Flamboyant glass-and-steel structures, the brainchildren of Italian and Spanish architects, are causing both shock and awe as they advance on Georgia under President Mikheil Saakashvili’s Grands Travaux campaign. Meant to symbolize a new, transparent Georgia, the buildings have touched off a sharp controversy over whether or not the country’s president should double as its urban-planner-in-chief.
The structures come in many shapes and forms, but the one element that unites them all is glass. A wavy, see-through Interior Ministry, a domed presidential palace, a fishnet pedestrian bridge, and a cone-shaped “Torch of Freedom” air traffic tower all share the same glass-centric, post-modern look.
As often happens in every public sphere in Georgia, the debate about these buildings goes beyond aesthetics and off into politics. Many opponents of President Saakashvili hate the structures by default. Others say that the constructions are wasteful and that the glass did not bring the transparency in government it supposedly represents.
In recent months, the fracas has centered on a “Bridge of Peace” now stretched across downtown Tbilisi’s Mtkvari River.
Covered with a glass wafer encased in a steel membrane, the pedestrian bridge has a bow-shaped sunroof that glitters by day and comes ablaze with neon lighting by night. The presidential palace, an ancient fortress wall, a 13th century cliff-top church and a statue of the city’s legendary founder, King Vakhtang Gorgasali, serve as backdrops.
The bridge, designed by Italian architect Michele de Lucchi, is meant to represent a forward-looking Georgia, but many Georgian architects say its icy glass and steel clash with the architecture of nearby Old Tbilisi.
“It is not just about the old and the new,” commented architecture historian Davit Koshtaria. “The bridge, per se, is an amazing piece of modern architecture, but it is aggressive and dominant. It oppresses old landmarks of the area.”
City planners counter that preservationists believe that everything new is synonymous with bad. “The Pompidou Center in Paris was also controversial, not to mention the Eiffel Tower, but now it is a major cultural symbol,” said the head of Tbilisi’s municipal architecture department, Arisi Bochoidze. “History must be preserved as much as possible, but like any other city, Tbilisi has to move on.”
The cost to taxpayers for “moving on” appears to carry a multi-million-dollar price tag.
Tbilisi Rehabilitation Fund Director Sergo Kavtaradze told Georgian news site Ambebi.ge that the bridge’s construction cost 12.5 million lari, or about $6.8 million. The information could not be independently verified.
Similar controversy about cost – and architecture -- has centered on the “neo-classical” presidential palace, another de Lucchi project with an over-sized, egg-shaped glass dome bumping against the skyline.
“In every country, the presidential palace symbolizes the authority of the state and this is why we specifically chose a mix of classic architecture, the Greek-Roman style with elements of the Italian renaissance,” de Lucchi was quoted as saying in a 2009 interview with television station Rustavi-2.
After completing the palace and the undulating, all-glass Interior Ministry, two buildings that symbolize the brain and muscle of the Saakashvili administration, de Lucchi was granted Georgian citizenship.
As with the bridge, the exact cost for de Lucchi’s work cannot be substantiated. Despite repeated requests, the presidential administration did not grant EurasiaNet.org the opportunity to tour the building and inquire about its cost and design.
President Saakashvili claimed last year that the presidential palace accounted for 0.17 percent of budgetary spending; various Georgian media have estimated that could mean anywhere from 40 to 60 million lari (about $21.7 million to $32.6 million).
The degree to which Saakashvili is personally involved in the planning or implementation of any of these building projects cannot be confirmed, but is widely assumed. Aside from a makeover of Old Town Tbilisi, the president has already spearheaded ambitious road repair, city lighting and “color-me-tropical” building repainting projects.
On a recent TV talk show, Saakashvili read off multiple SMS’s received on his cell phone from Spanish architects working on Batumi’s Star-Trek-like “Torch of Freedom,” including one wishing him a “buenos noches.”
But while supporters of the glass-and-steel look maintain that Georgia needs a series of buildings that define its image apart from its Soviet and Tsarist past, other observers are unhappy that Georgia appears to be following the post-Soviet trend when national leaders act as chief urban designers and cities have to accept their tastes.
“The city is a very sophisticated organism formed by jumbles of streets, human memories, the history of particular areas and social environments,” architecture historian Lena Kiladze said of Tbilisi.
To protect the Georgian capital’s distinctive architectural mix “of the vernacular and of the idiosyncratic,” architects and art historians, not politicians, must have the ultimate decision-making power about new public buildings, Kiladze said.
Fellow historian Koshtaria believes that the discord over Georgia’s new structures boils down to differences in perspective between an architect and an architecture historian.
“One looks into the future and the other looks into past,” he commented. “There is nothing bad in creating new, but in doing so you have to treat a city and its past very tactfully, not just elbow out the history to make space for new ideas.”
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. Temo Bardzimashvili is a freelance photojournalist also based in Tbilisi.