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 №2
Architectural Heritage
Metamorphosis of Historic Architecture

Dr. Manana Suramelashvili
ICOMOS Georgia


In the recent years a wide-scale rehabilitation of cultural heritage in Georgia touched historic cities and single important medieval complexes. However, this initiative, intended as positive, caused irreversible damage and developed into a full metamorphosis of the historic architecture, which had reached our days in more or less preserved form.

The practical activity was preceded by institutional and legislative changes, which have led to the establishment of a rather secluded (non-transparent) system of heritage management. Information for an outsider could only be obtained through personal connections or spontaneously.

Some experts from the very beginning disapproved the new rehabilitation rules and approaches for their expectedly inevitable mistakes and obvious losses. Some NGOs and independent experts in the given area responded to violations through some spontaneous activities, which later became more organized. Certain steps were made to prevent undesired consequences. A number of conferences have been held sponsored by international organizations (“Identity and Soul of Tbilisi” – 2010, “Society and Historic Environment” – 2011), presentations have been published, relevant appeals made; critical articles appeared in scientific journals, radio and TV reports have been released. Some activities focused on avoidance of approaches threatening particular prominent monuments and irreversible consequences (Bagrati Cathedral, the building of the former Institute of Marxism and Leninism designed by architect A. Shchusev, and newspaper "Zaria Vostoka’s" editorial office by architect D. Chisliev). In Tbilisi, a true public movement started for rescuing a historic L. Gudiashvili’s square from redevelopment… Sadly these initiatives had no significant impact.

The rehabilitation activity failed to avoid very obvious mistakes and serious violations of monument protection basics, mainly due to incorrect planning, wrong human resources policy, and hasty progress rate inconsistent with this field, using methodology and construction materials incompatible with the existing architectural fabric.

The works started simultaneously in several cities on dozens of architectural sites. As a result a limited resource of experienced professionals and craftsmen was put to face a disproportionately large scale of work.

The rehabilitation started without consulting the Tbilisi, Telavi and Batumi Base Plans, which have been developed in the recent years based on inventory and zoning of urban heritage in these historic cities of Georgia, which could have served as guidelines for intervention.

The speed inadequate for the heritage management had a negative impact at all stages of works: it hindered elaboration of comprehensive professional documentation, proper study, highlighting importance and characteristic feature of the site, negatively influenced the project design and the quality of the physical works.

In order to speed up the process, the works on the monuments and within protected zones have been performed using heavy machinery and incompatible construction materials. The best traditions and accomplishments of the Georgian conservation school have been neglected, as well as the basic principles of the conservation philosophy established through decades; instead, soviet-style malpractices, such as speeding up the rehabilitation process of the selected sites to fit the timeframe of public campaigns dedicated to various memorable dates have been modernised and applied.

All these resulted in significant losses and eradication of essential specific features of individual monuments as well as the whole neighbourhoods of the urban heritage. The cases of demolition of the listed buildings became frequent. Discussing the current state of several monuments we shall try to assess the consequences of the aforementioned process.

The results of rehabilitation were most devastating for the Tbilisi’s prominent urban heritage having a universal value. Let me dwell on the rehabilitated sections of its oldest areas, Tsikhisubani and Kldisubani, where, despite mal-maintenance and grave physical condition, the authenticity of urban fabric has been preserved. The terraced city planning structure, narrow street-stairs, Tbilisi type dwellings, layers of construction stages and the architecture of traditional forms modelled by skilled local craftsmen created a living chronicles of the old city.

The rehabilitation resulted in changing the width of Gomi lanes, and Orpiri and Salami street-stairs; steps became uncomfortable to walk due to their rigid profile and irregular height; on Salami Street, alien element was added – rough and heavy metal railings.

The neighbourhood has lost one of the oldest examples of its characteristic feature – the terrace supporting wall, which supposedly could be traced back to the city redevelopment by King Rostom; this brick wall, equipped with drainage niches was based on a natural rock next to Gomi Street. Today it is replaced by a tasteless newly built supporting wall (pict. 4).

Of special concern is the disregard towards values of listed houses. The listed house, 27, Orpiri Street crowning and organically matching the steep rocky slope has been deprived of all its authentic components – the old colourful tiles of its roofing have been taken away, the elements of balcony manually carved by old craftsmen have been replaced by mechanically manufactured decorations, the glazed loggia’s window casings are of different size and an expressive texture of the redbrick wall has been covered with cement finish.

A listed house on the lower terrace, 39, Betlemi Street was completely demolished. Especially remarkable here was non-plastered brick back wall with a truncated corner (according to the medieval tradition) and overhanging eaves. It has been replaced by a one storey higher, multi-balconied brand-new concrete house faced with a half brick. Neither preservation of the wide and solid back wall, nor following its specific outline in the new construction was considered necessary (photo 1, 2).

Another very remarkable listed house, 6, Gomi II Lane, has been demolished including the basement. This site represented the last surviving example of an Old Tbilisi terrace-flat roof dwelling type, which still maintained the structure and functionality of its flat roof. The construction layers of 18th-19th centuries interwoven into the walls of a two level three-storeyed rock based house created a picturesque carpet. Its age made the building especially valuable and being as old as it was it could have been preserved not even partially but as a whole should someone have cared to estimate its real value (Photo 3, 4).

