From “Soviet-City” to “Cosmopolitan City” – Architecture as a Protagonist for the Emergence of New Centres of Power in South Caucasus

Natia Bakhtadze


Dissolution of the Soviet Union is clearly most important breaking point of the end of the 20th century in terms of social and urban structures (Leach 1999: 112). By the end of the 20th century, when these coutries gained back their independence and started developing as democratic and fair states, they were confronted with the requirements of the current epoch; these are: democracy, stable economy, precise sciences and total communication. Given these circumstances, restructurization of Soviet cities into “modern city” models is noteworthy, which means creating something new, totally different from the old models and fundamentally change everything to create a new “Non-Soviet” person.
Therefore, it represented a dramatic blow to every sphere, including architecture and cities. Particularly noteworthy are transformation processes in the capital cities of South Caucasus, especially in Baku and Tbilisi.
It must be mentioned that urban development in Soviet countries was based on the Soviet rules. Under these rules the living space was used as the main weapon to control the population. The huge areas of soviet cities were managed from the following perspective – “the property of all or none!” which established unconscious dichotomy and caused a deep crisis of public culture after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
According to the same principle “for all or for none!”, in the 1960s, after Nikita Khrushchev’s Housing Reforms, theresidential blocks were not used elsewhere withsuch density as in Eastern Bloc countries. These homogenous living block propaganda created a type of Soviet City as a genre. In essence it is a series of similar buildings and settlements – the so called “micro-rayons”–which are considered as an ideal form for living. Architecture and cities should also convey the idea of prosperity, equality and beauty. That is why the USSR established itself as a “museum of dreams”, a “museum of hypotheses” – of never realized projects.
The form of the “museum of dreams” is so rooted in the mentality of former Soviet republics that after “Perestroika” they have made quite a special picture of themselves.
Bruce Grant in his essay The Edifice Complex: Architecture and the Political Life of Surplus in the New Baku, writes that Outside Moscow the world of abundance is nowhere more prominent than in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan (Grant 2014: 502). However, he is wrong, because Baku is one of the examples of post-Soviet cities and not a unique case to clarify the character of post-Soviet states. Characteristic examples of post-Sovietgeopolitical development are Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, whose state “welfare” and “wealth”are nowhere so present as in the capital cities of these countries: Astana and Ashgabat. They have turned into “Open Air Museums”, where the power of the government and the glory of the nation areheld almost sacral (Koch 2010: 769).
In South Caucasus not only Baku is the city which aims to be a center of cosmopolitan life, as Bruce Grant tells us in his essay (Grant 2014), Tbilisi also strives for that.
After “Perestroika” both cities, Tbilisi and Baku have undergone fundamental changes not only economically but also in architecture and urban planning. The largest sources of wellbeing for Baku are gas and oil projects (Grant 2014); while for Georgia they are mainly agriculture and tourism. The main problem is getting rid of the Soviet image; therefore, the structures of both cities are violated by the mass of constructions, but the main state concepts still remain symbolic for them. Exactly through these symbolic structures these countries show their individual place, strength and value in the world political composition. The difference is that we do not see such giant buildings in Tbilisi, which we see in Baku, where the pompous urban areas are created for business centers with the world’s largest buildings. But Baku will compete with the Black Sea city Batumiin Georgia, which also emphasizes its importance with modern architecture on the beach of the Black Sea . The whole power that Azerbaijan gets through gas and oil is expressed in its pompous architecture and in the sense of abundance linking itto the cities like new Doha, Dubai or Shanghai (Grant 2014: 502).
For Georgia Rike Park in Tbilisi is very symbolic. It is not gigantic, but is very peculiar together withthe “Bridge of Peace” . With the symbolic importance of this bridge in old Tbilisi Georgia underlines its transitory location between Europe and Asia, its strive for democracy and visualization of historical scale.
With the creation of new architectural buildings and urban areas, these cities represent some kind of evidence of reforms and transformation from the Soviet cities into “Global” ones.
The main tool for presenting a “European City”, “Modern City”, “Global City” is architecture. As architecture is the quickest way for creating a “Global City”, to reach this goal politicians do not avoid implementing multi-million-dollar projects with the participation of the so-called “Star-Architects” despite difficult social-economic conditions. With the help of most distinctive architectural projects these cities become “Place Brandings” for the world. For example, one of such projects accomplished in Tbilisi isthe Bridge of Peace, its author is the eminent Italian architect Michele De Luca. He also designed the Presidential Palace and the building of the Ministry of Internal Affairs . Another famous Italian architect, Massimiliano Fuksas designed the Rike Concert Hall; an outstanding German architect, Jürgen Mayer-Hermann created Queen Tamar Airport in Mestia and so on. This is a general trend, which most rapidly deprives the generic look of a former Soviet town – it becomes free. On the way of transformation from the soviet city to the global metropolis the city landscape dramatically changes its structure. Very often local and traditional signs are disrespected and this becomes a cultural problem.
Through architecture the cityscape of Tbilisi makes a visible societal domination of two institutions: that is the Georgian Orthodox Church and the Government. In this respect, I would like to focus on the Presidential Palace and Sameba (Holy Trinity) Cathedral These two monuments are prominent due to their visual presentation, privileged location and stylistic peculiarities. Both structures are designed as “super monuments”, indicating to new life and time; they are trying to give a new face to the society. As architectural symbols both buildings fully determinethe skyline of the location. They greet everyone who enters Tbilisi. Before that this role belonged to Metekhi Church and King Vakhtang Gorgasali monument. This duality –conservative and monumental sacral architecture, on the one hand, and democratic, transparent and modern secular architecture, on the other – has become an indicator of Tbilisi’s nature, culture and, in general, of the essence of Georgia’s statehood.

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