejected the plan, advising GCF to build outside the city center. Three months later, Georgian Dream swept to power in Tbilisi, with their mayoral candidate, David Narmania, taking more than 72 percent of the vote. Later that year City Hall changed the zoning category of the Sololaki Hills land, lifting the heritage protection status. The next spring three companies were granted permissions to build there, in a process that activists saw as rushed.

In a conference room at the downtown offices of GCF, a trio of staffers recently sat down to explain how the Panorama plans first made public two years ago were far from final. Public input led to alterations, including the removal of a cable car that would run through the Old City and the reduction of the footprint of construction on Sololaki Hills. A new video rendering of the completed Panorama project showed the Sololaki Hills apartments and convention center hidden behind tall trees and Ivanishvili’s mansion, and difficult to see from the Old City.

In the rendering, the 10-story glass tower for the Marriott Autograph hotel at Freedom Square stood out from its historic, low-rise surroundings. But it also reflected the square back to the viewer, expanding the sense of place, to an extent. GCF argues that Panorama will enrich Tbilisi’s core and become the city’s calling card. Responding to accusations that Panorama would harm the environment and only benefit the elite, Tsotne Ebralidze, GCF’s Managing Director of Hospitality and Real Estate, pointed out that the project expects to plant some 30,000 evergreen trees and employ up to 6,000 people during construction, with 2,000 employed after completion in 2019.

In addition, cable cars running from the top of the Freedom Square hotel to Tabori would be open to the public for the cost of a metro ride — giving Tbilisians a vast green space minutes from the mostly gray and concrete city center. “It’s accessible and affordable,” Ebralidze explained at the meeting. “Anybody can just take the metro to Freedom Square and get on the cable car and you’re at this huge recreation area in 5-7 minutes, able to run and bike and enjoy.”


Nata Peradze, a leader of Guerrilla Gardening Tbilisi, is among the many who disagree. Last fall she organized a protest to call for several city officials to resign. A hip, young crowd of about 150 people — lots of full beards, dogs and dreadlocks — gathered on the grounds of City Hall one early afternoon. Next to 5-foot-tall speakers, a DJ started spinning 70s funk. Municipal officials returning from lunch in twos and threes slipped past the crowd and into the building. After a short speech, Peradze oversaw an auction of environmentalist artwork by local activists. The proceeds, more than 700 Georgian lari, would help plant more trees.

“Our form of protest is not based on aggression and violence,” Peradze later explained. “In our post-Soviet reality, because of the nihilistic attitude of society, we choose a form of protest that is creative and peaceful. We manage to achieve way more by adopting these methods.”

That’s not to say Georgian activists are soft. Organizations like Guerilla Gardening and Tiflis Hamkari, which works to preserve the city’s heritage, argue that Panorama will increase congestion and upset the architectural style and character of the Old City. Transparency International Georgia complained that no investors other than Ivanishvili had been named and that some of the land was sold too quickly for others to make bids.

Urushadze, of TI Georgia, points out that dozens of government officials are former employees of Ivanishvili, from mid-level officials up to the minister of the economy and the prime minister. “Whenever Ivanishvili wants a project he finds a way,” he said. “There’s really nobody to stop him. He controls the government entirely — all branches and all levels of government.”

That control has given Panorama a boost. Last year, more than two dozen NGO’s and activist groups joined forces, creating the Ertad (“Together”) Coalition to organize as one against the project. But the coalition essentially disbanded earlier this year after dissolving into petty squabbling over strategy and objectives.

“Maybe we wouldn’t have been able to stop Panorama,” Elene Margvelashvili, director of Iare Pekhit, a pedestrian rights group, said during a recent interview at a cafe overlooking Freedom Square. “But there would have been a precedent of a big crowd coming together over this kind of issue.”

Margvelashvili and others admit that, despite growing activist numbers, still too few people are involved to make much of an impact. One problem is a lingering, top-down Soviet mentality, among officials as well as citizens, particularly people over 40 years old. This will likely change as today’s younger generation matures.

Construction of the Panorama project is underway.

Still, the battle over Panorama is far from over. In August, a Tbilisi court accepted a case arguing that the city’s 2014 re-classification of protected areas to enable Panorama construction contradicted a 1985 cabinet ministers decree and a law on cultural heritage, and was thus invalid. The case was suspended at an October hearing, and as of early April, remained suspended. If the judge agrees with the plaintiff’s argument, the decision could ultimately invalidate the building permits and halt construction.

