Stones Film Project

Old Stones vs. New Glass

Old Stones versus New Glass is a documentary film is about a family that used to enjoy living in a traditional home in an Old Tbilisi neighborhood, but now the family is considering a move to a modern apartment. Some friends have left because they could not afford to maintain/restore their homes. Others are staying because they enjoy “the spirit of old Tbilisi,” and they want children to enjoy the cultural experience that the parents and grandparents value. Viewers hear family members talk about their dilemma, and viewers see the family in everyday activities. The family’s quandry of whether to stay or leave represents the larger conflict in Tbilisi between people who want to preserve historic buildings/neighborhoods and people who want to construct modern structures. Preservation experts and archival photos (video) provide information about Old Tbilisi. Background information about modern construction is provided in interviews with developers, construction company managers, and city officials.

This documentary is needed because people in Tbilisi (and many other cities outside of Europe and North America) have not thought about preserving the physical structures of older neighborhoods as well as their social connections and cultures. If people haven’t thought about such issues, they may either make decisions in ignorance or allow others to make unwise decisions for them. Old Stones versus New Glass presents these issues in a compelling manner. It is similar to these films: a) Conserving Our Future, which documents the historic preservation-sustainability linkage; b) America’s 11 Most Endangered Places, which highlights important examples of the nation’s architectural, cultural and natural heritage that are at risk for destruction or irreparable damage; c) Maravilla Handball Court: A Place That Matters about a community jewel in danger of being demolished and privately redeveloped; and d) Golden Side of the Tracks, which chronicles the vibrant cultural mecca that was Overtown, Miami, Florida, a bustling African-American community that housed theaters, business activity and a thriving family-oriented community until the expressway was built through the town, destroying its heart and soul.

The primary intended audience is Georgians, but the film will be subtitled in English and should also reach people who are concerned about historical preservation. The film will be screened for groups in Georgia who are a) concerned about preservation, architecture, city planning; b) interested in politics in Tbilisi and Georgia; c) captivated by Old Tbilisi. It will also be entered in film festivals.

Who will be the main character(s)?
• A multi-generational family should live in the home.
• At least one person in the family should be a great story teller—interesting, animated, articulate.
• The family should interact with its neighbors in the “spirit of old Tbilisi.”
• The family should maintain traditional Tbilisi/Georgian culture—singing, playing Nardi, using the public baths, attending Georgian Orthodox church, and so on.
• There must be tension and conflict either within the family or amongst close neighbors about whether to preserve the spirit of Old Tbilisi or to develop a new modern city.
• The audience should have empathy for the family.
• The family must be open and honest. It must be able to continue to act naturally even though a camera is recording their actions.

Georgia has attempted to set itself apart from other post-Soviet states by taking steps to foster a favorable business climate for Western investors. The World Bank’s Doing Business 2010 report, for example, ranked Georgia 11th in the world for its business environment, the highest rating among all former Soviet republics. In order to attract Western investors, Tbilisi officials, including the mayor and deputy mayor, are encouraging new construction.

Not only will construction attract investors, officials claim, but construction also creates jobs. The construction sector is one of the few economic sectors where jobs are easy to find. In 2007, the sector generated around 1.5 billion lari (slightly over $1 billion), according to the Department of Statistics.

With outside investors and new construction, the value of real estate is rising. Khatiashvili, who serves on a city commission charged with reviewing building sales plans, says that space can go as high as $5,000 per square meter – a fee that would put Tbilisi among Eastern Europe’s most expensive real estate markets. He said, “Financially, it only makes sense to an investor if there is an opportunity to put up a multi-story building with lots of space to sell, not just renovate a half-ruined building.”

Of course, as real estate values increase, so do tax revenues.

