Gudiashvili Square in recent months has been the scene of a succession of fairs, dancing and singing, and artistic performances. All of this activity has been staged by peaceful protesters who are demanding that the Mayor’s Office present its project for the rehabilitation of Gudiashvili Square and immediately begin the reinforcement of historic buildings there.
Fuss about Gudiashvili Square was first kicked up in social networks and continues to date. A group with the name “STOP Destroying Gudiashvili Square” was set up on Facebook to inform and to mobilize society. Protest actions were organized by that group after information and photos published on the website of Austrian architects Zechner & Zechner ZT GmbH created an uproar. The architectural firm announced that it had won first prize in a competition for the Multifunctional Project Development in Tbilisi and displayed on its website its conceptual designs of Gudiashvili Square. The conceptual designs depicted a modern multifunctional area with shopping and restaurant space on the ground floors and office and residential space on the upper floors of historic buildings around Gudiashvili Square. Zechner & Zechner explained on its website: “We will transform a classic Georgian element into a pattern that will form part of the facade design, supported by the richly decorated balconies, and take on the intricacy and scale of the historic faces of the existing buildings.” However, the firm’s own architectural renderings presented quite the opposite picture. Responding to public dissatisfaction and concerns that the architectural integrity of Gudiashvili Square would be destroyed, the Mayor’s Office later published on its official website photos purporting to show how renovated Gudiashvili Square will actually look. That still has not quelled the controversy or dispelled public distrust.
The rehabilitation of Gudiashvili Square is being implemented by development company Irao Magnat Group, which announced the competition won by the Austrian architectural firm. Irao Magnat president Giorgi Maghradze explains: “The only aim of the competition was the development of a concept. No one tasked that company to provide a design of façade too. That design reflects the personal vision of the company alone.” Maghradze notes that an annex to the agreement signed between Irao Magnat Group and Tbilisi Development Fund shows the development concept and describes in detail the style and quality of building that will take place there: “Authenticity of the historic buildings will not be distorted. This is, first and foremost, in the interest of the investing company.”
According to the Mayor’s Office, several groups of art historians have been working on plans for Gudiashvili Square since 2003. The Tbilisi Development Fund became involved in the development of the design in 2007. Art historians, architects and engineers then conducted a thorough study of the historic buildings and presented their report. Based on that study as well as recommendations and surveys of the World Cultural Heritage Organization, work commenced on the Gudiashvili Square concept development.
Manuchar Makhatadze, the chief architect of the Tbilisi Development Fund, points out that, even though the investor is an Austrian company, the design development is being carried out by the Georgian side in agreement with the Fund. Investment in the project is generally estimated at several million Euros, although the foreign private investor presumably has its own profit and cost estimates.
Five streets join the Gudiashvili Square. All but one of the buildings located around the Square have cultural heritage status. The façade of the building directly facing the Square is an inviolable part of that cultural heritage and its authenticity must be preserved, according to the development concept. As Tbilisi Development Fund chief architect Makhatadze notes, the rear section of buildings not facing Gudiashvili Square was transformed or extended sometime in the 1960s or even earlier. That rear section is now in very poor condition and needs to be replaced. Some of the buildings will be increased by one floor; others will remain unchanged.
Zviad Archuadze, head of the ecological policy service Zviad Archuadze, stresses the importance of the location in Old Tbilisi and its connection to those centers where tourists generally congregate: “If we want to see Tbilisi as a centre of entertainment and trade, the development of this location is necessary. It is as yet unknown what brands will be represented in the Gudiashvili Square. We have announced a tender to select a consulting company. In the future, we, together with the consulting company, will work on attracting brands.”
Aleko Eliashvili, the head of the non-governmental organization Tiflis Hamqari (Union of Tbilisi Caretakers), contends that the Irao Magnat Group was granted excessive powers: “This Austrian company was even given municipal powers.” Under the agreement with Irao Magnat, the buyer has the right to relocate the pavement, including sidewalks, pedestrian zone and access for emergency vehicles. Tiflis Hamqari is reportedly preparing a complaint on that issue. Eliashvili further complains about the lack of transparency of the rehabilitation project and the delay in commencement of reinforcement work.
Chief architect Manuchar Makhatadze says reinforcement work has been delayed so far because it must be tied to the main project: “That is internal planning, while fundamental transformation is a subject for the future owner. Therefore, starting reinforcement work would have meant wasting money.” Several families still reside in the buildings which are the subject of ongoing negotiations. Reinforcement work will commence after those negotiations are concluded. According to Makhatadze, the Irao Magnat Group in the near future will begin rehabilitation of the building that once housed the Literaturuli Sakartvelo newspaper offices; that structure is now dilapidated and dangerous to enter. “The building will retain its appearance,” Makhatadze asserts. “First, the foundation will be reinforced. When we met a group or art historians, we explained to them that wooden balconies and other elements decorating its façade must be removed at this stage, cleaned and stored temporarily. The roof must be removes because it leaks. After completion of the main reinforcement works, the roof as well as the rehabilitated wooden elements of the façade will be placed back on the structure.”
The Gudiashvili Square rehabilitation project is expected to be completed in four or five years.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 85, published 30 January 2012.