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In Georgia, architecture is a political canvas
Georgian President Saakashvili  United National Movement was defeated this month by Bidzina Ivanishvili. A man whose sudden and dramatic engagement with the politics of Georgia has been compared by Saakashvili to the Count of Monte Cristo, the title character in Alexandre Dumas 1844 novel. Before launching his political campaign in earnest last year, the billionaire Ivanishvilli was relatively unknown even in his native Georgia. Despite lagging in recent polls, Ivanishvilli’s sudden victory means Georgia will enter in a new era. The contrast between Georgia’s outgoing ruler and its incoming one at first seem irreconcilable.  Ivanishvilli who made his fortune in name in the years Russia following the collapse of Communism has a net worth of over 6 U.S billion and seeks to amend the countries broken relationship with Russian. Outgoing President Saakashvili is of a different cloth, Western educated with clear pro-NATO and EU aspirations for his country of roughly 4 million. However, both men share a deep appreciation for the arts and in particular architecture. More so both men have been able to use architecture as a political weapon throughout their careers.
This summer President Saakashvili’s took time away from campaigning for his United National Movement to address a small dinner for European politicians, journalists and diplomats in Tbilisi.  The quantities of Georgian wine and dishes available at the riverside restaurant seem inexhaustible. So were the energy of Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili who despite the late hour gave an energetic speech that almost drown out the sound of the rushing river outside and the chirping of summer insects. Since coming to office in 2004, the President has launched a building campaign designed to change the very face of Georgia. Without a moment’s hesitation Saakashvili can name a list of the buildings his party has finished as well as a list of the numerous international architects involved in their construction.
Since coming to power in 2003, President Saakashvili or “Misha” as he is known affectionately in Georgia was frank about his vision for Georgia. The President strove for closer relations and eventual membership in both the European Union and NATO. The 2008 war with Russia aside, Saakashvili long sought to cultivated good relations with Georgia’s neighbors and the United States. Tbilisi does after all, boast a George W. Bush Street. But, Saakashvili knows that rebranding a country is about more than just renaming streets. After taking office Saakashvili launched an aggressive building campaign to change the face of the country. Saakashvili’s plan was simple to craft an image of Georgia as a modern and Western orientated country one building at a time.
For Saakashvili and his officials in the UNM government the building campaign marked an important break with the Soviet era and the bureaucratic lethargy of Georgia’s two previous administrations. They are also meant to symbolize a new era of transparency and further decentralization of the Georgian state. Yet, Ivanishvilli and other critics grew resentful about these polices. The coalition which the Georgian Dream includes many disparate groups with diverse agendas. Yet, the claim that Saakashvili was wasting the countries finances on a host of white elephant projects was one that resonated across the opposition.
Regardless, no building better expresses Saakashvili’s architectural his vision for the future of Georgia better than Presidential Palace completed in 2008 and whose completion marked a major effort to revitalize Tbilisi. The monumental structure is dominated by an open glass dome purposefully evocative of I.M. Pei’s re-design of the post-unification German Reichstag. The frequent use of glass, steel, and open spaces in the Georgian palace is typical of Italian designer De Lucchi and also evocative of Saakashvili’s wish to open a new era of transparency for Georgia. De Lucchi’s style and Saakashvili’s vision have resulted in a fruitful partnership. Saakashvili also tapped De Lucchi to craft Tbilisi’s “Bridge of Peace” which spans a section of the Mtkvari River ( Also known as the Kura River) just below the Presidential Palace. While the bridge and palace nicely complement each other they strike a stark contrast with the historic surroundings of Tbilisi’s old city just across the river. The spacecraft looking bridge is further alienated from its surrounding by its 30,000 LED lights which light up at night. In 2012, a 27,000 square meter public service hall will be completed a short distance from the bridge by the Italian futurist Massimiliano Fuksas. The building is one of over a dozen such administration facilities Sakashvili commissioned across the country.
More than just planning bold buildings, actual artists have reached important positions in Georgia.  Gabriela von Habsburg, a descendent of the Habsburgs family which ruled Central Europe for decades  was appointed Georgia’s ambassador to Germany under Saakashvili. Though long involved in the Georgian art scene and notable for her stainless steel sculptures she was only appointed diplomat in 2009.
This summer while guiding a group of professionals from the Atlantik Forum, through De Lucchi’s Presidential Palace, Gabriela von Habsburg, pointed out her own addition to the Presidential palace: a tricolored rotating sculpture meant to symbolize the three branches of Georgia’s government. The descendant of the famed Habsburg dynasty is also with the tour when it is given special access to Saakashvili’s office where a modest desk and Macintosh computer are surrounded by shelves of books. Most are biographies of some of history’s famous leaders: Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk, French General Petain, memoirs of American Presidents and surprisingly Khalid ibn al-Walid, an early Muslim leader. Just as visible however, are books featuring the architecture of the world’s great cities.
