Buildings Are Not Enough
APPROPRIATE, ADAPT, INHABIT: THE RECREATION OF PUBLIC SPACE IN THE REPUBLIC OF GEORGIA - Thomas Ibrahim, Claudio Vekstein
The collapse of the Soviet Union marked the beginning of the difficult deconstruction of the regime and ideology which controlled the East for the majority of the 20th Century. In the Republic of Georgia, Soviet collapse catalyzed a series of ethnically prompted conflicts and civil war which prevented the unification of the country under a national agenda, thus creating fertile ground for corruption, privatization and sale of public property. The earliest example of the corrupt transfer of property was the sale of the former Palace of Ceremonies, in Tbilisi, to oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili, which is still primarily used as a private residence by his family. After the Rose Revolution in 2003, Georgia faced rapid institutional reforms under President Mikheil Saakashvili, who legitimized his regime by collecting revenues via taxation, and attracting the foreign investment that Georgia desperately needed.
The national project of the Saakashvili government was the rapid creation of the image of a westernized, contemporary state, with the aim of earning European Union membership. New stability coupled with laissez-faire policy towards foreign investment and development accelerated privatization of public buildings and the erosion of urban space in the capital city, Tbilisi, and across the country. Furthermore, the regime’s approach to public and infrastructural projects were a manifestation of the arbitrary adoption of western values, while ignoring the existing Georgian urban and architectural context and identity. Former Soviet public buildings were (and continue to be) auctioned, and their demolition or retention are left completely up to the discretion of the new owners. The association of public buildings with the Soviet regime is the premise used in rationalizing privatization and destruction of public space, which in-turn further alienates Georgians by eliminating much needed public institutional buildings.
There are several social issues remaining in Georgia, including ethnic discrimination lingering from the early post-Soviet period, and the issue of internally displaced persons (IDPs) who live in extreme poverty in former public buildings. In Tbilisi, this is particularly evident in the former Industrial Pedagogical Technicum complex, which as a case demonstrates the indifference of the three post-Soviet regimes in addressing the pertinent issues of national and urban development. The Technicum complex is currently occupied by approximately sixty-five (65) refugee families remaining from the Georgian Civil War and the Russo-Georgian War, who are living in separation because of historical friction. Though the complex is dilapidated, key buildings present opportunities for focal interventions which could house much-needed public functions for the inhabitants, and integrate them into the urban community. The appropriation, adaptation, and inhabitation of this significant Late-Soviet structure by the public and for the public welfare, present an opportunity for restoring public space and preventing further cultural erosion.
According to the ancient myth, Icarus, a boy who escapes captivity through flight, is consumed by ambition, and despite warning to avoid the blazing sun, he ascends until the feather and wax wings created by his father are irreversibly damaged, plunging him to the depths of the sea.1 The myth of Icarus is somehow consonant not only with the story of the Soviet collapse, of the inevitable plunge following ambitious idealism but most recently, in Tbilisi, has been dramatically manifested in the late destruction of the relief sculpture affixed to the façade of the
former Industrial Pedagogical Technicum. The dismantling of the new Soviet man, a neo-Vitruvian figure with bat-like wings as the emerging archetype, irrespective of the country’s cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity, embodies the fall of idealism, of Trotsky’s hyper-ideological superman.2 This fateful fall may be a necessary step towards the acceptance, inhabitation, and humanization of former Soviet structures, a fruitful synergy between the dismantling, and potential re-appropriation of past identities.
For nearly four decades the “Tbilisi batman” stood in the midst of nude male and female figures, the new Adam and Eve, and scattered across the the massive sculpture, planetary bodies, numbers, a ladder, bolts, and gears – completely abstract, but obviously defining an epoch of industrialization that elevates the human spirit to heights never before reached. The relief sculpture affixed to the façade of the former Industrial Pedagogical Technicum theater, was created by the famous and controversial, Georgian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli.8 Today the sculpture only exists in documentation.
