22 September 2010 By Nick Shavishvili
An exemplary scheme to breathe new life into a crumbling city
A uniquely historic city, the Georgian capital Tbilisi epitomises the quandary for so many governments in the developing world. Like others in these financially straitened times - Old Cairo, Riga, Odessa, Lima, Mexico City, the magnificent ancient Yemeni cities and others - lack of funds precludes Tbilisi from seizing an architectural solution to the urgent need for economic regeneration.
Old Tbilisi is on the tentative list of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites of significant architectural and urban value, and is a candidate for inclusion on the 100 most endangered urban historic sites. The ambition, according to the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), is its continuation ‘as a homogeneous urban organism (which) is still alive and preserved not in scattered individual buildings, but in its whole entity’.
Georgia must find the money to rescue its banks and supply badly-needed city jobs by reviving its highly labour-intensive construction industry. The dilemma is how to do this at the same time as preserving the Old Town, one of the world’s oldest Christian cities. Successful restoration of Old Tbilisi - described by ICOMOS as a ‘city chronicler’ whose buildings ‘offer a fascinating narrative of its historic life from the 5th century AD to the present’ - should, on the precedent of other historic sites, generate plentiful tourist revenues and jobs.
Old Tbilisi and its inhabitants have an indomitable spirit (it has survived 29 invasions) that has kept it alive. This is reflected in the vitality and charm contained in its vernacular architecture built over 1,500 years, an eclectic mix of Middle Eastern and European influences. It is a jumble of ancient potholed crooked streets, crumbling walled courtyards, wonky overhanging balconies, amazing wrought-iron gates and doors, higgledy-piggledy spiral stairs and fine (if peeling and battered) examples of art nouveau and neo-classicism.
The architecture tells the story of Old Tbilisi’s long cosmopolitan tradition - from Arabs in medieval times, Persians, Turks, Greeks, Armenians, Azeris, Jews, and later Russians have all settled here alongside indigenous Georgians. The town was first built in 500AD, with Dachi, the heir of one of Georgia’s greatest kings, constructing the capital according to his father’s plans and incorporating churches that remain standing to this day.
And despite significant intervention over the centuries, the original connection between the ancient Silk Road trading city and its environs is still preserved. The Old City is sited along the River Mtkvari, with its ancient narrow streets winding up a picturesque mountain ridge to a 4th century fortress.
But charming as Old Tbilisi may look, the fact remains that it is in a terrible state. After decades of neglect and an earthquake or two, some historic churches and houses have already collapsed and been lost. Residents are leaving, adding to the sense of abandonment. Houses leak and lack proper water, gas or electricity supplies.
Part of Old Tbilisi’s challenge is its scale. The entire size of the region is 18.7km2, of which 4.3km2 comprises the oldest buildings and 9.1km2 the whole area where construction is regulated on account of the buildings’ age. The total number of properties protected by the state within the above two territories is 1,768. The law says they cannot be destroyed, even if damaged, but have to be replicated precisely.
The Georgian government has made significant progress, despite the complexity of the issues faced. However, progress has been stymied by world events. The global economic crisis exerted more pressure to the difficulties of Russia’s 2008 invasion and 2006 economic blockade, with an attendant fall in GDP and rise in unemployment. (Georgia’s chaos after the latter did not help inspire confidence in its 2007 application for World Heritage status for Old Tbilisi).
International investment has been frozen after the world crisis and Russio-Georgian war. The 158 private residential property developers, some of whom had been carrying out reconstruction work in the Old Town, are immobilised by the Georgian banks’ inability to lend. The Tbilisi building industry, once worth £640 million and employing around 38,000 - more when small service companies are added in - has nearly collapsed. Against this background, 50,000-plus inhabitants of Old Tbilisi voiced their discontent at slum dwelling. In response, in 2009 the government introduced a scheme, New Life of Old Tbilisi. Much of the financial jigsaw has been put in place with a first-step scheme that is regarded as a role model by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and leading academics. On the recommendation of World Bank officials, a conference to discuss the Tbilisi model is being planned for 2011.
The measures aim to satisfy key groups in urban regeneration. Banks are to issue new loans guaranteed by state purchase and incorporate old debts and interest into the land price, re-starting profitable financing of a sector that is no longer toxic for them. Developers will complete unfinished constructions, meet old and new commitments, clear all debts, and move on to new jobs. Tbilisi will revive a free housing programme for the slum-dwellers and take over property in Old Tbilisi now available for restoration.
The Georgian government would generate activity through construction work and services that could add as much as £390 million to the economy. Its risk is limited by the increase in tax revenues and the sale value of Old Tbilisi land. The scheme is for developers, or other bidders, to buy it and restore the old buildings. So far the Georgian government has put in two tranches of money to what is envisaged to be a three-to-four-year £137 million plan. Here good progress is being made.
The next step will be another application for World Heritage status and some badly needed international funding from reconstruction and restoration programmes such as the World Bank, EBRD or Aga Khan Award for Architecture.
But key to the successful continuation of the scheme, in Western eyes certainly, is the development of a plan of what should actually happen to Old Tbilisi to help retain its vibrancy and bring economic activity while restoring it as a magnet for tourists. This, potentially a huge economic generator, has yet to be added to the jigsaw.