Perhaps it was during his years in New York, where President Saakashvili studied law at Columbia University that he developed an appreciation of architecture. Perhaps New York’s steel canyons, tall towers, glitzy buildings of glass and steel rubbed off on the graduate student who during his dinner remarks speaks fondly of the need to build more skyscrapers in Georgia. No man better symbolizes New York and its real estate than Donald Trump who with encouragement from Saakashvili has declared his intention to invest in Georgia. In March 2011 an agreement was signed in New York to bring a 47-storey Trump Tower to the coastal Georgian city of Batumi. Construction will begin in 2013 and will be just one of several ambitious projects planned for Batumi (population 180,000) over the next few years including a new aquarium, opera house and other cultural attractions. Batumi’s De Lucchi - designed administration center is shaped like an upside down umbrella for the city.
Georgia’s checkpoints both at the airport and along the Armenian-Georgian border are clearly modeled on those of the European Union - a fact made more apparent by the ubiquitous European Union flags scattered across the country. The EU flag is also flown at Georgia’s 80 new police stations built under Saakashvili. Some of the stations are stylish architectural gems. However, most are garish blue and red paint buildings with large windows. Scattered haphazardly across the country side they can easily be mistaken for fast-food outlets by passengers in cars zipping by. Across the former Soviet Union buildings have been re-branded. In Central Asia for example, many a former Soviet structure now serves as a mosques. In Northern Azerbaijan a former Soviet infantry barracks is now a modest inn. Georgia is equally keen to discard its Soviet legacy as quickly as possible. “These {Soviet} buildings sold on the open market can be re-opened as hotels or other business”, President Saakashvili explained during his dinner speech.
Not everything the Soviets built is so easily discarded. Some of their most beautiful structures are scattered across the Caucasus. Nothing in Georgia is ever as old as it seems and the same is true of Georgia’s new passion for avant-garde architecture.  In 1975, two Georgian architects completed a dramatic architectural work on the outskirts of Tbilisi. Perhaps too grand a structure for a modest purpose: to house the headquarters for The Ministry of Highway Construction of the Georgian SSR. The dramatic structure consists of a series of pods connected together somehow both defying and accentuating a natural hillside. The structure’s monumental nature declares its heritage as part of the Soviet Constructivist movement. These easily expandable forms or what the designers called a “Space City” were also very clearly influenced by the Japanese Metabolist movement and debatably the last major piece in a movement which had its heyday in the 1960s. The building clearly also has been influenced by Brutalism particularly in its use of concrete and geometric forms. However, what differs from all three architectural movements is its efforts to incorporate natural vegetation. Vines grow atop part of the structure while trees stand below it, and even a small stream flow on its grounds. The building’s towers are structured in a way to allow trees to grow under the building. From afar the building gives the appearance of stacked white logs or bricks. This invokes the the stacking of logs in Georgian villages in preparation for winter. The creation of an empty central space invokes the courtyards found in Tbilisi’s traditional homes. The building’s almost gravity defying persistence as it hangs to a  ridgeline speaks to Georgia’s own stubborn quest for independence and is also a subtle homage to the scores of ancient monasteries scattered across the mountains of Georgia. 
The structure languished after the fall of  the communist system in 1991 until a renovation by the Bank of Georgia in 2007. Monumental architecture and the occasional intriguing building aside, Tbilisi does feel less European than the capitals of Azerbaijan and Armenia. Baku’s long corniche along the Caspian Sea gives it a Mediterranean feel and Yerevan’s broad boulevards and circular core are evocative of a highly planned Central European city. The core of Tbilisi in contrast is far more spread out than the capitals of its neighbors. Tbilisi snakes along Rustaveli Avenue where the country’s most prestigious universities, government offices lie, before passing the edge of the old city where Ottoman style bathhouses are located. Tbilisi is named after the sulphurous hot springs still used to heat these structures.
While for the most part accepting the recent building splurge, Tbilisi’s residents have proven surprisingly protective of their historic city. Some efforts to “modernize” the city have been met with protest. Last year the cities’ citizens mobilized to protest a planned redevelopment of Tbilisi’s Gudiashvili Square. The protesters felt government plans threatened the historic ‘Blue House’ - a Russian built structure from the 1820s and one of the architectural gems of Georgia’s capital. Some linked the increased frequency of anti-government demonstrations in Tbilisi to Bidzina Ivanishvili. While Ivanishvili in the past had boasted that he could if need be “gather 100,000 people in three minutes” for a protest he showed little relish for the sort of street protests that have become a staple of post-Soviet politics in many countries. Rather Ivanishvili’s strategy was more in line with a western style political campaign and included work with U.S based consultants and strategic communication firms.
