As you may have noticed, I do not exactly approve of the approaches Georgian policymakers have adopted towards their country’s cultural heritage since the rise of Saakashvili and the pro-West elite in 2003. I’m not the only one, and many Georgians and expats are becoming increasingly concerned about the changes in Old Tbilisi.
Of course, sometimes these are just old people and hipsters who can’t deal with change, but in many cases their concern is warranted–Tbilisi Historic District remained on the World Monument Fund’s list of the top 100 Most Endangered Sites from 1997-2002. In 2001, Tbilisi Historic District was deferred from inclusion on the UNESCO world heritage list, “subject to the establishment of adequate legal framework, management structures and guidelines for the rehabilitation and restoration and control of change in the proposed nominated area.”
Today, Tbilisi is not even under consideration for inclusion, due to rampant demolition and modification in the proposed historic district. Local historians and NGOs estimate that about 1/3 of the city’s pre-existing historic fabric has been destroyed over the last decade, and yet the resulting development did not bring about a corresponding increase in quality of life for longtime Old Tbilisi residents. A similar phenomenon occurred in the historic districts of Georgia’s regional capitals, including Mestia, Sighnaghi, and Mtskheta, because policymakers seemed to think that what tourists really wanted to see were sterile, mock-Bavarian villages vacated of original residents.
Altogether, Old Tbilisi’s architectural heritage is an extremely complex and contentious issue, and in order to discuss problems and solutions productively, it is important to clarify the meaning of “heritage” as it informs preservation philosophy. The word itself shares the same root as “inheritance,” or something that is in your custody only temporarily, received from elders with the intention of passing it on to future generations. This is the same concept that governs environmental preservation, or natural heritage—we are here now, but future generations will have to live with the ecological consequences of our actions.
Cultural heritage, on the other hand, is linked to the cultural values of the society that produced it. ICCROM defines cultural heritage as “the creative expression of a people’s existence in the past, near past, and present; [it] provides information about their traditions, achievements, and beliefs.” Types of cultural heritage can be further divided into tangible heritage, which may be movable (museum collections) or immovable (buildings and monuments).
Intangible heritage encompasses everything from literature to music, dance, recipes, craft techniques, traditional skills, or religious ceremonies. All of the following may be considered part of American cultural heritage: a historic building from the colonial period, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, traditional rodeo sports, New Orleans jazz, the USS Constitution, a 1968 Dodge Charger, Lakota burial grounds, the Statue of Liberty, Rice Krispie Treats, and the production of Pueblo pottery.
For the purposes of this post, I will elaborate specifically on architectural heritage: it is cultural, tangible (although they may represent intangible elements, like craft processes or the lives of historic residents), generally immovable, and is often categorized as either monumental or vernacular. Architectural heritage has evolved over recent decades–it originally referred only to masterpieces of artistic and historical value (monumental), but now it is used more broadly and covers anything that is of value to a certain people (vernacular).
Of course, both professionals and the public have been slow to recognize the value of barns, factories, schools, cottages, and even tenements, in the same way that they understand the preservation of buildings, sites, and places that relate in some way to what we might call “the grand forces of history”–or often, more appropriately, the history of a tiny elite. This same kind of movement happened in the discipline of historical studies, leading to the development of the subfield of “public history.”
In most countries, architectural heritage preservation began with the most elite structures–in the US, the first major historic preservation case was George Washington’s plantation estate, Mount Vernon. This established a trend leading up to the present in which preservation efforts tend to gravitate towards famous and/or monumental structures, as opposed to “the everyday.” Perhaps the most interesting opportunity presented by preservation in Georgia is that (churches aside), the most famous cases have centered around more vernacular structures or spaces, like Puri Square and Gudiashvili Square.