Such a reversal would not be unprecedented. In 2013, Guerrilla Gardeners Tbilisi set up a camp at the site of construction for a major new hotel in Vake Park, preventing bulldozers from doing their work. When the new government arrived the following July, they halted work on the project. A Tbilisi court soon decided that the construction permit had been issued illegally. Today, there’s still a big hole in Vake Park.

From a distance, the city appears to be embracing urbanist ideas. It’s installing vertical gardens, sprucing up several streets and aging buildings and adding pedestrian-only areas as part of the $8.5 million New Tiflis project. When he took office, Narmania promised to plant one million trees in his first year, and his City Council invited activists to monthly meetings to offer ideas.

But critics say these steps are small-bore and predominantly cosmetic. Margvelashvili points out that some of the newly pedestrianized streets were already car-free, and that city officials never listened to activists at those monthly meetings.

Of the half million trees Narmania planted, many reportedly withered and died because they’d been planted too close together. Meanwhile, Georgia’s ministry of environment has questioned the methodology of the IEA report, which found that in 2012 Georgia had the world’s highest mortality rate attributed to air pollution — nearly 300 deaths per 100,000 people. The ministry argues that pollution-related mortality should also take other factors into account, such as indoor air quality and the prevalence of smoking.

Activists point to increased construction, reduced green spaces, poor-quality fuel from Azerbaijan and old, high-emission vehicles due to the absence of mandatory inspections. The World Health Organization says cities should have at least nine square meters of green space per resident. Tbilisi has maybe half that.

Last year the city hired a planning firm to develop a comprehensive urban plan. Meanwhile, it has continued to approve major projects like Panorama while waiting for the plan’s completion later this year. Activists are growing impatient. At a recent meeting between NGO leaders and top city officials, a member of Guerrilla Gardening Tbilisi urged officials to address the city’s environmental problems rather than make populist statements. In response, Mayor Narmania called him a “monkey, son of a donkey” (a harsh Georgian insult), and expelled him from the meeting.

“All these problems work hand in hand and will soon make the city unlivable,” says Peradze. “Already it’s dangerous and can have serious physical and mental health effects. If no imminent changes occur, health problems will skyrocket, forcing people to leave Tbilisi.”

In September, Narmania acknowledged that the number of cars in Tbilisi had doubled since 2010, from 200,000 to 400,000. He called for steps to reduce congestion, including better roads, improved public transport and stronger regulations. He also promised to implement restrictions to regulate the height and size of buildings in central neighborhoods and encourage green roofs.

Zhvania advises locals wondering how quickly the city might implement such plans to contemplate the forest of empty apartment towers surrounding City Hall. They were built years ago, then left to rot after the developer went bankrupt.

Urban planner and architect Irakli Zhvania stands before City Hall-area construction.

“What do you expect from an administration — both the previous and the current — that has this view from their windows?” asked Zhvania, who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a Fulbright scholarship in 2014-2015. “How can these people take care of the entire city when they can’t even make their own block look decent?”

Yet when the powers-that-be want something to happen, it gets done. A few years ago Zhvania served on a council protecting Tbilisi’s culture heritage. It had one non-voting member, plus 12 independent experts — architects, planners, historians. But in 2014 it was folded into a federal agency and filled with officials from the ruling party. “This way, the government could be sure that any project they wanted to go through would go through,” Zhvania explained. “The reason for this was very clear: Panorama was coming.”


Legend has it that Tbilisi was founded after a fifth-century king found his hunting falcon drowned in a hot spring and decided to build a city on the site. The name Tbilisi is derived from the Old Georgian for “place of warmth,” a reference to the sulfur springs that still today feed the city’s public baths. These days, Tbilisi is as unruly as those bubbling waters. Sidewalks are crowded with parked cars, so walking space is scarce. With few crosswalks, one often sees pedestrians, even the elderly, standing in the middle of a busy street, turning their heads this way and that and waiting, Frogger-style, for a break in the stream of passing vehicles.

Georgians are conservative folk, and particularly resistant to change. Yet the capital’s varied architecture — Medieval, Middle Eastern and Modernist; Stalinist, Neoclassical and Art Nouveau — suggests change has been one of the city’s few constants. Across the West, a debate has been raging about the insertion of contemporary architecture into historic urban areas. Some tilt toward conservation, imitation and preservation, while others embrace progress and the inevitability of urban change. The goal is striking a balance between private profit and public good, finding a way to preserve the character of an historic area while facilitating enough progress to sustain it.

