Buildings Are Not Enough
Building 76 - Lali Pertenava
I meet with the organizers, they are young enthusiastic architects. I was reminded of the Soviet-Georgian comedy movie Dragonfly, with its main character of a young architect. Soviet clichés tend to stick in the mind for a long time.
Gldani, and the building I live in - what does a Soviet panel-block apartment building with a poor façade say to visitors? The romanticization of the Soviet buildings and their loggias is outdated, especially after the Georgian Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale presented Kamikaze Loggia, a work by Gio Sumbadze featuring a wooden extension attached to the side of Venice’s Arsenale.
In the backdrop of the urban dystopia of today's Tbilisi, the uniformity of Soviet construction and ‘90s brutalism is generating a new cultural form, creating a framework for urban development. Should the exhibition talk about that? Is this why I should convert Building 76 into an exhibition?
Yes, why not. I responded with satisfaction to the offer of the organizers of the Tbilisi Architecture Biennial to make an exhibition in the building where I live, in Soviet micro-district/micro-rayon Gldani, building N76.
1991, Tbilisi State University, waiting for university entrance exams:
‘Where do you live?’
‘Really? Are you sure the art history department is for you?’
2018, Gldani, Building 76:
- ‘What do you think it is about this building, your apartment or the surrounding environment that affected your decision to become an art historian?’ - Dima, an architect from Kiev.
I do not remember the period when we moved to Gldani, I was 1-year-old. I grew up with Gldani, I grew along with the trees that my father planted together with other residents of the building. I remember the story of my grandmother:
- ‘There was one building with poppy meadows around it. I thought I would be happy here.’
My mother told me she did not want to live in Gldani, but in the city. Despite this, my father started renovating the apartment.
I remember how the neighboring buildings were constructed; stories about the workers falling down from construction sites.
Our building was called the 'building of invalids', because on the first floor there was a shop for people with disabilities. The shop had ‘foreign’ products, mainly clothes. In the entrance of the shop there were usually big queues, mostly of people who looked quite healthy. Every year the universam (Soviet supermarket) near our building changed its interior, but it was always full of the same lemonades, which I usually bought with the change taken from the cosmos of cigarettes which my father used to send me to the shop for. It seems that there was no ban on cigarettes for juveniles in Soviet times.
The building yard; a fun summer entertainment venue always filled with lots of children. The garden pool (also made by my father's initiative); we were forever playing hide-and-seek, and always with children of different languages and cultures. Usually we wouldn’t find each other for the whole day, because of the amount of surrounding buildings and places to hide. The most vivid childhood image; the Kurdish ladies in traditional dresses, with the most beautiful glittering satin scarfs, collecting bunches of yellow leaves with wooden brooms, and how much I terribly wanted to make the leaves fly. Winter snow; playing in the yard, pouring water on the roads so it would freeze and we could use it to slide upon.
The first informal invasion of the yard was the construction of a car garage in front of the building, on the place of a former garden pool that had already been dismantled by local residents. Our family was one of the initiators of building the garage, even though we didn’t own a car. I do not remember what we wanted to have a garage for. Later we extended the balcony. Short term power outages would often happen during Soviet times. Once when the lights turned off during the most popular film program Illusioni (this was the only chance to see non-Soviet films), the neighbors simply made a phone call and we were then informed of when the power would come back. With the arrival of Independence, the electricity would turn off and not return for an hour - then sometimes a day, then a week, sometimes even a month. There was a joke that Jaba Ioseliani (the warlord leader of the Mkhedrioni paramilitary organization that ruled ‘90s Georgia) would light up Gldani once every 2-3 months just to calculate how many Gldani residents were still alive. The sky above Gldani was completely covered with a netted canopy of power cables stretching from building to building and connected to different electricity sources. Eventually the state regulated the electricity supply problem, and these disappeared.
Gldani was emptied of so-called ‘non-Georgians’ in the early ‘90s. The German and Greek governments took care of our German and Greek neighbors and took them to their countries of ancestral origin. Kurds and Yezidis took care of themselves and started to migrate to Europe and Canada. Many of the Armenians left for Armenia and Russia. The majority of Russians and Ukrainians went to Russia and Ukraine. In this exodus, a new stream of residents arrived after the tragedy of Abkhazia - Internally-Displaced Persons (IDPs), who either bought living spaces in kindergartens, administrative buildings and residential buildings, or squatted them. My IDP neighbors jokingly say, ‘We lost Gali (a region in Abkhazia), but we took Gldani’. The IDPs from Abkhazia brought the culture of garden decoration, and by the mid-90s they had transformed the yards in Gldani that were corn fields and urban farms into beautiful gardens with palm trees and flowers.