Benefits of Conservation
Well-managed heritage buildings and sites:
- Represent the identity and achievements of a social group, and convey diverse messages and values (historical, social, political, scientific, religious, etc) that contribute meaning to people’s lives. The architectural environment in particular reminds us that every people has both given something to and taken something from another culture–“Tbilisi vernacular” combines Islamic ornament with Russian classicism, and may feature elements such as musharabi (latticework stained glass from Azerbaijan), Art Nouveau, or Baroque revival plasterwork. As such, historic buildings are vehicles for understanding the diversity of people and for developing mutual peace and comprehension.
- Are an excellent local educational resource for people of all ages. Learning about the history of a place is a good way of bringing communities together through a shared understanding of the unique cultural identity that heritage places give to an area.
- Attract tourists. Heritage tourists spend substantially more money throughout their visit to a given city than do any other kind of visitor (Rypkema, 2001). Well-managed heritage areas with appropriate tourist infrastructure are informative, help visitors appreciate the history and culture of the area, and provide for their needs without crowding local residents.
- Lead to economic development. Heritage is not just about tourism. Probably only about 5% of rehabilitated buildings end up as profitable tourist attractions. Tourism is an inherently volatile industry, but heritage-based tourism means that local assets are preserved for local citizens even in economic downturns, unlike a theme park, resort, or upscale shopping complex. I do not know of a single sustained success in downtown revitalization in the US in which historic preservation was not a key component of the effort. Heritage-led regeneration includes the concept of constructive conservation. It is constructive in two ways: firstly, that it deals with buildings, and secondly, that it involves a more positive approach to reusing them, by accepting that the best way of celebrating heritage is to try and keep it in everyday use rather than turn it into a piece of standing history that can only tell one story. There is no better way to maintain, understand, and appreciate a local culture than the ongoing, evolving use of that community’s historic resources. For example, heritage structures are very well-suited for small business incubation. Many small businesses cannot afford the rent nor do they need as much space as that of a newly-built office building. Restored industrial or retail structures subdivided into offices are perfectly-sized and allow direct access to local clients.
- Create local jobs. The labor-intensive process of rehabilitating older buildings requires a good amount of labor, and this labor can’t be shipped overseas. The wages stay in the community, supporting local businesses and significantly increasing household incomes. While new construction costs are half labor-related and half materials-related, rehabilitation costs are sixty to seventy percent labor-related and the balance is in materials. So while you might buy the air conditioning unit from Japan and the new pipes from Turkey, you buy the services of the carpenter, the painter, the electrician, etc from the neighborhood, and they in turn spend that money largely in the neighborhood. Thus the secondary local effects of labor are much greater than that of materials. So a million dollars in restoration funds will create more jobs and add more to local household income than will a million dollars in new construction. Some point out that construction is only a temporary job, but not if you factor in maintenance (and oh, so few factor that in). If you rehabilitate 2-3% of a neighborhood’s housing stock each year (which is usually all there’s money for), then there is a consistent demand for work.
- Support sustainability through adaptive re-use. It really irks me that preservationists in the US have recently become so apologetic about preservation in terms of its sustainability. Sustainability as a term is bandied about and people using it often have a narrow focus on very specific aspects of environmental issues, rather than a full and complete concern about sustainability in every dimension–including land use, embodied energy, urban systems, etc. From that standpoint, you can’t beat preservation and historic preservationists have nothing to be apologetic about.
- Save land and help check sprawl. No new land is consumed when a historic building is renovated. The conservation of a historic downtown warehouse and conversion into residential/office units saves space, and means that residents are not forced to commute from new construction on the outskirts. Additionally, renovation does not produce as much waste as demolition and reconstruction, and important consideration given that construction debris consumes about one quarter of landfill space worldwide, much of it from demolition.
- Are unique and irreplaceable. Like much of the natural environment, they represent non-renewable resources. Once a historic structure or site is destroyed, it cannot be resurrected.
Basically, architectural heritage conservation should be integrated into economic development plans as a tool used to help communities succeed in the globalized economy, without succumbing to a globalized mono-culture. While there are many potential benefits of economic globalization, there aren’t many benefits to a globalized culture—people often refer to Westernization, Americanization, McDonaldization, or in the case of preservation, Disneyfication. Effectively preserved heritage sites are not a backwards-looking economic hindrance, but an asset that still reflects local values.