Yet, equally important for Ivanishvilli was to launch his own privately funded building campaign. These efforts both raised his profile but, were also meant as a subtle attack on Ivanishvilli. While Sakashvilli’s building campaign was seen as vain and a drain on the public coffers by some, there was noticeably less criticism of Ivanishvilli’s efforts who of course as a billionaire had the funds to privately launch his effort. Ivanishvili announced efforts to build hundreds of schools across Georgia and his Georgian Dream opposition group plans to establish a one billion Georgian Lari ($608 million) fund to support agriculture once in power. Some in Georgia objected to Saakashvili’s efforts to reach out to minority groups. In the 1990s, Ivanishvili  began funding the development of a structure which would grow to become the Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi. Today, at 84 meters it is the third tallest Orthodox Christian structure in the world and contains both Georgian and Byzantine architectural influences. This move plays to Georgian nationalists now part of his coalition.
This tall Georgian Orthodox Church is located on the left bank of the Mtkvari River in the historic neighborhood of Avlabari.  Its position on the Elia Hill makes it perhaps the most visible structure in the city and dramatically lays claim to Tbilisi as a Christian city.  Pointedly its position on the ridge ensures that it rises over the new Presidential Palace. The gold capped building was completed in 2004, long before Ivanishvili declared his political intentions. However, the project certainly endeared the billionaire to the Georgian Orthodox Church who loudly condemned President Saakashvili’s effort to strip Ivanishvili of his Georgian passport on a technicality in mid-2012. Meanwhile at St. Ilia Chavchavadze Church, on the fringes of Tbilisi, a flag sporting the symbol of Ivanishvilli’s Georgia Dream coalition sprouted up just weeks before the October 1st election.  Not to be out done Saakashvili’s government has seen upgrades and renovations to a number of churches and holy sites throughout the country. Yet, funded from public funds, these efforts were seen as somehow less sincere.
Like Saakashvili, Ivanishvili has not hesitated in using Tbilisi as his political canvas. The location of Ivanishvili’s own palace is equally symbolic and has changed the skyline of Tbilisi and also served as a key organizational office for much of his political efforts throughout his 2012 campagin.  Ivanishvili’s compound and business center on a ridge overlooking Tbilisi’s historic core and sitting above and opposite the presidential palace and the Holy Trinity Cathedral. While Saakashvili has preferred European architects for government projects, Ivanishvili tapped Japanese architect Shin Takamatsu. Takamatsu’s construction of Ivanishvili’s business center and palatial home marked only his second major architectural work outside of his native Japan. The result was a structure that a British newspaper compared to something from a James Bond film and described as “a glass-and-steel castle [that] overlooks the cityscape with a more than a hint of menace.”
Ivanishvili has spent another large sum stocking it with a host of art works: Roy Lichtenstein and Picasso, Damian Hirst, and Jeff Koon hang across its white walls. While a Lucian Freud hangs in his working room, many are replicas used as stand-ins while the originals are stored abroad. The gardens are filled with various modern sculptures. Artwork aside the structure cost 50 million to complete.
Saakashvili’s own palace cost the Georgian state the equivalent of roughly 7 million dollars. Employees of the Presidential Palace joke that Ivanishvili spies on Saakashvili during his workouts(the Presidential Palace contains a treadmill on a balcony overlooking Tbilisi). Under constitutional amendments approved in 2010, Georgia will switch from a semi-presidential system to a more parliamentary system following the 2013 presidential system in a move opposition figures believe is designed to reduce the powers of Saakashvili’s successor.
Both Saakashvili’s Presidential Palace and Ivanishvili’s business center seem like bold political flags made to declare something -rather than beautify Tbilisi. Many of Tbilisi’s residents seem unmoved by the new structures. While many pause for photos in front of the new structures it is to the cafes and restaurants of the old town or those just off Tbilisi’s Freedom Square where Georgians are drawn.
Nino Beritashvili, a tour guide who takes tourists on trips across the city speaks for many when she chooses what she chooses The Bank of Georgia building as her favorite in Tblisi.  “It is beautiful but… it also keeps you interested, every time you look at it you notice another subtle feature. ”
Some analyst feared Ivanishvili wish to improve relations with Russia could mean he intends to rule more as a strongman than democrat. Even prior to his historic when Ivanishvill has signaled if elected to the post of prime minister he will serve for only two years before stepping down. Enough time he hopes to enact serious judicial reforms.  Without a Georgian passport he may be forced to rule through a stand in. In recent months the political winds in Georgia seemed to be shifting noticeably in favor of the opposition. Others fear it maybe Sakashvili who under the vagaries of Georgia’s existing laws can stay on as president until the end of 2013 if he so chooses may spend the next few months playing obstructionist. Yet, in recent months Georgians have been optimistic the country will resolve its quarrels amicably. Erick Shanidze, a fruit seller near Tbilisi, Freedom Square speaks fondly of both men and their coalitions. The man pauses as the dry staccato of a jackhammer rings out in the distance “but, maybe it is time to develop something new.” The jackhammer rings out again. Somewhere building in Tbilisi continues.
Joseph HAMMOND - Contributor Analyst, Strategic Outlook
19.10.2012 - Hit : 1787

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