Issue 4, 2013. August-September

   

MY CITY, TBILISI: REBUILDING TBILISI'S ICON

For the past year, Investor.ge has brought you a series of six guides about Tbilisi, from what to do with children to a tour of the city's 1930s architecture. For the next six issues, Investor.ge will speak with locals about different neighborhoods and events in the city in a six-part series to bring Tbilisi's grand history, graceful streets, and great cultural life alive for all readers, whether local, expat, or visitor. Investor.ge welcomes readers' input; if you have any ideas or suggestions for the series, please contact our editor.

For the first installment in the series, Investor.ge spoke with Tbilisi native Irakli Baidashvili, one of the developers behind the renovation of the Mtatsminda Funicular Station and restaurants -- as well as other cultural gems in the city's historic center.


RESTORING TBILISI'S GREAT BUILDINGS - AND BUSINESSES

For over a decade, Irakli Baidashvili and his partners at GMT Group have worked to restore, renovate, and revitalize Tbilisi's greatest buildings and most famous businesses.

Baidashvili, who also serves as the treasurer and vice president on the AmCham Board of Directors, said the GMT Group is motivated by a desire to restore the jewels of the city's architecture without sacrificing modern business sensibilities.

GMT Group stepped in when the city's treasures were languishing, after years of war, civil strife, and poverty, and purchased a package of real estate, including the collapsed funicular station and the ruins of the Hotel Tbilisi (now Tbilisi Marriott).

"Our vision is not only to make profit ... our ambition is that we want, with our investment, to contribute to the developing of the country, to contribute to bringing back the glory of those businesses that were existing before," Baidashvili said.

Irakli Baidashvili


"So it is a combination of the history, the emotions of Tbilisi, and the many generations who were raised with this."

Tbilisi's wide avenues like Rustaveli and Aghmashenebeli are relatively new additions to the ancient city, he noted. Tbilisi started in the eastern neighborhoods of Narikala and Ortachala and developed around the river in a spiral. It was not until the 19th century, when Georgia became part of the Soviet Empire, that avenues and grand squares were added.

The Mtatsminda Funicular Station is just the latest cultural treasure to be rebuilt and reopened by GMT Group: they also rebuilt the Tbilisi Marriott and the block on Freedom Square that holds the Courtyard Marriott and the GMT Plaza.

While it was not the group's first project, Baidashvili said it is one of the most "sophisticated and complicated" of GMT Group's efforts to date.

"In our approach to our projects, in the concepts, in the task for the architects, we try to blend the old town and the old historical values, with the top modern quality, technology, and architecture," Baidashvili said.

"Our approach to Mtatsminda is even more complex and sophisticated than with our other businesses because the property itself is very sophisticated. It is also practically an identifier for the town. This became like the Eiffel tower of Tbilisi."

The Eiffel Tower of Tbilisi

While GMT Group based its reconstruction on the station building opened in 1938, Tbilisians' ties to the site and the mountain are based on hundreds of years of Georgian culture and religion.

Mtatsminda, which means "Holy Mountain" in Georgian, has been a holy site for Tbilisians for centuries, Baidashvili said.

"This mountain was always considered a holy place. In the medieval centuries, Saint Davit Garejeli founded his building here, and then this place became a sacred place, a place of pilgrimage. When he became one of the patron saints of Tbilisi, Tbilisians started to call this mountain Mtatsminda, which means Holy Mountain, and they somehow mentally and emotionally they understood this as a counterpoint to Athos Mountain in Greece," he said.

The mountain, which used to be just rock with no trees or greenery, was slated for development by the city at the turn of the 20th century, when Georgia was still part of the Russian Empire. Baidashvili said at first the city thought to turn it into a residential area but eventually the authorities decided to make it a city park. The funicular was commissioned in 1906 and, as the upper station started to function, small eateries appeared for people to have a cool drink and lunch.

By the time the Communists came, in 1917, the site was well established.

When the Communists developed Shabatoba (Subotnik in Russian), the obligatory volunteering on Saturday, residents were happy to be assigned the chore of planting trees and greenery on Mtatsminda, Baidashvili said.

"Therefore this place became also part of their lives, because they contributed to this and now we have a green mountain," he said, adding that by the 1930s, the Communists decided to capitalize on the site's value as a meeting place.

"In the late 1930s, the Communists decided to have the restaurant of the restaurants, one of the top restaurants in the Soviet Union. Lavrenti Beria was personally supervising it."

The building, opened in 1938, became the trademark of Tbilisi. It was famous as a restaurant, but also included, among other things, a restaurant, a library, and a nursery.

"All the generations were spending the whole day here," Baidashvili said.

The graceful columns began to define the city.

"For Tbilisians, this became part of their life. For the kids, it was a reward to be taken here, and for the adults it was for having rest and to see other people."


Balancing a Thin Line

Baidashvili and his partners took the responsibility of restoring the city's icon very seriously. Together with investors from the United States and investment from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, they spent $20 million and several years studying and rebuilding the three-story building.

"Our approach and our vision was derived from its past. It was the number one restaurant of the town, therefore it should remain as it was. This was a historical building and it should remain as it was," he said.

"Our approach was very careful. We studied everything, every single remnant that was historical in the building ... this was a challenge, a challenge which some people told us this was "mission impossible" to maintain the historical value of the building and to maintain its spaces .. and to make it an efficient, viable, income generating building."

But, after years of work, the group unveiled three floors -- 7000 square meters -- of dining, accessible for all income levels.

"Our core approach was that this should become a showcase of the Georgian cuisine since it is an integral part of the Georgian culture -- maybe one of the main parts -- of the Georgian culture," Baidashvili said.

"And luckily, the investors agreed with us." It has not been easy, however. Every detail had to be studied and reviewed. GMT Group sought out masters to carve out Georgian ornamentation on the plaster works and foreign consultants to help create restaurants that combined the best of both Georgian culture and modern technology.

The first-floor bakery, Puri Guliani (Bread with Heart), uses state-of- the-art-ovens to bake the finest in Georgian traditional baked goods like khachapuri, as well as cakes and sandwiches. Chela (which means cow in Megrelian) hits a striking balance between upscale American steakhouse d├ęcor and great Georgian grilled dishes like mtsvadi, kebabi, and khinkali.

For the second-floor bar/lounge, GMT Group brought in an international drink expert from the UK, Drinks Fusion, to create local cocktails based on Georgian products and international standards. A London drinkmeister has relocated permanently to help develop mixed drinks and cultivate a bar culture in Tbilisi.

The second-floor restaurant, Funicular, requires a reservation, and offers diners the only Spanish Josper charcoal oven experience in town, as well as the best views over the city.

And the third floor, a banquet hall, combines the site's historical terrace with the modern demands of a conference hall: glazed walls allow guests to enjoy breathtaking views over Tbilisi, and the latest technology allows the room to be converted for everything from weddings to business conventions.

Turning a city icon from a ruined memory into a viable business in the 21st century requires balancing a "thin line," Baidashvili said.

"This is a thin line but I would say it is a mandatory line to walk and challenge. You have to respect everything that is valuable for the buildings. This is a challenge that you have to face," he said.

"On one side you really have to respect whatever is embedded as a historic element, the historic value of those sites. And, at the same time, you should bring a modern element into it. The core is that it should be viable ...whether we will succeed or not, time will tell."