Post-Socialism was difficult for Georgia, the political and social system collapsed and the ‘non-system’ became a new system. The skeleton of the building and its backbone changed according to the wishes of people. During the Soviet Union interior renovation was banned in apartments given for social housing, but these rules were often broken. In post-Soviet times no one took into account construction rules; balconies grew, interior planning changed. Increased living space was often seized by residents at the expense of cutting into the common corridor. The landfill constructed below the building was made obsolete, and the common basement was transformed into my dream room – a bunker with my own library. Nowadays, the residents have transformed their cozy living spaces with euroremonts (renovation according to European standards), but public spaces such as the corridor, elevator and laundry room belong to nobody. The border between the public and the private in the building is outlined as clearly as between socialism and capitalism. Residents step from their euroremont apartments directly into Soviet corridors, which often lack any sign of maintenance. The outdoor area of the building, once filled every day with children, is now used for car-parking. Garages built in the ‘90s are not used for cars but as a living space expansion or commercial space.
- ‘Is it Gldani or Los-Angeles?’ Non-Gldanians often make this kind of joke entering Gldani from Akhmeteli Theater Metro Station at the sight of the 24-hour-lit signs of the casinos and totalizator boards. The surrounding area of Akhmeteli Metro is abuzz with outdoor trade - with mixed goods, variety stores, the Gldani Mall, countless beauty salons, the celebrated shaurma stands, bus and marshutka (minibus) parking, as well as many new constructions.
- ‘Sorry, where is the kolmeurneoba?’, an elderly woman asked me on my way to the metro station, referring to the Soviet-era collective farming markets that no longer exist.
In Gldani there is also a preserved pearl of the city, Gldani Bazaar. The Bazaar is a farmers’ market and the only one of its kind in the city left after similar markets disappeared from many districts of Tbilisi. It is also the most organized and clean market in the city, with the cheapest goods of the highest quality. In the Autumn and Spring, I go to the market as I would to an exhibition, to see the unique exposition of rich and luxurious fruit and vegetable varieties.
The trajectory of my movement is straight-lined in Gldani. Building 76, Gldani Bazaar and Akhmeteli Theater Metro Station. For the Bazaar I pass through the flea market, where unlike the Dry Bridge market in central Tbilisi, there are only items from the Soviet time. For my job and my social and cultural life, I take the route to the Metro station in order to reach the central part of the city. The Metro is another place where I have spent much of my life. It is an extension of Gldani and Building 76 for me, with its dynamics and all of its inhabitants, a place to trace the growth of beggar children since early childhood.
But why should I turn a residential building into an exhibition space? Exhibitions in apartments are not new in Georgia. In the Soviet Union, apartment exhibitions were often held by artists who did not like the restrictions of Soviet-state art spaces. In the late 2000s, the Bouillon Group organized a series of apartment exhibitions, reflecting the fight between public and private space in post-Soviet Georgia and questioning their margins. As time has gone on, art is increasingly something cut into private space. Post-socialist capitalism employs art as a means of utilizing private or public space, much like the totalitarian Soviet regime used art to possess both physical and psychological space. Building 76 no longer refers to the margins between the public and the private, since the building itself is a clear example of it. Rather, the project questions where the margins between art and society are.
In the Building 76 project, artists do not choose their exhibition spaces. Instead, the ordinary residents of this ordinary Soviet residential building invite the artists to enter their homes and to bring their own forms and energy, and to transform their living area according to the artists’ own aesthetics and vision.
Building 76 is therefore intended to be an example of participatory and community art, aimed at bringing and sanctifying art into private dwelling space. Like Nicolas Bourriaud’s ‘relational art’ or ‘relational aesthetics’, the artists do not serve to create a utopian reality, but a shared social environment. Building 76 asks the question, who is the artist? The host who allows an artist to bring artwork into his/her own particular spatial domestic creation? Or the artist who transforms a private space into a shared social space? Here the work-status of the artist and the host is equal, just as is the relationship between the Gldani Architecture Biennial and the Gldani micro-district itself, the Soviet sleeping quarter, and all of the city’s historical urban spaces.
Building #76 was built in 1975. It is a one-storied building and is referred to as the Czech building. However, as I learned from the Biennial organizer, the building has in fact no connection with Czech architectural planning. Because of its location and design, it is defined as a ‘dead-end’ building - the Georgian word for ‘dead-end’ is chikhi (ჩიხი). Because of this, the building over time became either mistakenly or humorously referred as ‘Czech’.
Building 76 is a community and participatory art exhibition within the scope of Tbilisi Architecture Biennial. The exhibition will be held in the apartments and surrounding area of Building 76 of the third micro-district of Gldani district on October 27 and 28 from 5 to 9 pm. The exhibition shows artworks of up to 20 local and international artists done in collaboration with the residents of the building.