2020 Tbilisi Architecture Biennial – Bazaar Talk On FaceBook
Tbilisi Architecture Biennial – Birzhastation – Talk by Evgenya Zakharova
JosephSalukvadze and OlegGolubchikov
*Tbilisi has been strategically positioned at the intersection of major geopolitical interests in the South Caucasus.
*Transition to a market democracy has been a painful period, causing ethnical homogenisation and economic impoverishment.
*In the wake of economic recovery, state government has focused on flagship projects and urban regeneration.
*Old Tbilisi is losing its heritage due to historic buildings’ replacement and gentrification.
*There is a growing demand for a new kind of relationship between the city and the citizens.
Published in FA – Failed Architecture
Georgia’s changing political orientation has been continuously reflected in the dynamics of its capital’s former Republic Square: from military parades, to soviet relics and a vertical refugee camp, to sanitised commercial functions.
In the centre of Tbilisi lies the Rose Revolution Square, named after Georgia’s Rose Revolution of 2003. The place has changed a lot during the past decades, but still retained its character as an important part of the city. On the sunny 26th of May in 1995, the Georgian air force planes created a spectacle for the crowd that had gathered for Independence Day. Still called Republic Square back then, the square itself was also the setting for a military parade in celebration of the Georgia’s independence, which it gained shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Although the air still contained the strange scent of war on that day in 1995 after a severe civil war, the young independent country was rejoicing. Yet, right in front of the audience stood the run-down Hotel Iveria, which was now home to over 800 Abkhazian refugees as a silent reminder of the recent conflicts. In fact, that very place had been a battlefield only a few years earlier.
Republic Square during a Soviet parade in the mid 1980s.
Almost two decades later, the square is mostly home to noisy traffic and vast empty spaces. The hotel has been emptied of the refugee squat, had a modern renovation and now belongs to the Radisson group. While the square is geographically exactly the same, a lot has changed. The place is not only one of Tbilisi’s few public squares, it is also arguably the place where the political and social transformation are most deeply reflected in urban space and architecture. Here, the country’s and the city’s recent past and present are visibly mixing, creating an absurd, mostly unused transitory space in the heart of town.
The story goes back to 1960´s, when Soviet Georgia was one of the top tourist destinations of the USSR. In 1967, the construction of the tallest building in Tbilisi was finished: Hotel Iveria, a 22 storey high structure designed by the Georgian architect Otar Kalandarishvili in the very geographical centre of Tbilisi and well visible from every point of the city. This prestigious Hotel was clearly not accessible to everyone. In order to book a room one had to make a reservation several months in advance through the official travel agency of the Soviet Union “Intourist”. Only the lucky ones would be able to stay in one of the rooms with a great view overlooking the entire town. Along with the hotel Mr. Kalandarishvili also designed the square in front of the hotel, which was finished much later, in 1983. As described by the architect himself at the time: “In the centre of the city, one of Tbilisi’s most important squares will be established by levelling an existing dip. The so created space underneath the square will contain more than 20 thousand square meters of useful space on three levels that will be used to create a social-cultural centre”.
Rising from the banks of the Mtkvari River, the structure dominates the landscape like an enormous abstract sculpture. Its ritual function is unmistakable: it is the size of a cathedral and clad in the same warm stone used in Georgia’s medieval churches. It also happens to be exuberantly phallic — a giant cock and balls against Tbilisi’s ancient skyline.The Palace of Rituals, or Wedding Palace as it is universally known, is the wrong building in the wrong place at the wrong time: a cathedral built in the atheist USSR, a Soviet celebration of Georgian national heritage, a cultural innovation in an era remembered largely for conformity. It is the work of Viktor Jorbenadze — nicknamed Jorbusier for his love of the French-Swiss master — an architect of genius whose daring and provocative buildings defy categorisation. Just like the now-forgotten moment that produced them.