THE INDUSTRIAL PEDAGOGICAL TECHNICUM
The Technicum complex, designed by Georgian architect Nikolaz Lasareishvili, part of an ensemble of monumental architecture, was completed in the same decade as the adjacent former Ministry of Transportation Building, now the Bank of Georgia Headquarters, and the current Fortuna FM Radio Building, in 1978. The building complex is massive, built in the landscape, and currently sheathed in dense vegetation. Before the Late-Soviet period, a public institutional construction of this magnitude would never have been built into a rugged landscape. The complex is comprised of a total of five buildings: 1) a main block that originally housed classrooms, a library, and lobby, 2) the theater/lecture hall building which has the sculpture attached to its cantilevered façade, and a large terrace, 3) an industrial teaching facility housing equipment, 4) a bridge that connects the main block to the industrial facilities, and finally 5) a building that is separated from the others, farther uphill, that was used as student dormitories. The building is site-specific; standing on the terrace, beneath the cantilevering theater, the adjacent hills are on the same level. The form, volumetric relationship of the exterior and interior, and fenestration of the theater are undoubtedly rooted in Russian Constructivism; it is likely inspired by The Rusakov Workers Club by Konstantin Melnikov, but maintains a unique character. The building also demonstrates an awareness of a breach in the so-called Iron Curtain, as the typology is reminiscent of the works of Le Corbusier and South American Modernists, like Affonso Reidy.
SOVIET PUBLIC ARCHITECTURE POST-SOVIET COLLAPSE AND THE CASE OF THE FORMER INDUSTRIAL TECHNICUM
The attitude of discarding and privatizing significant Soviet architectural landmarks across the city, began with the sale of the Palace of Rituals to the Georgian Oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili. The Palace’s muralist stated in an interview, that the building was still in public use and that, “it was a crime to sell this building, taking away the feeling of festivity from the youth and the public generally provided by the interior… [Patarkatsishvili] purchased whatever was offered for sale, but the one who sold it is a criminal.” 11
After the Georgian-Abkhazian war, ethnic Georgians were expelled from Abkhazia and in need of refuge, tens of thousands of people traversed the entire country to arrive in Tbilisi. Without choice, these internally displaced persons (IDPs) occupied former Soviet public buildings, schools, and hotels. The most notable urban squat was in the center of the city in the iconic Iveria Hotel. Considering the building’s location and the image that it
projected, when Mikheil Saakashvili was elected president, he aggressively vacated the hotel and the investment in the territory erased its iconic appearance.
In the case of the Industrial Pedagogical Technicum, the Soviet Industrial Ministry was defunct, and the building no longer had a purpose. IDPs began partitioning parts of the building and creating an informal living condition within. The site-specificity and monumentality which characterized the complex would become perfect conditions for their further alienation. Since the building is not centrally located, accommodating for the Georgians living in the Technicum did not take precedence. Furthermore, the inhabitants were threatened with potential eviction since they have not been granted ownership of the building. The policy towards state property under Saakashvili’s government, was similar to previous regimes: “selling everything but our conscience.”
After the Russo-Georgian War in 2008, there were more refugees seeking shelter who migrated to Tbilisi. They came to the Technicum, and began inhabiting the building alongside the Georgians from Abkhazia. The two parties built a partition along the fourth and fifth floors of the main block building, enter from opposite sides, and when interviewed, speak ill of each other because of residual tensions. On both sides of the border, inhabitants are burning wood for warmth, from trees cut down on the premises. The inhabitants have asked to run gas lines through the building, but have been forbidden by the government because of safety. The original toilets from the Technicum are shared by entire floors of inhabitants, and some additional ones have been added in a few of the makeshift units – some toilets placed directly off the hallway. Wastewater is run through pipes that are punched out of the building’s back façade. Altogether the building is inhabited by approximately sixty-five (65) families. When asked how they felt about living in the building, answers were mixed. There were few remarks of admiration of the integrity of construction, but certainly, everyone agreed that the conditions in the building are far below any acceptable standard. However, the communal qualities of living in the building are the little solace that come with hardship. In addition to the building’s inhabitants, there are an additional two parties occupying the main block building, an elementary school located on the first level of the building on the northern side, and Icarus Tourism College. The elementary school’s premises are under the ownership of Tbilisi City Hall, and it was placed in the building to accommodate for the inhabitants children, as well as children from the neighboring community in the Dighomi district. Icarus is leasing the southern side of the first through third floors of the same building from the Georgian Ministry of Economy, the organization which presides over all obsolete state property.
CONTRIBUTORS TO DESTRUCTION: POLITICS OF THE SEEMINGLY OBSOLETE
There are several threats to the former Industrial Pedagogical Technicum complex, beginning with its Soviet-ness; Modern building’s association with the imposed, foreign totalitarian regime is used as a premise for sale and destruction. The second threat to the Technicum, is the complexity of the politics surrounding the ownership of the building, its inhabitants, and potential investors (both those wanting to capitalize on the Technicum’s unique industrial history and those wanting to raze and redevelop the real estate). The Technicum’s inhabitants claim that the complex, like several other public buildings, was nearly sold to investors twice during the Saakashvili regime. From the initial interactions with the Georgian Ministry of Economy via the National Agency of State Property in the summer of 2017, I was asked multiple times if I would be purchasing the Technicum complex. The final threat to the Technicum is scavengers who are still visiting the building and removing steel railings and industrial equipment to sell in the local market.
