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Tbilisi Architecture Biennial: can informal architecture save the city?

The inaugural Tbilisi Architecture Biennial asked hard questions about the future of the city and its Soviet heritage. We went looking for answers

In the early 1990s, a nationalist paramilitary group called the Mkhedrioni stripped Tbilisi of its central heating infrastructure, pipes and all, and sold it illicitly in Turkey. To this day, most buildings are heated by private boilers. At the same time, tens of thousands of internally displaced people (or IDPs) were pouring into the capital, fleeing civil war in separatist Abkhazia, occupying whatever empty buildings they could find. Many are still in place. Then there was the 2002 earthquake that destroyed or destabilised much of the Old Town. Many formerly Soviet cities suffered in the years immediately after the collapse of the Union, but Tbilisi got a rougher deal than most.

What purpose does an architecture biennial serve in a city like this? The high-end example of self-important institutions like Venice won’t cut it here. Tbilisi is a relatively small city and its architectural scene is close-knit, but its problems are profound, and they need intellectual as well as practical solutions. The inaugural Tbilisi Architecture Biennial (TAB), held in October and sponsored in part by Creative Europe, attempted to offer some. The artistic directors — Tinatin Gurgenidze, Gigi Shukakidze, Otar Nemsadze, and Natia Kalandarishvili — decided to make “informality” the central theme of the event, with the title Buildings Are Not Enough reinforcing that TAB was as much about ideas as the built environment.

Informality has been a buzzword in architecture for years now, but what took place in Tbilisi was not an exercise in taste-making. The city’s appearance is defined by a million private modifications and extensions, responses to natural disasters, economic hardships, and population flux. Nowhere is this more evident than in Gldani, the Soviet suburb where the Biennial was based. Here, the uniform, prefab nature of the rows of apartment blocks is constantly and conspicuously disrupted by informal interventions: balconies bricked in against the cold, heating pipes knocked through walls, endless garages erected out of scrap metal.

Gldani is a residential district that was thrown up in the 1970s and 80s in the north-east of the city. Structured around a central avenue, with rows of drab brezhnevki housing blocks arrayed on either side, it stretches up into the foothills that surround the capital. It has always had a large immigrant population, and since the 90s has been home to thousands of IDPs. With a population of 300,000, the district is bigger than any other city in Georgia; it’s also precisely the kind of place hit hardest by post-Soviet deprivation, and which is elided in the public image of Tbilisi’s recent cool renaissance. It makes sense that TAB, with its spirit of urgency and humility, be set here. “We wanted to decentralise Tbilisi,” co-founder Tinatin Gurgenidze told me.

“People only start to protest when they cannot breathe anymore because the air pollution is so high. There’s not enough protest or spirit in the community to know how to change things”

Gurgenidze was speaking to me in during a break in the TAB “symposium”, three days of public lectures and discussions that ranged from Armenian cemeteries to Jordanian refugee camps. The crowd here was diverse, established architects and artists alongside students; Gurgenidze’s co-founder Otar Nemsadze explained that unifying the Tbilisi scene was one of the most important tasks for the inaugural TAB: “Georgian society is quite closed in terms of social interests. We want to take people out of their social networks and [make them] interact with each other.”

This was not just a networking event, however. The symposium, various exhibitions, and film screenings of the Biennial were also meant to give locals the vocabulary to talk about the issues affecting them. “The territory of Tbilisi has been exploding for decades,” Gurgenidze explained. “Cutting down trees, putting up new blocks. And people only start to protest when they cannot breathe anymore because the air pollution is so high. They blame all this on ‘new constructions’, but that’s not enough: there’s not enough protest or spirit in the community to know how to change things.”

Both public and professionals have some way to go. At the turn of the last decade, Georgian architecture was riding a wave, with the economic reforms of former President Mikheil Saakashvili heralding a brief boom in speculation and construction. But after a few fertile years and a lot of expensive (and often ugly) statement pieces of po-mo civic architecture, the fun came to a halt. Now, outside of a few notable success stories (the Fabrika hostel by Multiverse Architects, or the Rooms hotel chain), the country’s young architects are largely stuck working on bland, damaging housing developments.

Nikoloz Japaridze saw this rise and fall first hand. In the Saakashvili era, his Architects of Invention practice was a thriving testing ground for young architects, but in 2012 he left for London and his former co-workers and protégées diverged into a number of smaller practices. “The young people have very exciting ideas, but they’re starting from scratch,” he told me. “They don’t have yet the big energy because there is no architectural magazine here and there is no official discourse. Architectural education is really rolling back. The only good thing is that there is a free platform of experiments without too much legislation. The level of corruption is quite high. That opens up ways of interpretation and experimentation.”