There are four treatment approaches for historic architecture officially recognized by the Secretary of the Interior in the US, and these standards also generally hold true for other national and international organizations. These are listed in what is considered hierarchical order, because heritage philosophy places the highest value on buildings with the most original material intact.
- The first treatment, preservation (known as conservation outside the US), places a high premium on the retention of all historic fabric through conservation, maintenance and repair. It reflects a building’s continuum over time, through successive occupancies, and the respectful changes and alterations that are made. It basically involves “freezing” a building as it is.
- Rehabilitation, the second treatment, emphasizes the retention and repair of historic materials, but more latitude is provided for replacement because it is assumed the property is more deteriorated prior to work. Both preservation and rehabilitation standards focus attention on the preservation of those materials, features, finishes, spaces, and spatial relationships that, together, give a property its historic character. Rehabilitation is often more appropriate for structures that will serve as homes or businesses, as it is necessary to add modern conveniences.
- Restoration, the third treatment, focuses on the retention of materials from what is interpreted as the most significant time in a property’s history, while permitting the removal of materials from other periods.
- Reconstruction, the fourth treatment, establishes limited opportunities to re-create a non-surviving site, landscape, building, structure, or object in all new materials. A reconstruction is not considered to have the same value as the original, although it must be as faithful to the original as possible–materials and features must be drawn from historical sources at all times, not imaginatively re-created.
Choosing the most appropriate treatment for a building requires careful decision-making about a building’s historical significance, as well taking into account a number of other considerations, such as the its relative importance in history, physical condition, and proposed use.
Practices and Guidelines for Rehabilitation
Rehabilitation is often the most appropriate treatment for vernacular structures in Tbilisi. Although functional, many buildings feature several elements deteriorated to the extent that more replacement is called for than would be acceptable with preservation. Rehabilitation also allows more freedom for adaptive re-use, as long as the new use respects the defining features of the building. Below are some some guidelines that must be taken into consideration throughout a successful rehabilitation:
- Whenever possible, it is recommended to repair rather than replace deteriorated historic elements. When replacement is necessary, new materials should match the old as closely as possible in design, composition, and color.
- Clean facades gently. Avoid sandblasting and high-pressure water guns, and always test physical and chemical treatments on the materials first.
- Changes can be contemporary in design and sometimes challenging in their visual impact, as long as they respect the heritage assets. Compatible, contemporary alterations are acceptable if they do not destroy significant historic and architectural fabric, overwhelm, or obstruct the building. Build new additions and infill designs that can be removed without harming the underlying historic structure.
- When rehabilitating a structure, document its condition before, throughout, and after treatment. Documentation is vitally important for heritage planning–it allows policymakers to determine which districts have the most architecturally and/or historically significant buildings, planners to keep track of their physical condition, and researchers (as well as the general public) to learn about a building’s features and history. Most importantly, documentation of a structure’s significance can make a compelling argument for its preservation, or it can be the only surviving record if that structure is ultimately demolished or modified.
- Recognize that all buildings are physical products of their time. Avoid changes that may create a false sense of historic development–a respectful modern design is better than a falsely historical one. Respect and retain changes to the property that have occurred over time and have acquired significance in their own right.
- When possible, make every effort to use a building for its original purpose-but if you can’t, make sure the new use requires minimal change to its historic features.
- Historical elements are not just confined to the façade of a building—interior floor plans and details are often much more important than the façade, because these elements are what defined the building’s original use
- A restored building is literally useless if it doesn’t address the community’s needs. Stakeholders must be involved. Many countries have regulations about community involvement, which build on the general rule that those who will be affected by a decision deserve the right to participate in it. Regulations often provide for the rights of citizens to obtain information on development plans, procedures and deadlines for submitting proposals (which after being broadcast on the mass media, are limited to a few months), citizen representative quotas at each level of decision-making concerning urban development, legal sanctions such as compensation for citizens whose rights were violated by the implementation of a certain project. From a logistical standpoint, rehabilitation always works better in the long-term when community members are aware of local heritage issues and take responsibility for maintenance.
