Issue 6, 2014. December-January



The capital's historic district is facing a myriad of problems, not the least of which is the lack of a clear strategy for its future - or the legal basis for residents to advocate for its preservation.

By Monica Ellena

Russian poet Mikahil Lermontov loved Tbilisi. He savored its spirit, used it as the setting for his 823-line poem Mtsyri (The Novice), and portrayed it in a small painting in 1837. The house he resided in during the 1820s became one of the city's most famous buildings. That, however, did not stop the city from tearing it down 180 years after its famous resident left. The iconic wooden balconied house in Gudiashvili Square was destroyed in May 2012, sparking a wave of condemnation and stoking concerns about the future of Tbilisi's Old Town.

Tbilisi's Old Town is today a mosaic of colorful wooden balconies, tin roofs, crumbling façade, and rubble of collapsed buildings. Past interventions attracted criticism, as they failed to properly address both the cultural heritage and the community's needs.

"The historic district falls under the law on the protection of cultural heritage of Georgia, which was last amended in 2009," explains Nato Tsitsabadze, conservation architect and secretary general of the Georgian National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). "The district has specific boundaries and is subject to strict regulations to develop and restore it. So far, lack of political will and transparency in the decision-making process has failed to protect it and the result is the current vulnerable state."

Lack of accountability is another issue. According to the Tbilisi Heritage Group, an advocacy group, "no permission had been granted to demolish [the Lermontov house] building." The destruction was classified as "research" by the company in charge of the restoration, which has now pulled out, leaving the rubble behind.

The 2009 amendments shifted responsibility for the Old Town from the Ministry of Culture to the city council.

"The Old Town is an asset for Tbilisi, and we want to save it," says Otar Nemsadze, the recently appointed head of the urban planning department by Tbilisi's city council. An architect with a specialization in urban planning and management acquired in the Netherlands, Nemsadze has worked on conservation of cultural heritage in the past, like in Dartlo village, Tusheti.

"In the past, the approach was to do things very fast, to see the results immediately, but you preserve you cultural heritage balancing conservation, infrastructure, and the role it plays in the city development strategy," he told

In 2007, a building classification map was published: red-listed buildings are national monuments, and hence cannot be touched, while yellow-listed buildings require at least that the façade must be preserved. The map, currently valid, is predominantly red.

"We are working with the Ministry of Culture to update the map and carry out an assessment," explains Nemsadze. "With that we can plan the conservation, the infrastructural intervention, and the financial support we need."

The Georgian Parliament has proposed a draft law on cultural heritage that has the potential to remove the protected status of 6,300 historical sites across the country.

"The public outcry forced the parliament to postpone the hearing, but the bill is still standing; it hasn't been revoked," stresses Tsitsabadze.

The Enemy Below

Sololaki's chief enemy though comes from within.

"The area is gradually sliding down towards the river, mainly due to major water inflows underneath the old district," explains Nemsadze "and the assessment would show which houses are in urgent need of drainage."

The situation probably got worse after the 2005 earthquake, a relatively mild shock, which seems to have affected water channels. Italian engineer Mauro Piccolo, who manages Eurekos, an Italy-based company providing geo-physical investigation, was commissioned a study in Sololaki in 2007 and found that in some cellars and basements the water was up to 1m deep. "The inflows favor the sliding of the ground, largely made of carryover material, while the sliding surface is probably the metamorphic rocks above," Piccolo explains.

Eurekos' study aimed at mapping the underground facilities' network, so it was limited to a maximum of 5m deep, and a clear vision of the downward movement would require going down to 15-20m deep.

"Reinforcing the houses makes little sense, as what is moving is the whole pack underneath, even Sioni Cathedral has an inclination of about 10cm," adds Piccolo. A reorganization of the water system would be a first step to tackle the problem, either through the existing channels or a new drainage network. However, any intervention needs a previous thorough assessment and constant monitoring.

"A modern technology like Lidar, a remote sensing technology used to map terrain movements, matched with Soviet surveys and data, would already illustrate where and how much the hills have moved, as the sliding is not homogeneous in one single direction."

Piccolo said that the municipality has drilled and installed instruments to detect the level of water in the soil near Sioni Cathedral. More extensive work, however, would require more intensive investment - and there is no clear indication from the city that it has allocated the funds for modern methods like Lidar.

Time, Money, and Community

Preservation doesn't come cheaply, or swiftly. But it pays back.

The Betlemi micro-quarter in the Old Town is an example of how conversation can, and should, be done. ICOMOS, based in that same neighborhood, started a preliminary study in 2000, and the first work there in 2005.

"There are two main elements in Betlemi," explains Tsitsabadze. "One is the methodology used during the rehabilitation, which followed strict rules set internationally, the other was the community-based mobilization. The inhabitants became part of the project; they were consulted; they worked on the houses and the monuments, like the restoration of Ateshgah, the ancient fire-worship temple."

The program lasted over 10 years, included training on traditional craftsmanship, and also set up a homeowner association in the form of a non-registered union. Funds and technical assistance were largely provided by Norway's Ministry of Foreign Affairs through the Directorate of Culture Heritage of Norway.

Best practices abroad can provide additional guidelines. In November, the U.S. Embassy invited to Tbilisi two American experts in conservation and preservation of cultural heritage.

"I have always had a fondness for older buildings. They contain your history; they tell stories," said Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, one of the United States' oldest and largest preservation organization.

Since its establishment in 1973, it has loaned and granted over $40 million and provided extensive technical assistance.

Breen thinks that a strong landmark law is paramount, just as it is to bring together residents, city representatives and developers.

The latter are the key for new construction.

"Appropriateness is an elastic term," says Breen. "If you are in an area where all the buildings are at a particular height, pretty consistently, does [your new building] fit in? Obviously you are building a [new one], but there are ways to echo windows or echo lines in the buildings. We often support new development, but something that respects the character of the buildings that are there."