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.
The annual festival of Delhi’s oldest architecture school is called Utopia. When I ask the students why it is called so and if they know what it means, they look confused. One exclaims, ‘Utopia is what we will create… it’s the perfect place, the perfect city…’ So I ask them, ‘But does it exist? And if it does, where is it?’
Generation after generation of architecture school students are fed on the idea of architects as the creators of perfect houses, cities and townships. They are taught about master plans that will save the world, from itself; they are trained to build townships with glimmering sharp-edged buildings, which no one can clean; they are taught about the deliverance of the world through architecture. This could be a deliverance based on emulating the glass facade high-rises of Dubai, London, Shanghai or the dull concrete corridors of Cold War era buildings across South Asia, Eastern Europe and the erstwhile USSR. Such prototypes reflect a deep and determined utopian imagination that continues to be entrenched in architectural planning and practice. Modernism and brutalism made a promise, a social contract of being architecture for the people, for their needs. Yet they failed in many ways either through buildings that people cannot use or those to which people have to fit themselves.
Is modernist architecture adaptive or normative? Can it accommodate the expansions of desires and the accumulation of years? Does it fabricate buildings for people or people for the buildings? The utopian world delivered by architecture or ‘the city of the future’ as Corbusier called it was believed to have the power to get rid from the world all its social evils. This imagination needed a frame that could avoid the disorder of the real world and yet be perfect in totality. The modernist plan was precisely this frame, which provided relief to architecture’s anxieties about the chaotic world. The axiom of the modernist frame—‘perfect cities make perfect citizens’—allowed architecture to not have to engage with the disorderliness of the social at all and superimpose the idea of a utopian future in blueprints and master plans, which could actually never be implemented in entirety but perfected and completely controlled in their internal form.
Of architectural anxieties
Three main anxieties have continued to haunt architecture: first, the presence of human beings; second, how to control humans and their actions; third, who will be the master controller (planner) of the future. Where are these anxieties coming from?
ABOUT SPEAKING STONES
Listen! See! Say!
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.
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In the early 1990s, a nationalist paramilitary group called the Mkhedrioni stripped Tbilisi of its central heating infrastructure, pipes and all, and sold it illicitly in Turkey. To this day, most buildings are heated by private boilers. At the same time, tens of thousands of internally displaced people (or IDPs) were pouring into the capital, fleeing civil war in separatist Abkhazia, occupying whatever empty buildings they could find. Many are still in place. Then there was the 2002 earthquake that destroyed or destabilised much of the Old Town. Many formerly Soviet cities suffered in the years immediately after the collapse of the Union, but Tbilisi got a rougher deal than most.
What purpose does an architecture biennial serve in a city like this? The high-end example of self-important institutions like Venice won’t cut it here. Tbilisi is a relatively small city and its architectural scene is close-knit, but its problems are profound, and they need intellectual as well as practical solutions. The inaugural Tbilisi Architecture Biennial (TAB), held in October and sponsored in part by Creative Europe, attempted to offer some. The artistic directors — Tinatin Gurgenidze, Gigi Shukakidze, Otar Nemsadze, and Natia Kalandarishvili — decided to make “informality” the central theme of the event, with the title Buildings Are Not Enoughreinforcing that TAB was as much about ideas as the built environment.
Informality has been a buzzword in architecture for years now, but what took place in Tbilisi was not an exercise in taste-making. The city’s appearance is defined by a million private modifications and extensions, responses to natural disasters, economic hardships, and population flux. Nowhere is this more evident than in Gldani, the Soviet suburb where the Biennial was based. Here, the uniform, prefab nature of the rows of apartment blocks is constantly and conspicuously disrupted by informal interventions: balconies bricked in against the cold, heating pipes knocked through walls, endless garages erected out of scrap metal.
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
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. Later it became part of the Nagorny 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. 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).
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 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.
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.”
SOVIET MONUMENTS IN 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.
A battle over the fate of one of Europe’s oldest city centers has pitted preservationists and urban planners against a powerful oligarch.
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.
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).
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.