Preservation Problems in Tbilisi
- Public apathy. After decades of “5 Year Plans” being foisted on their city, local residents aren’t too keen on collaborative efforts.
- Ongoing lack of transparency regarding municipal projects and policies, which stifles the development of civil society. Although a national law passed in 2005 mandated that “All interested individuals shall have the right to participate in public reviews of planning documents at all stages of their formulation, development, review and approval,” in June 2009, Tbilisi Sakrebulo (City Council) reviewed and adopted Tbilisi Land Use Plan without allowing any public participation.
- Absence of clear, comprehensive objectives in urban planning. The Tbilisi Land Use Plan is currently the only plan in use at all–Tbilisi’s last Master Plan expired years ago, and political change has prevented a new one from being drafted–or, as some say, City Hall has deliberately refrained from developing a new Master Plan in order to pursue investment opportunities freely.
- The nature of Tbilisi vernacular architecture itself–most dwellings in Tbilisi are interconnected, and many of them feature ambiguous shared spaces–courtyards, balconies, external stairways, storage sheds, etc.–most of which were haphazardly privatized in the 1990s and still subject to contested ownership. So in order for a project to take place, not only do all residents of one building have to agree, but it is often necessary to get all of their neighbors to agree as well.
- Socioeconomic conditions in Tbilisi historic districts–many of the old houses are overcrowded, have outdated (and even shared) facilities, and are inhabited by those who are “socially vulnerable,” like pensioners, who can only afford the most necessary repairs. While historic districts are often associated with gentrification, even in the US, 32% of homeowners below the poverty line live in historic housing, as do 34% of renters (Rypkema, 2002). In one historic district, upwards of 90% of surveyed residents stated that they could not afford repairs, and about half stated that they would move to a “modern” apartment or have their current one torn down and replaced in order to improve their living conditions. This is completely understandable–a pretty old building doesn’t mean much if you’re worried about plaster falling on your head in your sleep.
- Property abandonment is fairly common–historic property owners have been known to move to new apartments elsewhere in the city, and put their old house up on the market. In the meantime, the property essentially sits abandoned–unmaintained and frequently targeted for vandalism. Although there are municipal regulations penalizing property abandonment, they are generally not enforced.
- There are no developers or construction companies in Tbilisi that specialize in historic architecture rehabilitation–even though dozens of students at Tbilisi Art Academy’s Conservation Institute are trained in varies types of materials conservation and repair every year. Even so, projects carried out in Tbilisi are done by regular construction workers with no training in regards to historic materials. The vast majority of “renovation” projects never even consult a preservation specialist at any point during planning or implementation.
- Gutting and facadism (known in the US as “Halloween preservation”) is rampant in Tbilisi, as are imaginative “additions” that have nothing to do with local architectural traditions or with the individual building’s historic appearance. Facadism, when a building is basically demolished but for the outer shell, is not preservation by any sane definition, and in my opinion is the worst of both worlds: there’s no real historic preservation going on here, and yet the developer is still encumbered with the extraordinary cost of removing an entire building behind the skin and pasting it back on again. This is expensive and difficult, and is one of the reasons preservation has a bad reputation for being…expensive and difficult.
- Developers also have little respect for scale, and the “slap two more floors on” attitude has predominated renovation projects in Tbilisi since the 1990s. Additional floors block views and sunlight (particularly in the many courtyard houses of Tbilisi), disrupt historic landscapes, and put strain on older structures that they were not intended to withstand–particularly dangerous in an earthquake zone.
- Heritage districts and listing do not offer protection, and don’t seem to mean very much in any regulatory sense. Also, because Georgians consider gutting an acceptable preservation treatment, the best a building can hope for is gutting, the worst demolition. There have also been cases in which historic buildings were completely demolished and rebuilt–but the rebuilt structure remains on heritage lists.