The interest of the Georgian government to sell the building or real estate, Icarus Tourism School’s interest in privatizing the building in their favor, and the interest of the IDPs to maintain shelter, and the failure of any of these parties to communicate, leads to further destruction of the Technicum. Additionally, in late October, during a visit to the building, men were removing steel railings and window frames from the theater. When approached, they casually and indifferently replied that they were going to sell the materials and that the government didn’t care about their scavenging materials.
In February of 2018, the sculpture on the façade of the Technicum theater began to be vandalized; the wings of the Vitruvian man were first to be taken. In March, nearly the rest of his body and other major components of the sculpture would then begin to disappear, as a consequence of an apparently irremediable process. The Georgian Ministry of Economy which should be responsible for the maintenance of their property has shown little interest in the case and has no desire to take initiative to rectify the issue. Most recently they have stated that the building is under the control of the leasing entity, Icarus Tourism College, and that they can do as they wish with the property. The case has caught the interest of Tbilisi City Hall because the Tsereteli family was in contact with Tbilisi’s mayor, Kakha Kaladze, but there has been no initiative to take any action regarding the case.
A NEW ATTITUDE: IDENTITY, IDEOLOGY, INHABIT!
The present circumstances surrounding the former Industrial Pedagogical Technicum within the historical and present context can be portrayed as follows. While the city disavows the existence of the building because of its location on the periphery, distanced by its monumental placement and concealed in dense vegetation, the building simultaneously negates to identify with the city, given its foreign communist origins, which reject the local identity through ideological symbolism, causing the building to fall under the present conditions of dilapidation and neglect. Furthermore, the building is occupied by two groups that refuse each other, while the government ignores them both. The Technicum negates itself currently because it no longer holds its original identity, which was lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and furthered recently with the loss of the relief sculpture on its façade, the last trace of its cultural and ideological identity. The situation is excessively chaotic – nearly void. The question then becomes how identity can arise from almost completely depleted conditions? Identity is typically concerned with itself, and this is seen in Georgia immediately following the Soviet collapse, through the actions of the ethno-nationalists, in the attempted elimination of an abstract “other.” Another way to find identity, in void, is to adopt a new identity, which was the established national agenda during the Saakashvili regime. The first way that it ought to happen is more Hegelian, that is surpassing the contradiction: instead of simply “I am Georgian, but not Soviet,” then “I am Georgian while also something else,” identity should not be exclusive.12 That is to say, Georgian identity is not contingent on the Soviet, but that because Georgia was Soviet, Soviet-ness remains a part of the Georgian identity, heritage, and history, resulting in an identity that is neither Georgian nor Soviet. Meaning that Georgian identity, like any other identity cannot be a pure identity, purity being the mere reflection of self, but rather a complex mixture of historical and cultural elements compounded over millennia. The history of Georgia after the 12th Century is that of a country and people who were conquered and fragmented because of the control of several empires until the annexation by Russia and incorporation into the Soviet Union,13 and that complex history cannot be eradicated. And the presence of the other, the foreign, allows for an awareness of self, which is the foundation of identity. When history is erased, autocracy and the exploitation of the Georgian people by tyrants, and even an ironic nostalgia for the Soviet regime is perpetuated, as has been the case since the inception of Georgian independence.
Our response to the current situation surrounding the former Technicum is that of a critical realism, an attitude that accepts the situation as it is, but is not passive, and better prepares to act and address it accordingly, with positive pragmatism. It is not merely the use of common sense to inhabit, or adaptively reuse buildings because they exist or because of their present occupation. To further Inhabit! the building is not merely a pragmatic solution, it is a critical ambition to challenge the present conditions; it is a big positive step through negating the previously mentioned denials – to challenge and contest the existing reality.
