Regional Co-operation for Cultural Heritage Development
რეგიონალური თანამშრომლობა კულტურული მემკვიდრეობის განვითარებისათვის
Տարածաշրջանային համագործակցություն հանուն մշակութային ժառանգության զարգացման
Національна політика щодо культурної спадщини
Mədəni irsin inkişaf Etdimilməsi üçün regional əməkdaşlıq
Рэгіянальнае супрацоўніцтва ў мэтах развіцця культурнай спадчыны
E- Journal №1
Urban & Rural Heritage
What Future for Svaneti?

Silvio Calvi,

Engineer and architect


Also this year I had the pleasure to visit Svaneti, this exceptional valley of the Caucasus chain which has been included, in particular with the Ushguli village, in the list of UNESCO  World Heritage Monuments.

Last year I had the pleasant  self-assigned task of visiting the sites of some of the pictures taken more than 120 years ago by the great Italian photographer Vittorio Sella and to repeat the same shots.

It was necessary not only to visit the Svaneti main town, Mestia, but also the surrounding minor valleys and villages, some famous like Ushguli, other less known as Khalde, Zhabeshi and Adishi.

Some of these places were previously unknown to me in spite  of the my many visits: the average visitor stays in Mestia some days and then goes back to Tbilisi: at times he adds Ushguli, but he never goes to forgotten villages like Adishi.

And yet, back in time, Vittorio Sella took his pictures more than a hundred years ago in these hamlets and the comparison of the different situation (then and now) is stunning.

The towers that so impressed the early visitors are always there, like soldiers guarding the landscape: some have fallen to the ground, prey of weather or of human rage, like the ones destroyed in the early 20th century: one for all the Dadishkilian tower in Becho, which was blown up at the time of Svaneti occupation by Russian troops.

It is a pleasure to show, for a comparison, the images taken then and now. (Fig. 1, A, B ; Fig. 2, A, B ; Fig. 3, A, B; Fig. 4, A, B)

It appears from the comparison that the towers of Svaneti have survived the centuries.

Only the view of Mestia from the river shows a number of new buildings of the Soviet period, which become impressive and intrusive  on the built landscape, specially when the finishing touches on the roofs are painted in intrusive colours colors like blue.

In addition the past year has seen in Mestia new developments with the construction of important buildings with a modern style (the airport tower,  the palace of justice and the library) and the beginning of urban innovation with the new civic center.

However a question arises: will the towers adapt themselves and survive the new developments?

Will the landscape of Mestia appear in the future as it is now, dominated by the towers?

A panoramic view is important to identify the changes up to today and to mark what are the main features of the landscape.

(Fig. 5)

* * *

 What is so important in the Mestia landscape?

I identify two key elements:

a) the towers;
b) the agricultural landscape.

The towers shine on the background of the green and yellow fields: they are the emblems of the agricultural society and of the historical monumental heritage. (Fig. 6. A)

The agricultural landscape includes activities which still take place on the secondary roads of Mestia, early in the morning, like milking and taking cows to pastures. (Fig. 6. B,C)

What is happening today is that a new form of society is taking over: the tourism society, with its requirements in terms of transportation and accommodation.

In fact what is most impressive in Mestia today is the amount of construction activity which is going on, on public and private property.

The new road has been an impressive feat: less than one year for the upgrading of the old road, more than 100 kilometers long, with facilities only at the beginning or at the end, with quarries and concrete plants to be set up all along the road for the works.

I saw trucks bobbling up and down Mestia main street in the dust from sunrise to sunset.

The airport is showing proudly the new tower, totally different from its traditional sisters, the stone towers of Svaneti architecture.

At the same time this development is showing the first problems, like the need to collect garbage which otherwise ends up in the river. (Fig. 7)

I have tried to find replies on who is governing this development and I have found no answers: if we were in Italy, a master plan would be in place, any new building would require an authorization from the local authority, the quality of the project would be thoroughly examined.

I could not find a similar system in place in Mestia, only rumors and vague replies.

Does this means that who has the property of a piece of land is entitled to set up a project for a building without any proper consultation with the community officers?

I have no answer.

At the moment the government is leading the action: all houses on the main street leading to the central square are under restoration: the building must have a proper and nice look for visitors.

When you ask, the answer is always the same: we are rebuilding according to “traditional architecture”.

But what is “traditional architecture”? And who defines it?

From my inquiries with friends I have come to the conclusion that consultants from Canada  have been hired to design the new developments of Mestia, taking as model ski resorts in the French mountains.

It is obviously a choice: so the look for Mestia in the next years will become the look of French villages like Courchevel?

Will minor villages like Adishi be touched by the frenzy of ski slopes development and thus be destroyed in its beautiful landscape?

This is not development however, it is a loss of identity: the Svaneti architecture does not deserve this.

My opinion is that, before any new development, restoration of old buildings should be pursued:  but how can restoration be done?

The identity of Svaneti architecture is still undefined and unknown: recently the tower houses of Svaneti have received from a jury of international architects a special award in Verona.

The architecture needs the attention and the study it deserves: ICOMOS, the international organization for the preservation of monuments has conducted an interesting study on the architecture of Ushguli, but from the date of the study (2000) one important machubi architecture has been destroyed by snowfalls and other buildings have fallen.

Preservation and restoration must be done in all villages: old buildings are a treasure not a burden.

Thus preservation of the traditional architecture must be the key to development.

This goes through two steps:

a)      restoration of abandoned buildings;
b)      clear instructions on the models to be used for new architecture, be it of local or foreign initiative.

In an Italian historical town no building, or any addition to old buildings, would not be admitted if not coherent with the built environment. Examples are known to experts.

The defence of local identity is a task for the local community who must be proud of its heritage and identity.

So it is necessary to identify the characters of local architecture in order to be able to promote its style: it must be the work for the next years and cooperation between universities of different countries can be the key, before the landscape its deprived of its identity.

What about a workshop on Svaneti architecture and its identity, promoted by local and foreign universities?

Please support and distribute this idea, so that also in the years to come we might be able to enjoy the Svaneti heritage. 

Fig 1.A. Mestia
Fig 1.B. Mestia
Fig 2.A. Ushguli
Fig 2.B. Ushguli
Fig 3.A. Lamaria
Fig 3.B. Lamaria
Fig 4.A. Adishi
Fig 4.B. Adishi
Fig 5. Panoramic view of Mestia
Fig 6. A.
Fig 6. B.
Fig 6. C.
Fig 7.
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