Georgia Diary: Saakashvili's Buildings
Here I am, talking about Georgia again. This is the second in my Georgia Diary series of impressions, observations, and memories from close to two years living in that utterly strange and beautiful country.
Tbilisi’s architecture gets a lot of superlatives in travel magazines. “Diverse” is the most common word, “eclectic” would be a close second, “a wild hodge-podge” is another common reaction—I haven’t done any kind of a survey, though. I’d probably elect for “naked schizophrenia.”
Tbilisi’s a bit like the ancient city of Troy, in that about seven different cities have been built on the same site. Unlike Troy, though, Tbilisi wasn’t built one layer on top of the other. Rather, each conqueror or ruling power just flung up some constructs of their own, next to the old stuff. There are hallmarks of Georgia’s medieval architecture: ornately-carved balconies on ramshackle wooden apartments and stout churches with their peaked central turrets. There are Tsarist-era buildings, more utilitarian versions of Parisian housing blocks, with shops running out of the basements on the street, and Italian courtyards. In those courtyards (Ezo, in Georgian) the neighbourhood’s grandmothers function like CCTV cameras, keeping an eye on the kids at play, but aware of every coming and going at all hours. Little gets past them.
There are plenty of Soviet buildings, especially in the suburbs. Huge concrete towers, on their faces a grim legacy of a grim era. Inside, though, the apartments are pretty well-appointed, and while the stairwells have all fallen to disrepair (my last building was considered well-maintained for only having one stair completely caved in), the apartments are kept in immaculate nick by their owners. There’s little difference, to me, between the old Soviet block flats and Toronto’s crop of glass-walled condo towers, except that the Soviet buildings are a little longer-lasting, and rent is cheaper.
Georgia has been ruled by just about every culture in its neighbourhood. Greeks, Romans, Persians, Byzantines, Armenians, Turks (Seljuk and Ottoman), Mongols, Timurids, and Russians (Tsarist and Soviet). It’s a long list. They all left a mark. Somehow, Tbilisi shows off every scar of its past and manages to keep a little bit of its ancient self, wholly unique from all these influences, or at least too mixed to be seen as a child of any one style.
It’s the most modern architecture that really strikes you when you get into the city, though. Monumental buildings dot the city, all in a similar style: lots of glass and curvy lines. Like so much else in Tbilisi’s architecture, they reflect a ruler. This was a Georgian, though, a guy named Mikheil Saakashvili.
It’s hard to find a more influential figure in modern Georgian history. Misha, as he’s affectionately known, came to power in 2003 during the Rose Revolution. It was one of the so-called ‘colour revolutions’ that swept parts of the former USSR in the early 2000s—along with Ukraine’s Orange revolution in 2004, and Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip revolution in ‘05. Oddly enough, Georgia’s is the only one to straddle the line between floral and colour etymology. Misha and his revolutionaries swept out the old government of Eduard Shevardnadze with a message of anti-corruption, Europeanization, and a re-establishment of the rule of law. Georgia in the ‘90s had been a failed state, run by the mafia, without basic services like water and power available to anyone beyond the wealthy and well-connected. Criminality and corruption reigned. Misha tried to change that. Somehow, he did.
In sweeping, dramatic, often undemocratic, actions Misha rebuilt the Georgian state in his own image. Inspired by his time as a student at Columbia university in the ‘90s, he emulated Giuliani’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy, and imprisoned thousands. Hardened mafiosi, ordinary drugs offenders, or people who’d just paid bribes to get by, all got charged, all went to prison. Conviction rates were around 99.6%. He famously fired Georgia’s 16,000 traffic cops, inviting them all to reapply for their jobs and demonstrate they weren’t corrupt. Anyone who’s driven in Georgia would tell you that the traffic cops still don’t do much, but at least they don’t demand a bribe every ten kilometres.
In remarkably short order, Misha built something resembling a state. People started paying taxes—though the mad neoliberal instituted a flat-tax regime—and after astronomically high rates of assault and home invasions in the ‘90s, people started feeling safe walking the streets at night, again. Now you weren’t afraid of the mafia, you were afraid of arrest.
Misha built symbols to his new state. Envisioning himself as a 21st century Ataturk, he wanted an architecture that reflected his vision of neoliberalism, transparency, and an uncharted future in a country so scarred by its past. He hired a German architect named Jürgen Mayer and tasked him with setting that ideology in steel and glass. The transparency metaphor was easy to achieve, if a bit ham-handed. All the new police stations were built with glass walls, and floodlit from the outside. On your 4am drive into town from the airport, you’ll see police officers sat at their desks. The interior ministry was the crown jewel of that project, a vast glass complex of wavy lines resembling a mirage off the side of the dusty highway. Inside, the police stations and the interior ministry are hot as hell. Nobody thought to properly cool these buildings that are, in effect, greenhouses.
His presidential palace, on the hills of Avlabari overlooking Tbilisi, was constructed as a mini-reichstag, with a central glass egg symbolizing—you guessed it—transparency. Misha flung up a few less-glassy buildings too, like the utterly unusual blobs of the Mestia airport, in the previously almost-inaccessible mountain region of Svaneti. That’s another legacy of Misha’s, too: turning a clannish highland region notorious for kidnappings into a faux-Swiss skiing and trekking destination. He built a similar series of blobs in Sarpi, a village on the Turkish border, and brought central government rule to that border region of Adjara, which had run as a quasi-breakaway state through the ‘90s. He transformed its capital, Batumi, from an industrial oil port into a tourist playground. Batumi now is a cheap Vegas for the Turkish, Russian, and Iranian businessmen looking to spend a few lari on the Black Sea coast. Right on the seaside, he put up a tower which, for lack of any other term, is truly phallic. Misha was never one for subtlety.
Georgia’s history is etched in its buildings. Somehow a country of so many rulers, including those notorious for rewriting memory, managed to keep a little bit of each. Somehow, too, it managed to keep something of itself. Today, under the rule of the billionaire-managed Georgian Dream party, Georgia’s new constructions look a little more like Toronto’s: simple glass towers, condo buildings, and office blocks with neither the ambition—nor the madness—of what Misha put up. They haven’t torn down his stuff, though. That wouldn’t be Georgian.
If you want to see some of Georgia’s weird architecture, and learn more of the history behind it I’m organising at tour! Contact me here for more details.