Government officials believe modern buildings will enhance the Georgian capital’s image; Tbilisi will become better, nicer, more comfortable, and more like other European cities. Responding to opponents who accuse the Government of destroying Tbilisi, President Saakashvili said, “Let them scold us, we’ll keep on building and doing our business. Let them predict misfortune, we will create one of the best cities in the world, in which happy and employed people will live in comfort.” Saakashvili added that no one should be allowed to halt building projects.
Preservationists, on the other hand, argue that the new construction is destroying the very aspects of Tbilisi that would best attract tourists, investment, and economic development. They want to preserve the old town’s maze of winding cobbled streets, laced wooden balconies, and its mixture of Georgian and foreign architectural traditions. In the Historic District, some archaeological remnants are dated back 5th century i.e. the date when the city was founded. Medieval religious, fortification and sulfur baths from the 17th and 18th centuries also remain. Buildings dating from the 19th and 20th centuries reflect a mix of Russian neo-Classicism, European Art Nouveau, and Iranian influences.

But Tbilisi’s old town – which is still referred to by its historical name, “Kala” is more than buildings; it is also a multi-ethnic and multi cultural place with special cultural values. Residential buildings, for example, are typically connected with balconies and courtyards, which created links to different parts of the houses, thus contributing to the creation of an open, sociable type of neighborhood. The linked courtyards have resulted in the development of the specific, unique spirit that differentiates Tbilisi from other Caucasus or Persian cities. To this day, folkloric stereotypes still bear some relation to the neighborhood’s social reality: a cosmopolitan mix of inhabitants (Georgians, Armenians, Kurds, Azerbaijanis, Jews, Russians, etc.), a daily life based upon wine and games of nardi (backgammon) played in the street, public baths, and close neighborly relations. Preservationists want this “spirit of Tbilisi” to be taken into account when new urban development is planned.

But these wonderful buildings are starting to crumble due to their age, decades of official neglect, widespread poverty and earthquakes in 1998 and 2002. Some may even be dangerous. “Every time it rains, I’m thinking which house is going to collapse this time,” commented art historian Marina Khatiashvili. Historic churches are literally falling down. On the 19th of November 2009, the 14th -18th century Armenian Moghnini Church collapsed. The 19th century houses on Bread Square (Puris Moedani) also caved in. In a recent report, one-fifth of the housing in Old Town was categorized as slum-like, so the need for restoration is urgent.

The Tbilisi city government claims it is too expensive to renovate the historic buildings. Deputy Mayor Mamuka Akhvlediani said, “The city will never have enough money to restore and develop all the historical monuments and we have to engage the private sector.” He added, “Today there as many as 1,700 buildings that are categorized as historical monuments, which is way too much for a town like Tbilisi,” he said. “Places like Florence don’t have that many protected buildings.”

In other words, no one has found a way to make money on history.

So city officials are trying to compromise. They’ve launched the “Old Tbilisi’s New Life” program.

To avoid demolition of historic buildings, while still generating profits, city officials allow private developers to add extra floors and/or to expand the rear side of historic buildings. “Ideally the investor preserves the façade, but is allowed to expand the rear side of the building and use it for commercial purposes,” Akhvlediani elaborated. City officials also allow developers to replace old buildings with new ones if they adhere to old Tbilisi’s architectural style.

For preservationists, this type of compromise is unacceptable. They argue that 90 percent of the renovations have produced larger buildings, which only roughly resemble the original structures. Preservationists also point out that only the facades are renovated, not the interiors or the backs of historic buildings. They claim that new buildings that supposedly adhere to old Tbilisi’s architectural style are really just architectural stereotypes. Residents are also displeased. Few want to live in these fake “show” houses. The houses may look good for casual tourists, but residents must deal with faulty plumbing and electrical work, peeling plaster, and other problems. Moreover, the fabric of their old neighborhoods has been ripped apart. The tangible and intangible local heritage has been lost.

