By Teo Bichikashvili –
Protests against the redevelopment of Tbilisi’s Gudiashvili Square have failed to stop builders moving into one of the Georgian capital’s most picturesque old neighbourhoods.
Since the end of last year, non-government organisations, cultural figures and others have voiced opposition to the redevelopment plans, holding exhibitions and fundraising events in the square in the hope of gathering enough money to block the scheme.
The movement died down after activists met representatives of the development company and the city authorities in April, and received assurances that they would be shown the plans and given a chance to comment before any work got under way.
Despite those promises, on June 27, workers arrived at one of the square’s finest buildings, dating from the 1820s, and started taking it apart. The building was used by Literaturuli Sakartvelo, a literary magazine, before its editorial office was evicted in 2007.
The Tbilisi mayor’s office had given the development company, Irao Magnat Gudiashvili, the right to “clean, conserve, restore, reconstruct and adapt” the building.
Activists say those terms of reference are ambiguous and leave far too much room for interpretation.
“Conservation does not mean restoration. Restoration is not reconstruction, and reconstruction is not alteration,” said Tsira Elisashvili of the Tiflis Hamkari organisation, which is campaigning for the city’s historical look to be preserved. “The permit granted by the mayor’s office gives them rights that are far too broad.”
Other historic buildings on the square could face an even worse fate, she fears.
“The demolition work that has already been carried out in this building practically excludes the possibility of a full restoration,” Elisashvili. “And this is the only building on the square that the authorities and investors have promised to restore. What will happen to those buildings that they want to rebuild from scratch?”
Although plans for the square have not been finalised, all the indications are that the buildings on it will be completely replaced, only the facades remaining on entirely new structures.
The city authorities are upbeat, insisting that Tbilisi’s cultural heritage will be preserved as Gudiashvili Square is transformed into a “multifunctional zone” generating employment and attracting tourists.
Campaigners say that totally rebuilding old structures removes any historical value they once had, while leaving only the facades in place hardly counts as conservation.
“What does preserving historic facades mean? If a building is a historical monument, then that’s in its entirety – doors, windows, stairways and all,” Tamar Amashukeli, a participant in the protest movement, said. “This way, we’re getting a new building with a similar façade but without any historical or cultural value.”
Amashukeli added that Gudiashvili Square was the only one left in the city that still had historical authenticity.
“To lose that would be a crime,” she said. “This is especially true when you look at the quality of the work being done in other historic parts of the city.”
Previous redevelopment projects in Tbilisi have been criticised for tearing down valuable if dilapidated buildings and putting up concrete and plate glass in their place.
Residents of the streets around Gudiashvili Square are pessimistic about the future of their neighbourhood.
“They will build new houses and paint them in bright colours, open hotels, restaurants and shops for tourists, and a square that has been there for two centuries will be gone,” said Rezo, who lives nearby.
Teo Bichikashvili is a freelance journalist in Georgia.