Listed house, 18 Gomi Street, situated on two terraces, remarkable for its uniqueness and age has been destroyed and replaced by a new construction. Its façade open with wooden balconies was hanging over the lower terrace in Betlemi Street, while its top storey had gabled apertures distributed on non-plastered brick façade and a tall attic, all these created a narrow passage into Gomi Street filled with the Tbilisi spirit.

An iconic listed house, 11, Gomi III Cul-de sak with an old preserved basement in the ground floor still contained 16th-17th centuries construction layers and a fully preserved 18th century long flat-roofed house beyond its façade, known from an early photo panoramas. In the course of rehabilitation, the 1.20 m wide façade wall breathing with antiquity was disassembled and replaced with a cement block wall with cement plaster finish. Skilfully carved wooden elements of the mezzanine and balcony were removed; new openwork bands were set to decorate arched spaces, which are completely out of place (photo 5, 6).

Apart from all mentioned above, listed houses, 7 and 15 Betlemi Street, remarkable for their spatial planning structure have been destroyed.

Abovementioned serious losses resulted in the disappearance of the medieval “flavour” of this neighbourhood and its inherent cosiness, unique charm and singularity, the artistic integrity was lost, the evidence of smooth long-term transformation achieved by a tradition of preservation of successive construction layers has been erased, and scale and specific proportional correlation of urban parameters had changed.

The careless attitude towards antiquity and disregard of fundamental principles of the heritage protection also led to full metamorphosis of Akhaltsikhe Rabati (castle). The rehabilitation of a monument of medieval fortress architecture started without having a conservation plan of the complex, a guideline, which would combine all graphical and study data and determine the approaches and methodology of the intervention. The medieval castle, which was the domain of Thoreli-Akhaltsikheli and Jakeli feudal lords in 12th-17th centuries and later the capital of Akhaltsikhe Pashalik, occupied in 19th century by Russian troops, had never been so devoid of the dominant Georgian roots throughout its hard and turbulent history (photo 7).

The arbitrary reconstruction, raising the walls of the citadel and the enclosure, adding battlements round the perimeter brushed away the historic credibility from the general view. The territory was completely cleansed of the 19th century construction period evidences without recording and evaluation of the structures.

After the rehabilitation the castle territory has been overbuilt with new pseudo Mauritanian pavilions, bridges, domed spaces, an Amphitheatre, passages and numerous functionless constructions equipped with fountains. There is an obvious imitation. It is ridiculous that the authors’ source of inspiration was Alhambra – a monument of the Mauritanian culture, creation of Arab masters, inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites List, which neither by its construction date nor the cultural relation can be linked to Akhaltsikhe (photo 8). Only the new premises of the museum appeared to be free from imitation, representing a creative rethinking of the local tradition of the flat roofing organically fitting it to the environment.

Telavi urban heritage and Batonis Tsikhe (king’s castle) architectural complex suffered especially serious damages after the rehabilitation process.

None of the traditional dwellings could keep even small authentic details of their most valuable Telavi-style balconies. Everything has been removed, discarded and replaced by imitating replicas; courtyards were enclosed with non-traditional garish decorative walls and imaginary gates; the architecture of the European part of the city was topped with strangely looking mansards, while dry and plain façades of the soviet architecture were “adorned” with spires and Tbilisi-style balconies (photo 9, 10).

The Telavi Batonis Tsikhe rehabilitation also started without any conservation plan. Besides, topping the castle with an additional storey and constructing a new Islamic style museum building has not been discussed at the scientific methodological panel before publicizing the project renders on internet. On the territory enclosed with bastions, towers, and gates along with the Batonis Tsikhe, churches and baths there were also other three buildings having the protection status: Treasury, Q. Iashvili Picture Gallery and St. Nino’s School premises, which hosted the local history museum. All these has been cleared by heavy machinery and now it is an empty plot. The three aforementioned monuments have been demolished, part of archaeological layers are destroyed and in a deep ditch, which has been excavated in their place, the construction of the new museum building has been started, which was supposed to combine the wines and artefacts exhibition spaces.

The process on Batonis Tsikhe has reached a deadlock, due to spontaneous decisions and violation of monument protection principles. Serious efforts will be needed to bring the Utopian objectives under a reasonable frame and find a more or less acceptable way out of the existing complicated situation.

1. 39, Betlemi str. Before rehabilitation
2. 39, Betlemi str. After rehabilitation
3. 6, Gomi II lane. Before rehabilitation
4. 6, Gomi II late and supporting wall. After rehabilitation
5. 11, Gomi III cul-de-sak. Balcony fragment
6. 11, Gomi III cul-de-sak. Balcony after rehabilitation. Fragment
7. Akhaltsikhe Rabati. General view from the South
8. Rehabilitated Akhaltsikhe Rabati. General view from the East
9. Telavi. Enclosures and gates on Cholokashvili str. after rehabilitation
10. Telavi. Kostava str. after rehabilitation
RCCHD Project:
Office 16b, Betlemi ascent, 0105 Tbilisi, Georgia
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© 2012 - Eastern Partnership Culture Programme