“For nine years we had a president who was very interested in architecture,” says local architect and planner Irakli Zhvania, who leads “ugly walks” around the city highlighting the catastrophic results of corrupt deals, destroyed heritage and the privatisation of swaths of public parks. “It was a disaster.”
The carnage wrought on Tbilisi’s historical centre since the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, and the influx of investment in the 2000s, has been the spur behind the launch of the recent Tbilisi Architecture Biennial.
“There has been very little discussion about architecture and urban development in Georgian society,” says Tinatin Gurgenidze, co-founder of the biennial. “People are starting to wake up to the fact that their environment is being destroyed, but there is no forum for discussing an alternative way forward.”
Co-curator Otar Nemsadze used to work in the urban planning department of Tbilisi city hall and is now a private consultant for the accountancy firm PwC, so he has seen how the machine operates from both sides. “We wanted to stir up public discourse about the future of the city,” he says. “If we help to kindle a fire from below, then change might finally happen.”
Architecture is not something that has been ignored by Georgia’s successive governing regimes. Far from it. Saakashvili, a neoliberal moderniser who ruled until 2013, was a known lover of contemporary design, although the scope of his tastes was somewhat limited. The aforementioned structures were all designed by Italian poundshop starchitects Massimiliano Fuksas and Michele de Lucchi, whose fondness for gratuitous form-making was matched only by the president’s zeal to get their schemes built as quickly as possible. He also commissioned German blobitecture maestro Jürgen Mayer H to build a slew of undulating follies across the country, many of which remain unfinished.
“Saakashvili behaved like a king, just picking his favourites with no competition or discussion,” says Zhvania. “He dismissed any opposition voices as retrogrades, standing in the way of modernisation.”
The former president may now be living in exile in the Netherlands, wanted on multiple criminal charges back home, but his physical legacy is still very much felt – and others have eagerly picked up where he left off.
The view from Tbilisi’s central Freedom Square used to be a striking prospect, with the council assembly and other 19th-century buildings framed by a dramatic backdrop of bare mountains. The dark glass hulk of an Ibis hotel now looms behind the assembly, while the hillside has been adorned with a jumbled complex of metal sheds and glass cylinders, topped with a flying saucer helipad. Nicknamed the “glassle”, it is the Bond villain residence of the former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest man. It is a £30m palace designed by the Japanese architect Shin Takamatsu, complete with a private zoo and a banqueting hall in a rotating silver orb suspended above a swimming pool, its walls decorated with copies from Ivanishvili’s $1bn art collection (he keeps the originals in a vault in London).
Ivanishvili bankrolled the Georgian Dream coalition, which defeated Saakashvili’s party in the 2012 parliamentary elections. Since then he has been widely regarded as the most powerful person in the country’s politics, said to use his vast wealth to exert influence behind the scenes – and make his architectural mark on the capital.
Not content with having his own sprawling mansion, he initiated the Panorama Tbilisi, a project of pharaonic proportions that includes a gargantuan luxury hotel, conference centre and golf course on another nearby hilltop, which will be connected to branches of the complex at other sites in the city by a series of cable cars. One of his bulbous glass blocks is already under construction at Freedom Square, built with the clumsy indifference to its surroundings you might expect.
The Panorama has been described as the largest real estate development in Georgia’s history, and it is also one of the most controversial. Built on a site of protected natural landscape overlooking the city’s botanic gardens, there are questions over its legality, the transparency of procurement and permissions, and the impact of the project on the environment. Regular protests have been held since it was announced, at which activists have been arrested, including a then member of the city assembly, Aleko Elisashvili, but the bulldozers and cranes proceed unabated. The huge stack of concrete terraces is now evident from all around town, like a fortress hovering menacingly above the city.
Joseph Alexander Smith, a Briton who has lived in Tbilisi for the last six years, was driven by what he witnessed to stand for local election last year on a platform of environmental activism, campaigning against chronic traffic problems, pollution and the unabated development that has blighted much of the city. “We have lost one of the city’s oldest streets, Mirza Shafi,” he says, “and now developers are hand-in-glove with politicians, intent on destroying everything that is left. Everyone has a right to air, not just the right to breath clean air, but to look out of their window and not be confronted by the concrete wall of a new illegal building.”
He says things are beginning to change – construction permits are now available to view online, and people call the city hall inspectorate when they see something being demolished illegally – but that many contractors still begin digging then apply for permission afterwards.
Source: The Guardian