The first step of inhabitation has become, in this case, dismantling – a necessary act of appropriation. To Inhabit! means more than coming in and re-using a building, it is also the reimagining of its identity; the fall of the relief sculpture is not the fall of the building, but the fall of outstanding aesthetic idealism. The immediate reuse of this building (or others) will resolve the national issues in Georgia, but that it is a necessary step in confronting past idealism. If the building is finally demolished or if existing symbols are replaced with more contemporary ones, it would not be truly critical to the identity. The phenomenal icons from the past regime, which certainly should be preserved (for artistic and historical knowledge) should not necessarily be left untouched as they somehow legitimize the idealism they audaciously represented. In its present condition, with the sculpture being crudely dismantled and sold for its material weight, the building has lost its aura, authority, and distance - meaning its unapproachable monumentality, its presence as “the house of the people” to be seen by the masses from afar.
A new Inhabit! attitude will be fulfilled when these structures finally become simultaneously public and intimate, and when they truly live up to the ideals of the past without pretension. In the case of the Industrial Pedagogical Technicum, built with noble public intention and predicated on artistic but monumental and ideological expression, the observed fall of Icarus, may may further strengthen the dwelling potential of the Technicum, while reconciling it with Tbilisi’s urban fabric, embedding it in the local communities to house a renewal of social spirit.
1. Peabody, Josephine Preston, translator. “Icarus and Daedalus.” CommonLit, Original Published 1897.
2. Leon Trotsky wrote in 1924 in Literature and Revolution about the “Communist man,” about a “man of the future,” a “man [who] will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman.”
3. Chiaushreli, V. et al. Sunny Georgia. Rustaveli Prospect, n.d, pp. 24-26.
4. Žižek, Slavoj. “Slavoj Žižek: Nationalism Is a Way for Communists to Survive in Ex-Communist European Countries.” 10 Dec. 2017. Accessed 24 Mar. 2018.
5. Zürcher, Christoph. “Georgia’s Time of Troubles, 1989-1993.” Statehood and Security: Georgia after the Rose Revolution, edited by Bruno Coppieters and Robert Legvold, MIT Press, 2005, pp. 83-115.
6. Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Accommodation and Refugees of Georgia. “Number of Registered IDPs- Statistics by Region.” IDP Figures, Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from The Occupied Territories, Accommodation and Refugees of Georgia, 17 Sept. 2014.
7. Nodia, Ghia. “Georgia: Dimensions of Insecurity.” Statehood and Security: Georgia after the Rose Revolution, edited by Bruno Coppieters and Robert Legvold, MIT Press, 2005, pp. 39-82.
8. Ibrahim, Thomas, and Lasha Mindiashvili. “Architect Nikolaz Lasareishvili Family Interview.” 11 July 2017.
9. Warsza, Joanna, and Nini Palavandishvili, editors. “We Started with the Forest, the Hole and the Octupus.” Ministry of Highways: a Guide to the Performative Architecture of Tbilisi, by Nini Palavandishvili, The Other Space Foundation, 2011, pp. 41–48.
10. Lappartient, Vincent, et al. New Georgia: Georgian Architecture after the Rose Revolution 2004-2012. Ministry of Culture and Monument Protection of Georgia, 2012.
11. Bostanashvili, Shota and David Bostanashvili. Butza: Architect Victor Djorbenadze. pp. 128–129, 167-169. Georgian Technical Universiy, 2012.
12. Adorno, Theodor W., and E. B. Ashton. Negative Dialectics. Seabury Press, 1973.
13. King, Charles. The Ghost of Freedom: a History of the Caucasus. Oxford University Press, 2012.
14. Antidze, Margarita. “Exclusive: Trump Pulled out of Project in Ex-Soviet Georgia to Avoid Conflict of Interest – Ex Partner,” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 10 Jan. 2017
15. Chaubin, Frédéric. CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed. Taschen, 2014.
16. Ibrahim, Thomas, and Irakli Zhvania. “Tbilisi After Saakashvili, The Georgian Dream Party, and Neoliberalism: Interview with Urban Planner Irakli Zhvania.” 6 July 2017.
17. Khutsishvili, George. “Intervention in Transcaucuses.” Boston University, Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology, and Policy, Feb.- Mar. 1994.
18. Nodia, Ghia. “Nationalism Can Be Beneficial.” Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict, by Charles P. Cozic, Greenhaven Press, 1994, pp. 34–41.
19. Salukvadze, Joseph, and Oleg Golubchikov. “City as a Geopolitics: Tbilisi, Georgia - A Globalizing Metropolis in a Turbulent Region.” Cities, vol. 52, 12 Dec. 2015, pp. 39–54. Elsevier, doi:10.1016/j.cities.2015.11.013.
20. “Urbanists, Architects to Reimagine Soviet-Era Buildings in Tbilisi.” Agenda.ge, 15 Nov. 2017.