Whatever its shortcomings, Panorama links Georgia’s two great assets: the capital’s charming historic core and the country’s lovely mountain scenery. Richard Tibbott, chairman of international advisory services at the real estate consultancy Cushman & Wakefield, has advised London’s tourism department and worked on the London Eye and other Thames attractions. He argues that Panorama does not contradict or compete with Tbilisi’s historic environment, but complements it. “This is a very bold mixed-use investment that appears to provide a very strong boost to the Tbilisi visitor economy,” he wrote in a review of the project for GCF.

Thanks to Ivanishvili, Tbilisi tends toward the example set by Dubai or Istanbul — cities dominated by the vision of an all-powerful leader. Yet the country’s richest man has done much to improve Georgia. In the last couple decades he has resurrected Tbilisi’s 400-year-old Botanical Gardens, which had fallen into disrepair, and built the Sameba Cathedral, the country’s largest church and an immediate tourist attraction, along with national parks and hospitals. He has helped renovate Tbilisi arts outlets, and in his home district built roads, an army base, a cinema, library, water-treatment plant and more. More broadly, GCF has invested in several major projects likely to benefit all Georgians, including $1 billion worth of hydropower projects.

Few Tbilisians would call themselves NIMBY’s, and many locals appreciate what Ivanishvili has done. “We don’t mind development, we just want to keep our city as attractive as it’s always been,” Zhvania said during an interview at a stylish bar just off Rustaveli Avenue. “Building Panorama right here destroys the character of the Old City, disturbs the setting, takes away any chance of gaining UNESCO Heritage status. … Let’s keep this area the way it is, keep it charming, and do the big projects outside the center, where we have more space.”

Kond: A City Within a City


Old stairs and narrow alleys from Proshyan, Saryan, Paronyan and Leo streets lead you into a hidden city within a city. As you enter what appears to be an uncharted world, wooden doors, walls constructed of asymmetric bricks and labyrinthine lanes take you on an adventurous journey to old Yerevan. Residents, with their doors and hearts open, welcome you and often forcibly invite you to have a cup of coffee. While your eyes try to grasp and remember every single intricate detail, they start to tell you the history of their life and proudly proclaim that they are the residents of Kond – the oldest district of Yerevan.

Historically, Kond was one of the three main districts of Yerevan. Perched above the city, it gets its name from the Armenian, which means “long hill.” In the 18th century, the main residents of Kond were Armenians engaged in farming, cattle-breeding and gardening. Later, when Persians and Turks captured Yerevan, the district was renamed Tapabashi (Turkish for “top of the hill”). Throughout the centuries, Kond was one of the most vibrant districts of Yerevan and was home to several ethno-religious groups. Other residents included Boshas or Caucasian/Armenian gypsies. Historian, literary critic and folklorist Yervand Shahazis, in his book about Yerevan (published in 1933) notes that 46 families lived and worked in the territory of Saint John the Baptist Church (Surb Hovhannes) and actively participated in city life. According to ethnographer Hamlet Sargsyan, in 1830 of the 4,300 residents of Kond 1,568 were Armenians, 2,537 Tatars, and 195 Boshas (Caucasian Gypsies).

Melik-Aghamalyan Family

Kond was also the residence of the aristocratic Melik-Aghamalyan family. According to Shahazis, the family owned numerous buildings and land in the territory of Kond. For several centuries, Surb Hovhannes was known as their ancestral church and the family donated money to rebuild it after it was destroyed in the earthquake of 1679; their name is inscribed on one of the walls of the church. Famous for their participation in several battles in the territory of Yerevan, the Aghamalyans were considered one of the richest and well-known families of Old Yerevan but for the current residents of Kond, the Aghamalyans are famous for their kindness and generous support to the survivors of the Armenian Genocide. As Kondetsis recall, the Aghamalyan family provided shelter to the orphans and immigrants from Western Armenia.

However, the descendants of the Aghamalyans suffered tremendously during the Stalin repressions. The last member of the aristocratic family, Sasha Aghamalyan was ousted from his home in Kond during the Stalin purges and died in a small basement apartment.

Currently, there is a gold watch kept in the Yerevan History Museum that was presented to the Melik-Aghamalyans from Russian Tsar Nikolai I for their contribution to the Russian-Persian war. Their princely residence constructed of black tufa stone, standing half-ruined near the entrance of the quarter, is the only reminder of the family’s existence.