Given the bombast of the Saakashvili boom, a degree of humility on the part of the country’s future architects would probably be useful, too. Indeed, this was the note sounded by the Biennial’s two biggest-name speakers. Reinier de Graaf of OMA delivered a keynote address full of his usual witty takedowns of the architecture world’s idealism and vainglory. Alexander Brodsky, the secular saint of humble and temporary structures, also spoke, as well as running his own installation — The Mainstream, a series of small, shed-like huts erected on the roof of a nearby road bridge. His son David, a Tbilisi resident, had bravely (or foolishly) turned his own flat in the centre of town into Boiler, a novel take on the collapse of architectural distinctions between privacy and community that saw the doors left open to whoever wanted to pop in over the week. The perpetual house party that resulted provided a social counterpoint to all the well-intentioned theorising going on elsewhere.

While the industry was soulsearching at its symposium, a collection of domestic and international artists and architects was tackling the question of informality in more practical terms. Scattered across the walkways, courtyards, and other interstitial spaces of Gldani were the artworks of the “outdoors exhibition”, curated by TAB co-founder Gigi Shukakidze, head of experimental Tbilisi studio Wunderwerk, as a kind of conceptual art treasure hunt. This was TAB’s attempt to follow up on its decentralising promise, to provoke conversation with the “real people” of Gldani.

TAB’s nimble, engaged curation is probably the only viable option for a biennial in a city like Tbilisi. Informal architecture won’t save the city, but it can be a point of departure

As a result, Shukakidze’s open call had clearly favoured artists who sought to embed their work within the scuzzy urban fabric — found or scrap materials, DIY-style knock-ups, and plays on the district’s architectural vocabulary recurred. The Basel-based Anti-Material Architecture group had worked with local builders to erect Informal Monument, a spindly metal and wood screen that crept over several residential buildings. In an octagonal courtyard, the Venetian Babau Bureau had recreated in garish pink paint a 1:1 scale floorplan of Rome’s fourth-century Mausoleum of Santa Costanza — what architect Stefano Tornieri described to me as “a little intervention” into the lives of their temporary neighbours. Tornieri’s comment reflected the desire of many artists to trouble the distinction between public and private space (“transformation of outer space is dependent on transformation of inner space,” as Shukakidze put it). The clearest example of this was Block 76, a series of miniature installations inside the apartments of a single building, where residents carried on with their evenings as visitors peered into their bedrooms and kitchens in an echo of the “apartment exhibitions” staged by non-conformist Soviet artists in the 70s and 80s. Shukakidze and co had decided to make the Biennial unignorable for locals, and were rewarded in these moments of low-key but genuine communication.

This kind of nimble, engaged curation is probably the only viable option for a biennial in a city like Tbilisi. Informal architecture won’t save the city, but it can be a point of departure. As Gurgenidze told me, “we can learn out of these informalities: they’re a pure demonstration of the relationship between dwellers and their environment.” If nothing else, TAB sidesteps the world of “official” politics, about which no one in Tbilisi has anything good to say. Nikoloz Japaridze saw greater potential for “democracy” in Gldani than in the nation’s presidential elections, which coincidentally took place a few days into my visit: “Informality has a role in creating society, through the exchange of ideas. That is the only way. You can’t change things radically. We already have a radical guy as boss of the country, and he does whatever he wants.”

In a city that combines unchecked development with economic precarity, and where the architectural community sometimes wants for esprit de corps, an architecture biennial does have a powerful role to play. As TAB’s founders understand, it can unify the conversation, helping both professionals and residents express their concerns, even if actually solving them remains some way off. As a first run, TAB 2018 was hugely impressive, and should set the standard both in Georgia and in other post-Soviet spaces. Still, it’s fair to ask whether the lauded engagement with residents in a place like Gldani — many of them displaced people and precarious immigrants — can ever be more than temporary. Gigi Shukakidze spoke of the Biennial installations as a means of “activating” the neighbourhood for those who lived there. But lived experience doesn’t need the patina of architectural theory or conceptual art in order to be meaningful.

The concerns of the Gldani residents are more prosaic, for now. For one of the outdoor installations, Viennese duo Adrian Judt and Helene Schauer had piled up construction materials (breeze blocks, paint, planks of wood), intending to give them out for free to residents over the course of five days. They were cleaned out in 15 minutes. Elsewhere, Andrei of Anti-Material Architects told me that residents were already itching to deconstruct his sculpture to get their hands on the scrap metal; and just two days into the exhibition, another installation up the road had been sold to a neighbouring cobbler for parts. So, intentionally or not, Tbilisi’s new biennial did find a way of giving back to the community.

Text: Samuel Goff
Image: Tako Robakidze, Anka Gujabidze, Sandro Sulaberidze