- The Saakashvili administration has made attraction of foreign investment one of its top priorities. The means there is a lot of pressure to de-list buildings (like Imeli, the former Institute of Marxism and Leninism) and sell them off for new development. Many buildings are left to rot. As a result, it seems that City Hall’s primary property management goal is demolition by neglect.
- There is no standardized documentation program in Georgia (in the US we have HABS/HAER through the National Park Service and the American Library of Congress), although documentation is occasionally undertaken by individual historians or NGOs. As of 2012, there is no uniform or readily accessible source of architectural information.
- Weak enforcement of construction violation penalties. Penalties are inconsistently enforced, can be “worked around,” or may simply be ineffective in and of themselves. Many developers happily accept fines for adding extra floors–if City Hall fines (say) $200 for every square meter of illegal space, but the owner is going to make $400 for every square meter of that illegal space when they rent it, then that penalty isn’t exactly an effective deterrent.
- There is little to no collaboration between developers, preservation professionals, and urban planners. In New Life for Old Tbilisi, developers worked together with banks. In Betlemi Quarter Revitalisation Programme, local preservation professionals worked with international ones and with the community. I think there has yet to be any program or project in Georgia that involved productive collaboration between the three groups necessary to promote economic development while preserving architectural heritage. Even within the local preservation field, collaboration is hamstrung by territoriality and bickering over credit.
- Tbilisi experiences regular earthquakes, which is particular threat to under-maintained historic structures.
- Georgia did not experience the arts and crafts movement that profoundly informs Western views of authenticity today, which is a polite way of saying that by Western standards, Georgians are a bit gauche. As it is practiced in Western Europe and the US, historic preservation puts a premium on authenticity–one of the guiding principles is that the original historic fabric must be preserved whenever possible. This idea was popularized by English art critic John Ruskin* in the mid 19th century, with his work (now considered foundational in the field of heritage management) “The Seven Lamps of Architecture.”
New Life for Old Tbilisi
The program, implemented in 2009-2012, has probably been the single largest player in Old Tbilisi preservation issues since the 2002 earthquake. But most people don’t even know what it’s about, partly because the government made only a weak effort to communicate with the public, and partly because it’s quite complicated and actually has nothing to do with preservation.
As a result of the 2009 economic crisis, 80% of new construction projects in Tbilisi (primarily in the “suburbs,” or outer districts like Saburtalo) were suspended. There were 15,000 families awaiting their finished apartments, accompanied by massive layoffs in the construction sector, which comprises approximately 30% of the Georgian economy. But most of all, Georgian banks were in trouble–they had invested 1.75 billion dollars in real estate, or 35% of their overall portfolio, not including loans made to real estate-related businesses. A large number of loans, including mortgages and consumer and corporate loans, were secured by real estate. So the banks decided to stop issuing loans to developers, unless they were convinced there was a demand for the resulting properties.
The solution? Artificially create a demand for real estate, of course. The idea was to create a win-win situation: banks provide loans (which are guaranteed by City Hall) to developers so they can complete their unfinished suburban projects. Developers negotiate with Old Tbilisi homeowners, and “swap”: they move out of their old house (which is surrendered to the developer) and into the newly-finished projects that wouldn’t otherwise be profitable. The developer either guts or demolishes the old house, and in turn sells the lot back to City Hall ($400 per square meter), which will be used for “future investments and developments.” See the diagram below:
The program was implemented by a task force (“100% state owned limited liability company”), which managed the program in collaboration with banks and the association of developers. If something doesn’t sound right to you, congratulations! Your brain is awake.
As is blatantly apparent, historic preservation is not even a component of this program, nor is urban planning, and nor is community participation. Here are some problems with New Life for Old Tbilisi:
- According to developer and project proponent Gia Abuladze, “the project will offer real prospects for a well thought out and consistent rehabilitation of the old town.” This is not possible within the framework of the program, however, because competing developers do not necessarily collaborate on their individual proposals, making entire streets very inconsistent. And once again, none of the developers were specialists in historic architecture rehabilitation.