The Mosque

Dating back to 1687, the Thapha Bashi mosque, the remnants of which only remain in Kond is listed as a historical monument and is protected by the Armenian state. When Muslims left Armenia in the beginning of the 20th century, the mosque became a residence for many survivors of the Armenian Genocide. One can still see the influence of Persian architecture that fortunately remain intact. As the residents recall, the “huge dome”  of the mosque collapsed more than two decades ago, several years after the Spitak Earthquake.

Present-Day Kond

Though one can get lost among the dozens of small and narrow lanes of Kond, the district does have three main streets: Rustaveli, Simeon Yerevantsi and Kond. Many houses are covered in vines, while simple rural-style communal springs appear at corners of its narrow meandering roads.

While the novelty of the district often attracts the curious, residents of Kond feel ignored and abandoned by the municipal and national governments. Conversations with locals reveal widespread discontent with the former authorities who for the most part were not able or refused to address issues faced by the residents – from lack of proper services to poor road conditions. An older woman living in Kond, a supporter of Karen Demirchyan, the late Soviet Armenian leader and native of Kond who became parliament speaker after independence wanted to highlight the socio-economic conditions of the district, hoping for some reaction from municipal authorities.

A Soviet era building now stands entirely abandoned in the middle of Kond. It used to house a library and a pharmacy until it became a dumping ground, just like the public toilet close by.

Like Demirchyan’s parents, many of the residents of Kond are descendants of Western Armenian refugees. Many genocide survivors from Van, Mush, Erzerum and elsewhere settled in Kond after 1915. Though Muslims (mostly Azerbaijanis and Persians) lived in Kond in the early 20th century, only a few remained by the late Soviet period. One resident says he was friends with his Azerbaijani neighbors, some of whom were “thieves in law.” He says Turks, Yazidis, Jews, and Boshas (Gypsies) formerly lived in their quarter.

Harutyun, a 68 year-old retired sculptor, is a typical Kondetsi. “We had several opportunities to leave Kond, but we stayed here,” he said. Named after the resurrection of Jesus (Harutyun is Armenian for resurrection), the old man said he speaks baradi lezu, simple language, staying true to his origins. The locals are well aware of the district’s status as the only surviving part of “old Yerevan.” A local guide, a woman in her 30s, pointed to several houses. “These are from the 1920s. You won’t find buildings this old in Yerevan,” she claimed. A neighbor reacted, “Not 1920s, but older. Both my grandmothers were born in these houses in 1908 and 1912.”


View of Kond, 1909.  
The Mosque in Kond, 1923.  
Kond, 1900.  
Kond, 1932.  

Historical Value

Sevada Petrossian, an urban architect who has researched the quarter with fellow architect Sarhat Petrosyan, notes that Kond’s value is not only in its historical buildings, such as Surb Hovhannes, the Persian mosque, the Aghamalyan residence but the fact that the layout of the streets have largely kept their original form from the 18th century. “Moreover, people are the ones who give a distinct local identity to a district,” Petrossian explains. “Kond is one of the rare places in the city where generations have continuously lived.” It is because of this longevity that residents of Kond identify more with their district than with Yerevan.

However, because of the unbearable living conditions – lack of running water, decrepit buildings, outhouses – residents have been trying to reconstruct their homes and as such are altering the original structures, many of which have historical value. While this is destroying the feel, ambience and value of the district’s old buildings, Petrossian understands and notes that people do not have other options.”



Though there have been plans to reconstruct Kond from as early as the 1930s (according to Alexander Tamanian’s plan for Yerevan) they were never realized. “Tamanian had an idea of a transforming Kond into a museum district, and Kond has always been in the city reconstruction plans,” Petrossian notes.

The last big project for the district was initiated in the 1980s by Karen Demirchyan who wanted to turn it into Yerevan’s Montmartre. Kond was declared eminent domain by the authorities. The large scale initiative that was under the direct supervision of Demirchyan was conducted by young architect, Arshavir Aghekyan. Unfortunately, after the 1988 earthquake and the dire social and economic situation of the country, the project was never finished. After independence, mainly in the 2000s, there were several revitalization projects for Kond which, again, were never realized.

While there are no current plans for redevelopment, Petrossian sees a future for Kond. With minimal investment, the district could become an amazing place, he said. Today, Kond is the only preserved district of Yerevan that has a great potential to become a center for tourism in the capital.