Why have the city’s efforts to preserve Historic Tbilisi failed? Preservationists claim that one problem is that city officials do not understand the long-term economic and cultural benefits of preserving the identity of the city, but they understand, and want, short-term profits. When replacing old stones with new glass, developers, real estate agents, and city officials have made large profits. Even if city officials and developers were willing to settle for small profits over a longer period of time, they lack the planning, strategy, know-how, management, and legal enforcement to properly preserve Tbilisi’s historic district. A project initiated by the British Consulate could solve the latter problem.

• Show winding, cobbled streets, houses with overhanging balconies decorated with intricate wooden latticework.
• Show nests of swallows, spiral staircases, inner courtyards, and picturesque yards
• Show homes with Russian neo-classicism, Orientialism, European Art Nouveau, and Iranian influences.
• Show the multiethnic mix of neighbors (Georgians, Armenians, Kurds, Azerbaijanis, Jews, Russians, and so on) as they interact, drink wine, and play backgammon on the street.
• Show well preserved Georgian Orthodox churches dating from the 6th to the 20th centuries.
• Show people enjoying the 17th-18th Century sulphur baths.
• Show the Betlemi and Kldisubani neighborhoods, which were successfully rehabilitated by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
• Show the area of the original city: Upper and Lower Kala, Abanotubani, Kharphukhi, Isani, and Avlabari.
• Show old photos/video of Tbilisi.
• Show houses damaged by 2002 earthquake, which may be too damaged to be renovated.
• Show crumbling Armenian churches, including where the 14th-18th century Armenian Moghnini Church collapsed; Jewish synagogues needing repairs; and the remains of a Zoroastrian fire temple.
• Show houses that have been rebuilt using architectural stereotypes that only vaguely recall the original style.
• Show Asatiani Street, where modern apartment blocks have been built higher than neighboring historical buildings, which is against Georgian law.
• Show Aghmashenebeli Avenue, where buildings’ facades have been renovated, but not their interiors or rears. Show dormers and Parisian-style leaving roof that have been added but that are not accurate restorations of architectural heritage.
• Show the 16 new apartment blocks that created living space for 500 poor families.
• Show modern pedestrian bridge and the new presidential palace.
• Report on the 2007 law to preserve architectural heritage.
• Report on the “Tbilisi Model,” which aims to secure neighborhood agreement to preservation plans to form a “parity council” to approve and oversee the work.
• Report on the British Council’s project: “Urban Heritage Preservation: Identity and Spirit of Old Tbilisi.”
• Interview Ambassador John Bass about the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation and how it’s being used in Old Tbilisi.
• Report on why the 1999 and 2007 proposals were turned down for Old Tbilisi to become a UNESCO World Heritage site.
• Interview Giorgi Ugulava, Tbilisi’s mayor, about the “New Life for Old Tbilisi” program.
• Interview Deputy Mayor Mamuka Akhvlediani about why he believes too many buildings in the city have been classified as historical monuments.
• Interview Giorgi Kapanadze, Axis construction company.
• Interview Prof. Maia Mania, professor of architectural history in the Academy of Arts about whether politicians are enforcing the rules of historical preservation.
• Interview Giorgi Batiashvili, professor for Regeneration of Historic Tbilisi
• Interview Marina Khatiashvili, a Georgian art historian who serves(d) on the city planning commission about the battles over which buildings should be preserved.
• Interview with Nino Chanishvili, a cultural heritage expert at the Old City Rehabilitation & Development Fund, an organization which works on contract with the Tbilisi city government
• Interview G. Chubinashvili, National Research Centre for Georgian Art History and Heritage Preservation about the present situation.
• Interview Tbilisi residents who want their dilapidated buildings to be knocked down by developers, in return for new apartments or cash payments.
• Interview the six Georgian winners of the “Urban Heritage Preservation” contest about their travel to Europe to explore how European cities have dealt with the dichotomy of urban architectural development and urban heritage.
• Interview people from Georgian heritage preservation NGOs.
• Interview people from the Goethe Institute.
• Interview people from the Georgian National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS Georgia).
• Interview architectural students at the Georgian Technical University and Tbilisi State Academy of Arts.

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