Georgian capital boom reinvents public spaces
THINK of public spaces in big cities, and formal parks, bustling markets and grand squares come to mind. Think again. In the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, residents have redrawn the map and come up with innovative ways for locals to congregate in their ancient and fast-changing city.
A boxing ring was built on a bridge. Next to it, architects installed art to amuse commuters as they hurried over the river.
The grimy gaps between garages were turned into a “stadium” where locals could face off over dominoes. Inside the disused garages, bakeries, barbers and beauty salons plied their trade.
It’s not how most cities do public spaces, but Tbilisi – which stands at the crossroads of Europe and Asia – has a long history shaped by diverse masters, all of whom left their architectural imprint on the Caucasus.
As the city shakes off decades of Soviet rule and reinvents itself again, developers have bent once-tight planning rules and a building boom is under way – one that is changing the face of the city and jeopardising the open areas where Georgians meet.
“Left behind (in) the construction boom, public spaces are still important and constitute a resource, a big treasure to be preserved,” says Nano Zazanashvili, head of the urban policy and research division at Tbilsi’s Department of Urban Development, a city office. “The main challenge of the City Hall is to protect these areas.”
The DKD bridge – which connects two Soviet-era residential districts – is a perfect example of how locals adapted centrally imposed urban design to fit their own suburban needs.
Flat dwellers in this north-eastern sprawl live in the sort of anonymous, concrete blocks typical of any Soviet city.
Beauty is not their selling point, so in the 1990s architects installed informal shops, a hotel and a boxing gym on the bridge, which connects two identikit micro-districts.
The bridge building was part of an outdoor exhibition created for the Tbilisi Architecture Biennial earlier this year.
Downtown, the cityscape makes for an eclectic backdrop.
Deco mansions jostle with Soviet constructivism. Ancient sulphur baths and tiny churches squat at the feet of futuristic skyscrapers, while rickety wooden houses lean into the hills, their gaily painted balconies perched in thin air.
Much of this history is fading into oblivion, sagging walls propped up with outsize beams to stop whole ghost streets crashing to dust.
Other parts of town are bulldozed and built over.
With Georgian independence came a headlong rush to architectural deregulation, free of any supervision or control, changing the look, feel and use of once-sacred public spaces.
Take the garages – erected in front of flats to park cars in the 1990s, they were later transformed into basic fruit and vegetable shops, bakeries, barbers and beauty salons. Now they face a possible next life. The mayor of Tbilisi, former soccer star Kakha Kaladze, launched an initiative this year to replace the “garages” with playgrounds or gardens.
So far, the plan has had limited success.
But architect Nikoloz Lekveishvili says locals are regaining the tiny spaces in between to play dominoes, soak up the greenery and relax with neighbours. | Thomson Reuters Foundation
THE DKD bridge, which connects two Soviet-era residential districts in Tbilisi.