Ownership and Right to the City through the Architectural Typology of the Bazaar

Irakli Kotchlashvili

The bazaar near Ghrmaghele Metro Station in Tbilisi has been existed since 1994. This is what my grandmother tells me. She says she was one of the first to put a metal booth there. If it had not  been so, she would not have known how to sustain herself and her family. After a pause, she begins to talk about the injustice that was done several years ago: “those people don’t give a damn about what others need, unless they are making money.” “Those people” refers to the developers who, in 2010, declared that the territory of the bazaar had been purchased and the construction of two 18-storey residential buildings and a mall in front was about to begin.

The dismantling and clearing off of the location happened gradually. First, the booths got displaced as they did not have any land ownership. The vendors had given up their property only after two years of negotiations with the developer in exchange for future space in the mall. According to my grandmother, these were not negotiations, the developers were threatening to leave proprietors empty-handed. 

My grandmother, continuing her story, says that “sometime in 2006,” the City Hall already wanted street vendors and bazaars to be cleared. They wanted to cleanse streets. This kind of narrative coming from City Hall is all too familiar for Tbilisi: “reclaiming public spaces for the public” and “getting rid of elements which disfigure the image of the city” is wording that especially predominates. If we observe how “cleansed” locations evolve, we can clearly see that the outcome has nothing to do with the initial intention. What is publicly said is merely an excuse for squeezing more capital from the land, which does not return the space back to the public at large, but to a small part of the public that has authority. 

In most cases, the discourse of the municipality does not go any further than labeling spaces occupied by street vendors as “lacking aesthetic value”. I decided that while considering this particular case, I would not use any photo documentation but rather focus on the structural analysis of the bazaar in comparison to the present shopping mall. How was the territory managed by the people who work there? How does its architectural form relate to its management? And how was it different from its new and current use?

Architectural elements that create a bazaar typology [fig.1]: 

Stand - a module created of wooden, plastic, or cardboard boxes. Its scale directly depends on the place on which it is erected (in case of a narrow side-walk, the stand is correspondingly so). It is easy to relocate. 

Stall - a simple structure constructed with different materials. The two main elements are a stand and a simple roof. It is possible to dismantle, relocate, and reconstruct it.  

Booth - a metal box with a door that can be relocated with a lifting vehicle.  

Small one-storey building - a slightly bigger construction with a firm foundation, a door, and a window. 

Big one-storey building - a much bigger construction with a firm foundation and a glass storefront.

These elements establish the bazaar typology near Ghrmaghele Metro Station in Tbilisi, they form its structure and offer the possibility of reorganization. The main reason for this is the simplicity of the construction. Its mobile quality suggests that space has an ability to quickly adjust and adapt to certain situations.

If we look at how these elements are spread around the site [fig.2],  we see that the permanent buildings, those that require demolition in order to be modified, such as the one storey buildings, define a secure space that simpler and more flexible structures can occupy. The experience of their dismantling, a two-year sporadic process, reflects the same hierarchical order: first, the territory was freed from the less ordered structures, such as the stands and booths, then the stalls were taken away. While both structures were identically violating the law from the standpoint of the municipality, they were removed at different times. 

Comparing the situational map of the bazaar typologies with the modes of ownership [fig.3], it becomes evident that architectural typologies explicitly mirror these modes. The structures of those who have ownership of land as well as of a building are solid and firmly built, while those who do not have land possession are set up in simple and loose structures.

Is there a difference whether a single corporation or multiple people own the land? When we compare the former situation and the current one, we can see that these numerous and divided structures strongly contrast the monopolistic scale of the mall. They appear more democratic. Their inherent quality of transformation responds to what David Harvey refers to as the “right to the city.” According to Harvey, “it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization...”. Although the bazaar is a fairly small scale compared to the scale of the city, its ability to quickly adapt to its context, shows that it is a clear manifestation of this right. 

The situational map of functions [fig.4], which was recreated according to the memories of my grandmother and her co-workers at the time, shows the many services the bazaar offered to the neighborhood and the number of people that shared the responsibility of its management process. Management is not a random word here. However chaotic and unregulated bazaar daily life may seem, one can notice an otherwise undetectable balance. The bazaar is a self-organized system where traders cannot decrease or increase the price of their goods without agreeing upon it with other traders who sell the same goods. A lack of agreement is an evident step towards competition and becomes an open call for conflict. Therefore, sellers who often live in the neighborhood in which they work, do not make independent decisions about cost, they have a moral responsibility towards their community to avoid price manipulation. The bazaar is therefore a fine example of social and economic interdependence.  

After the bazaar was demolished and replaced with two residential blocks and the mall, the street vendors and their mobile stand tried to settle in the leftover space. They were quickly confronted by municipal inspectors who displaced them for blocking car circulation in this public space that used to be a pedestrian-only zone. 

After several years of operation, 90% of the mall still remains empty. There is a bank, a branch from one of the dominating supermarket chains, an anesthetic center, and a dancing hall. Only the underground floor was given to the former bazaar workers where they have reopened secondhand clothing shops. [fig.5]  This abundance of unused spaces can be seen as symptomatic of capital investment overload in real estate as discussed by the sociologist, Saskia Sassen. While the bazaar is a small and seemingly insignificant example, it showcases global processes impacting cities on a larger scale. Against common logic, it shows how overtaking and clearing out a space that has an important public role and fosters active life in a neighborhood can generate more capital by being mostly empty and inactive. In this case study, we observe not only this tendency but also an overall decrease of goods supplied to the neighborhood. Sassen argues that this trend goes against and limits the way in which “...cities have long been spaces where those without power have been able to develop a history, a culture, and an economy of sorts.” In the case of Ghrmaghele bazaar, it demonstrates how an authentic and self-regulating economy created by a lower neighborhood can be destroyed through real estate development. 

By comparing the architectural typologies of the bazaar and the mall that took its place, it is apparent how the typology of the mall deprives the spatial right of the public and asserts its own. It inefficiently occupies the area with underused programs and with fewer functions than the bazaar. Its architecture is permanent and at a scale that is unable to reshape or change to reflect the needs of the neighborhood. [fig.6] 


Harvey, David. Rebel Cities: from the right to the city to the urban revolution. London: Verso, 2012. p.4.

Sassen, Saskia. “The City: A Collective Good.” Brown Journal of World Affairs, volume xxiii, issue ii (spring/summer 2017). p.119-125.

* This paper was written for the course “Robots, Animals, and Humans: Introduction to Urban Anthropology” held by Associate Professor Tamta Khalvashi at Ilia State University in Georgia. It was first published in CANactions magazine’s 1st issue MICRORAYONS.