Soviet Monuments

Worker and Kolkhoz Woman monument in Moscow. Photography
Worker and Kolkhoz Woman monument in Moscow. Photography: Andrey S. Shulgin

Across the former Soviet Union there are countless examples of monolithic structures rising high from the ground to shelter, collect or govern the citizens living in their shadows.

These strange, sloping forms, concrete parabolic rises and angular designs signify an age of futuristic optimism manifest in the built environment. But what is the relationship between monuments or buildings designed by one regime and passed onto a public for whom that no longer applies? What is their legacy? How are these spaces recontextualised in contemporary society?

The theme of the Venice Architectural Biennale this year was ‘Reporting from the Front’. Curator Alejandro Aravena invited participants to respond and reflect on the role of the architect in the struggle to improve living conditions for all. Titled VDNH Urban Phenomenon, the Russian pavilion showcases the ‘global significance’ of the 2,379,000 sq m VDNKh park in Moscow.

Falling into disrepair in the latter days of the Soviet Union, the park is currently the centre of a large city-led regeneration investment programme, renovating the many pavilions that celebrate the scientific and cultural prestige of the former nation.

‘The coherence of this urban ensemble,’ says curator Sergey Kuznetsov, ‘and its necklace of national and thematic pavilions create a territory which is capable of accumulating and multiplying society’s intellectual and cultural energy, and it is this which in the final analysis is helping us win the battle for quality of life.’

Given the recent history of many of these spaces and the complex environment that they came from it’s no wonder they are so fascinating. In Moscow we see grand structures of socialist realism such as the ‘Worker and Kolkhoz Woman’ statue. Originally designed for the World Fair in 1937 in Paris, it towers over the public platform of VDNKh, designed as ‘a multi-format cultural and educational space, accessible to all’.

Narkomfin building in Moscow. Courtesy of Calvert 22 Foundation
Narkomfin building in Moscow. Courtesy of Calvert 22 Foundation

Contrast this with the Narkomfin building in Moscow, originally designed as the architectural manifestation of the Soviet ‘social condenser’. It now stands derelict and semi-ruinous at the centre of a commercial dispute over land.

This example presents us with a dichotomy that echoes globally. The safeguarding and abandonment of space at very least raises questions about what the intentions of these buildings were, whom they are for and what agency decides their preservation.

Can space designed with utopian ideals effectively traverse periods of different socio-political orthodoxy? Do these structures belong in contemporary society? VDNKh Urban Phenomenon provides food for thought on the cultural value placed on the inherited architecture from Soviet times.

Russian-born, US-based artist Anton Ginzburg explores these themes using iconic examples from the post Soviet landscape in his film Turo which will have its UK debut at Calvert 22 Foundation’s Power and Architecture season in London.

The film’s four chapters explore landmarks of Soviet constructivist architecture, presenting them as allegories for a contemporary reflection on their utopian intention. Turo gets its name from the word for ‘tower’ in the artificial international language of Esperanto. ‘Each part of the film is a metaphorical tower that gets deconstructed throughout the duration of the chapter,’ says Ginzburg about the work. ‘It still resonates deeply with contemporary culture, but today it exists as an archive of ruins, the record of fragmentation.’

Melnikov House
Photography: Nikolai Vassiliev

We are guided through Melnikov House, the Narkomfin Building, ZIL (an automobile factory designed by Vesnin brothers, now demolished) and the Monument to the Third International, designed by Vladimir Tatlin but never realised. Ginzburg places the iconic unbuilt structure in the ‘ghost mode’ of a video game, siting this tower in the Ukrainian town of Pripyat, famously decimated in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster. In Turo, Ginzburg is able to explore the cultural legacy of these real and imagined spaces, from the stage of their own dilapidation.

xxx. Courtesy of Anton Ginzburg (c)
Still from Turo by Anton Ginzburg. Courtesy of the artist

Each of the four towers stood once as lofty pillars of high modernity, signifiers of an optimistic wave of the Constructivist avant-garde. This is now the vantage point of their critique. Two of the three buildings from the film have at least survived the drastic changes in Moscow following the collapse of the union.

Today they stand away from centre stage, as monuments to the utopian ambitions of the movement. With numerous reports of planning activity from the city, it is clear that these towers share an awkward relationship with the future that they were designed for.

‘Dead Space and Ruins: Power and architecture Part II’ runs at the Calvert 22 Foundation until 7 August 2016. Part III opens 11 August 2016

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.