Jorbenadze’s peculiar masterpiece shows the USSR and its modern architecture in a new light. Despite the chasm that separates the Brezhnev years from the modern West in terms of aesthetics, mores, and economics, Soviet architects in the seventies were as concerned with the problem of “placeless” architecture as any globalised city today. Behind the Iron Curtain, a parade of drab, mass-produced towers marched relentlessly from Vilnius to Vladivostok. It took someone like Jorbenadze to subvert this. His work is neither Old City quaint nor tower-and-slab modern. That it is neither of those things is what makes him special. He built big, but with an eye to what surrounded him — a kind of contextual monumentalism. His designs evoked local traditions without fetishising them, creating an alternate route between too precious and too placeless.
In the late seventies Georgia was by far the best place to live in the Soviet Union
What makes the bold experimentation of the Wedding Palace surprising is not only its design but its dates: commissioned in 1979 and finished in 1984. Across the Soviet Union this was the Era of Stagnation. The time of the gerontocracy, of ageing politburo members catching their deaths watching military parades, of tumbling living standards, drab fashions and stifling censorship. Except, that is, in Georgia. In the late seventies Georgia was rich — as rich as the capitalist countries of southern Europe. Flush with Moscow subsidies, a booming tourism sector and a massive black market, Georgia was by far the best place to live in the Soviet Union.
The city of Tbilisi, current capital of the country of Georgia, experienced a turbulent set of changes at the dawn of the modern period, from little more than a mass of ruins in 1795 to the 19th-century political center of the Russian Caucasus to 20th-century capital of Georgia. This project seeks to understand cities as intrinsically heterogeneous and historically layered objects: many places in one. Cities are therefore intrinsically “multiple objects” inviting multiple readings. Our website will treat Tbilisi as an “urban assemblage”, composed of heterogeneous networks of human and nonhuman elements and actors. From these heterogeneous materials and actors are assembled and stabilized “imagined cities”: the traditional “Middle Eastern” city, the divided city of colonialism, the modernist city of infrastructures, the socialist “cultured” city and postsocialist cities haunted by past and future.
To study such an intrinsically heterogeneous object is required an equally heterogeneous approach, which renders objects as diverse as literary images of the city and material infrastructures comparable and commensurable within stable “urban assemblages”. Following the grant narrative, this website will divide Tbilisi into five such distinct periods: the maps will be linked to each period.
The City of Balconies: elite politics and the changing semiotics of the post-socialist cityscape
My first experience of Tbilisi was in the spring of 1992, a few short months after the coup that ousted the first post-socialist government of Zviad Gamsakhurdia. It also leveled much of a historic portion of the downtown area. The general who had led the coup, Tengiz Kitovani, had been a sculptor in the socialist period. As a result, the devastated downtown region became known jokingly at the time as ‘Kitovani’s exhibition’.
The coup against Gamsakhurdia was transformative in its effects on the Georgian city not only in the plastic arts, but also socially. The emergent political divide between Anti- and Pro-Gamsakhurdia (‘Zviadist’) orientations often boiled down to the inherited cultural division between Tbiliseli ‘Tbilisian’ and provincial Georgian villagers. The nationalist Gamsakhurdia government’s support was strongest amongst present or erstwhile Georgian villagers, whilst old urbanites, and the urban intelligentsia in particular, ranged themselves against the new government.
The 1992 coup was also a family feud within the socialist intelligentsia: A philologist-dissident-turned-president ousted by a sculptor-turned-general (Kitovani) and a criminal-turned-writer-turned-warlord (Jaba Ioseliani), the coup illustrated emergent and opposed tendencies within the socialist intelligentsia. Different self-conceptions of the urban intelligentsia were, as it were, incarnated in the figures who led this coup. On the one hand, the coup, in which a sculptor-turned-general ousted a philologist-turned-president, illustrates a public, exoteric, battle over the self-definition of the intelligentsia, an essentially urban, elitist intelligentsia (represented by Kitovani) turning against a provincial or provincializing one (represented by Gamsakhurdia). On the other hand, the presence of a unique ‘hybrid’, Jaba Ioseliani, a well-known criminal (‘thief of the law’, Georgian k’anonieri kurdi, Russian vor v zakone) breaking the criminal laws of non-engagement with public political life, who was himself also a writer and intelligent turned paramilitary leader, gives the coup another hidden, esoteric dimension. Here urban life and the intelligentsia is characterized not as a public apotheosis of national culture (dividing the intelligentsia from the people as urban to rural, but reuniting them within the framework of the nation), but as an urban bohemian subculture, stressing the opposition between the intelligentsia and the people, private urban subculture and public national culture.