- In cases where developers were hired to “renovate” historic buildings instead of just demolishing them, they were pressured to increase the floor space of the original structure as much as possible, so as to get a larger return on their investment upon selling back to City Hall. This created a lot of extra floors and mansard additions. And when the original problem that started all this was that there wasn’t enough demand for housing, adding tons of extra floor space to each renovated building probably isn’t the best idea.
- Developers also insisted that the project respected the community, because it consulted with homeowners first and kept communities intact (residents of a historic building would move together to a new apartment building, rather than being split up). The problem there is that one building does not constitute a community. Even if one building agrees to move out, that does not necessarily mean that their neighbors are ok with having the house next door demolished and used for City Hall’s undisclosed “investments and developments.” Another problem is that the homeowner is not always the resident–in some cases, homeowners negotiated with the developer, agreed to sell, and evicted the tenants without consulting them. This approach basically results in accelerated gentrification and a transferral of socioeconomic problems to the suburbs.
- New Life for Old Tbilisi is not part of any unified or long-range plan. There is no coordinated economic plan for the almost 100,000 square meters of space acquired by City Hall, nor are there any plans for long-term maintenance.
- Rehabilitation of registered historic buildings must be carried out, or at least supervised by, conservation specialists.
- Registered historic buildings must be fully documented (interior/exterior defining features) before and after rehabilitation/alteration. All documentation must be publicly accessible.
- Prerequisites to façade renovation should include roof repair and basement dehumidification. There is no point in repairing an exterior if structural problems will eventually make the building unusuable.
- Construction regulations must be clear, effective, and enforced.
- Policies must be transparent. City Hall’s approach to 21st century urban planning and heritage management is about as transparent as it was under Khrushchev, making the public even more likely to throw up its hands in frustration and not participate.
- Feasibility studies based on social surveys and stakeholder meetings must be carried out before a project is implemented to determine potential conflicts of interest.
- District and neighborhood homeowners unions must be formed, through which the public can express its needs and concerns. These unions have veto power on projects–not just City Hall, selected developers, and the few who can afford.
- Projects need to be implemented by district or neighborhood, not by the entire city. Each district has its own socioeconomic issues and development goals, and there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all preservation program. Nice try though, Misha.
- Listed buildings must be provided with maintenance schedules based on documentation. Preservation is often too much reaction and not enough prevention. Huge structural problems are often caused by slow, preventable processes over time–water migration, pests, etc. Maintenance will not only protect Tbilisi’s historic structures, but it will provide regular work for construction workers, engineers, and other specialists.
- Most importantly, Tbilisi needs a new Master Plan–the product of multidisciplinary collaboration. The current Land Use Plan (2009) was approved with no public input, and is rarely even followed. Without any clear development goals, the city cannot prepare to effectively meet the needs of residents, foreign investors, and tourists. The new Master Plan must include heritage management as part of economic development, rather than as an opposing force.
*John Ruskin is also the subject of several theories much more fascinating, in my opinion, than any he ever personally coined.
“Betlemi Quarter Revitalisation: Programme Report, 2000-2010.” ICOMOS, 2011.
“Rehabbing the Right Way: 10 Basic Principles to Keep in Mind When Rehabilitating a Historic Building.” National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2012.
Proceedings, International Conference on Community and Historic Environment. ICOMOS, 2011.
Proceedings, Conference on Careful Renovation of the Old City [Tbilisi] and Civil Society. Goethe Institute Georgia, 2009.
Asabashvili, Levan. Working paper on New Life for Old Tbilisi Programme, 2011.
Rypkema, Donovan. “The Economic Power of Restoration.” 2001.
Rypkema, Donovan. “Historic Preservation and Affordable Housing: the Missed Connection.” NPS, 2002.