Issue 4, 2017. August-September

   

NEW FUTURES FOR GEORGIA'S ABANDONED BUILDINGS

Architects and entrepreneurs are turning old, empty buildings into new ventures, business hubs and hotels.

Inge Snip

For over 20 years, Kutaisi's former pride - the automobile plant employing over 15,000 people in Soviet Union times - had been left abandoned. The structures of the factory buildings and warehouses were still standing, although most of the buildings had missing roofs and windows.

But when the Chinese investment firm Hualing Group bought the 36 hectare plant from the government in a privatization auction, they were determined to keep the place's history alive.

"I'd personally rather have something like Dubai," General Manager of the Hualing Group Josef Nibladze admits during our interview at the firm's other project, the Chinese City at the edge of Tbilisi Sea. "But the renovation work has been really impressive."

Hualing Group bought the plant to create a free economic zone in Kutaisi, and after opening its doors in 2015, it currently is the fastest-growing free economic zone of the four in the country.

But the former automobile plant in Kutaisi is not the only example Georgia has seen of an old Soviet factory being repurposed into something new.


"History and the story matter"

The most visible and popular transformations have that been of the Adjara Hospitality Group, which started out by transforming former hotels to new hotels, first with Holiday Inn - a former hotel in which Internally Displaced People lived after the conflict in the 1990s - and then an old sanatorium - spa - in Kazbegi. Soon the group was completely remodeling a former publishing house in Tbilisi into a hotel.

"We try to buy old buildings with a history, and not start from scratch," says Levan Berulava, the general manager at Rooms Tbilisi. "We believe history and the story matter. And we hope others will follow us in preserving history by keeping the buildings' stories alive."

And with their latest project, transforming an old sewing factory in a run-down old residential area into a cultural and creative hub with workshops, bars, cafes, and a hostel, their work is being noticed.


Growing trend

Georgian architect and urban designer Anna Kintsurashvili says the work of the Adjara Hospitality Group is setting a trend, albeit small, in adaptive reuse that she hopes others will follow. "We can argue about how well the Holiday Inn was done," Kintsuarashvili tells Investor.ge over the phone, "but their work with Fabrika and Rooms is impressive."

Adaptive reuse is a common global process whereby old sites and buildings are being transformed and/or reused, often targeting industrial sites as cities grow and manufacturing moves to the outskirts of the city.

But Georgia, with its vast amount of "forgotten" industrial sites that were looted during the so-called dark 1990s, has seen an increase in the new construction instead of renovating the existing buildings, Kintsurashvili explains. "The architects are lazy, it's much easier to break something down and build something new, than to renovate an old building," she says.

She adds that construction companies often cite old, Soviet standards for housing, arguing that the existing buildings are older than they were planned to be, and are now dangerous. "That's often not the case; just some simple things need to be replaced," Kintsurashvili says.

Architect and CEO at IDAAF Architects, Nanuka Zaalishvili, agrees with Kintsurashvili, but notes that citizens' growing understanding of the importance of the country's Soviet legacy means it is not as easy to tear down buildings as it used to be.

Together with her team, Zaalishvili, who founded the architectural legacy-oriented online magazine IDAAF, has specialized in adaptive reuse by reinforcing old structures and adding new structures to extend spaces. "When we study an old building, we first ask what the value is, the historical legacy," Zaalishvili tells Investor.ge.

The young architect and her team have been selected to preserve, renovate, and find a solution to reuse the old Soviet mosaic monument on the military highway to Kazbegi. And the team is putting all its efforts to keep the mosaic in the forefront, making it more accessible to people with disabilities, and develop a small cafe - which will blend in - for visitors to rest next to the mosaic.

Preserving Soviet-era structures - like factories and monuments - is both important and prudent, notes Mate Zosiashvili, senior executive investor relations at the Hualing Kutaisi free industrial zone.

"Soviet structures and construction are very strong and solid," he tells Investor.ge at the former automobile plant that they are transforming into a useable site for factories, trade companies, and manufacturers.

"We need to use all of the aspects of our history to build a new and better future," he adds.