Soviet factory towns have turned out to be unworkable under a globalised market economy – but these cities continue to live. I traveled to Georgia’s metal town of Rustavi to find out more.
Speaking Stones is a tool by JumpStart Georgia which allows you to explore, compare, and engage in the old and new faces of different places, districts, regions, cities, and countries.
Using the slide bar, you can drag the photos overlapping each other so that you can see how places, buildings, statues, nature, or people have changed over time.
You can share your observations and discoveries with us using the comment section below every picture.
At the moment, Speaking Stones only has photos from Tbilisi. However, JumpStart Georgia plans to widen the scope of the project and add photos from all over Georgia, and maybe beyond.
You, too, can participate in making Speaking Stones better for everyone. Wherever you are in the world, in or out of Georgia, if you have old pictures sitting in your closet, scan them, take new pictures of the same area and send them to us. Giving you the credit, we will add their story to Speaking Stones and share them with the world.
If you have any other ideas, comments, or questions, please, give us a shout at:
+ 995 032 214 29 26
5, Shevchenko St, Apt 2
Tbilisi, Georgia 0108
You can still find your way in Tbilisi with the old maps of the city published by the Baedeker on Russia in 1914 or of the guide of Moskvich from 1913. But as to the details, everything has changed, as the city hugely expanded, especially to the west and north. So in this city there is a “Europe” in the west – with absolutely no originality –, while to the south or to the east it seems that you have arrived to the Orient.“Europe” is of course where the city expanded in the twentieth century. The windows have preserved all their glasses, there is hot water on all floors, the apartments perhaps were not divided in 1937, after the disappearance of their occupants, the stairs have no missing steps, no metal or concrete block clutters up the yard, the facade was not riddled with bullets in 1991, you do not have to illuminate the corridors with your mobile phone, you do not share the entrance hall of your apartment with a cantankerous neighbor, nobody hangs the clothes in the yard.
What you find in the east and south, is not necessarily the Orient, but it is neither quite Europe any more, and it is this in-between where the city we love and its people thrive: a world in turn asleep or full of vitality; some spaces crumbling slowly and with indifference, and others being vigorously rebuilt; a city stepping forward from a very distant time with its churches dating to the sixth century, several cities in the city inherited from hostile empires – some of which disappeared by now and some others faded, but still alive – that seem to have born spontaneously from the dynamism of their inhabitants; a world where memory and oblivion meet face to face.
In these obviously dilapidated quarters, at any time you walk the dusty streets, you see children playing and others carrying their schoolbag on the back, cats spinning between your legs, women with their bags going to buy things, men lost in the engine of a car getting ever older. On New Year’s Eve everybody shot their fireworks here, rockets and flares fly out of every window. And in the night, to celebrate the new year, men dressed in black dance together in a circle in front of their cars with open doors, and with the radio turned on to the maximum.
There is also the “Armenian” neighborhood – small houses, or even shacks, clinging to the slope of a ravine plowed by the rains just behind the glass roof of the presidential palace. I take a photo of a house, a man comes out and thanks to me. He knows France, his brother lives in Blois. When he went to see him, he visited New Orléans – newpronounced in English, but Orléans in French. I assure him that in France, we have only Orléans, and that New Orleans is in America. He doubtfully shakes his head, after all, he went there… while I, when did I go for the last time to Orléans?