Highlights *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.
ABSTRACT Tbilisi, a city of over a million, is the national capital of Georgia. Although little explored in urban studies, the city epitomizes a fascinating assemblage of processes that can illuminate the interplay of geopolitics, political choices, globalization discourses, histories, and urban contestations in shaping urban transformations. Tbilisi’s strategic location in the South Caucasus, at the juncture of major historical empires and religions in Eurasia, has ensured its turbulent history and a polyphony of cultural influences. Following Georgia’s independence in 1991, Tbilisi found itself as the pivot of Georgian nation-building. Transition to a market economy also exposed the city to economic hardship, ethnical homogenization, and the informalization of the urban environment. The economic recovery since the early 2000s has activated urban regeneration. Georgia’s government has recently promoted flagship urban development projects in pursuit of making Tbilisi as a modern globalizing metropolis. This has brought contradictions, such as undermining the city’s heritage, contributing to socio-spatial polarization, and deteriorating the city’s public spaces. The elitist processes of decision-making and a lack of a consistent urban policy and planning regimes are argued to be among major impediments for a more sustainable development of this city.
Taking advantage of a lack of governmental regulations, many Ukrainians turn to their balconies to compensate for the shortage of space in prefab-Soviet housing, rebuilding them in a variety of shapes and sizes. The short documentary Enter Through The Balcony explores this phenomenon in Ukrainian architecture, revealing a compelling image of post-Soviet history through local everyday life and culture.
In addition to showcasing a unique attitude towards private versus public space, the makeshift balconies phenomenon is also a symptom of the dramatic pendulum swing from mass uniformity and anonymity, to freedom of expression and ownership of private space, which shaped attitudes and architectures across the former Eastern bloc after 1991.
Across Central and Eastern Europe, the socialist political regime manifested itself architecturally through mass standardization, expansive collective housing estates, and a specific architectural expression, defined today as socialist modernism. The informal architecture that sparked around this type of architecture in Ukraine (as well as elsewhere) reflects the complicated relationship of the individuals with this architectural heritage, a symbol of an equally convoluted past. The Ukrainian makeshift balconies phenomenon also highlights the shortages of the housing schemes developed in the period between 1955 and 1991.
“This paper builds upon recent post-structuralist writings on informal economic practices, using most importantly a Polanyian institutionalist framework, to discuss formal/informal and market/non-market practices in the transport sector. The article proposes a critical reading of the literary canon of informal transport, which largely assumes a naturalness and omnipresence of markets. We illustrate how reductionist definitions of informal transport marginalise analytically important empirical detail, and furthermore, lead to misleading theoretical conclusions. In contrast, we analytically de-couple informality and markets, showing that formal and informal economic practices can be embedded in diverse social-cultural institutions. Such a theoretical framework allows for consistent evaluation and empirical examination of transport options, as substantiated by evidence from the marshrutka mobility phenomenon in Bishkek and Tbilisi. We observe marketisation, dis- or re-embedding, formalisation and informalisation as dynamic, inter-dependent and conflictual processes. On these grounds, the article argues for a critical re-appraisal of other forms of informal transport, old and emerging, both in the Global South and the Global North.”
“It is hard to study marshrutkas. ey are elusive; there are no clear criteria on what a marshrutka is or on what a marshrutka is not. They differ by color, size, and shape. They differ in whom they serve, who drives them, who owns them, who governs them. They differ in the ways they operate, the way routes are laid out, the way they are standardised. Rules of behaviour in a marshrutka also dier. They are quietly codified, not easy to comprehend, requiring familiarity and insiders’ knowledge. ey change, adjust, and adapt quickly. ey shrink and expand, they occupy public space but at points become invisible. ey simultaneously enable and confront. ey signify diverse, and at points contradictory, things for different people at different times. ey have been markers of the decay of Soviet infrastructure and of a Soviet vision of modernity. They have also signfied a new entrepreneurial spirit of capitalist modernity, of flexibility, freedom of choice, and the power of consumer demand. They have been demonized for being pre-modern, unruly, overcrowded and dangerous, while simultaneously representing locally divergent forms of solidarity, sociability, reciprocity, and sharing.”
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”.
Architect and planner Sarhat Petrosyan, the former head of the State Cadastre Committee, speaks to EVN Report about the need for reforms in the current model of construction and urban development governance, transparency, corruption risks and more.
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.
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.
There is no denying the ecstatic cries of the children and the content faces of their parents who have been flocking with their families to the newly inaugurated 2800th Anniversary Park of Yerevan. The mosaic-laden, grid of fountains, benches and astonishingly schmaltzy statues is a massive success. The general jolliness of the public inadvertently silences those naysayers who decry the supposed ‘tastelessness’ of the park. Just like the derided Northern Avenue, this new initiative by the city’s municipality – realized through the auspices of private capital – has given Yerevan’s residents a much-needed stretch of public space where people can socialize in relative comfort and safety. So what is the issue here and is there an issue at all? If we were to strip back the layers of meaning and intent in this site, what we’d find hidden is not so much herd mentality and tastelessness, but quite the opposite. This park, along with its even more grotesque twin – the recently reconstructed Central Avenue square adjoining Mashtots Avenue – are taste-full. Overwhelmingly so, in fact.
To put it crudely, ‘good taste’ is a historical and cultural phenomenon that evolved in the Western world during the early modern period in the 17th century and served as a way of delineating the aesthetic judgement of the nobility and the upper classes, from that of the ordinary folk. Possessing ‘good taste’ meant being aligned with superior levels of power and political standing – a position reflected through luxurious material objects and richly decorated residences. While it transformed dramatically during the 19th and especially 20th century, the concept of ‘good taste’ was always decried by Marxists and the artistic avant-garde as the epitome of petit bourgeoisie, and was passionately fought through the standardization of mass-culture and lifestyle in communist republics such as Soviet Armenia. Nevertheless, the ambition for social elevation remained an undercurrent drive that exploded with untamed force after the collapse of the USSR. This repressed desire to show one’s ‘taste’ in fine things – and hence, higher social ranking – was reflected in every aspect of everyday, post-Soviet Armenian life: from the extraordinary number of luxury cars to the neo-imperial style of the gargantuan private and public buildings constructed in the last two decades. The two newly reconstructed parks in Yerevan’s center boldly extend this tendency into the development of public space. Attendant political, sociological and cultural implications of such conversions have been ignored by the popular media and despite some critical reactions, the local intelligentsia has passively shrugged the matter away. The present article is an attempt to continue the discussion and examine the wider consequences behind the relentless subjugation and transformation of existing public spaces in Yerevan, under the auspices of private capital and neo-liberal cultural policies.