Saturday, March 27, 2010

Tbilisi, evolving

Tbilisi has been changing incrementally over the last few years. By contrast, Baku is transforming itself at a dizzying pace and models itself on Dubai, with new, aggressive skyscrapers and demolition crews everywhere. (Dubai is a dubious model for Baku, given its staggering debt. And for many years, Azerbaijan has been a prime candidate for Dutch Disease.)

Most of my favorite cafes and restaurants are now only fond memories, and a facebook page has sprung up entitled "Stop Destroying Baku," which allows Azeris to vent over the almost violent transformation of the city.

Tbilisi, however, is evolving in a more relaxed fashion - typical for Georgia.

Everyone complains about it, but I am not so sure that all the changes are really diminishing Tbilisi's unique character. And again, in contrast to Baku, my guess is that the gradual pace and less frenzied determination to change the city will result in a comfortable blend of old and new. (Why do the authorities in Baku feel that a complete metamorphosis has to take place as the city evolves? What was wrong with the old Baku?)

So until I come up with some additional photos, I am submitting these two - of the old Iveria Hotel and its reincarnation as the Iveria Radisson. Pretty glitzy, eh?

The old hotel was an embarrassment to the government, having been taken over by refugees from Georgia's civil war in the early 1990's. They simply moved in, took over, and adapted - with generous use of plywood and drywall to extend the square footage of what was once hotel rooms. The old Iveria, then, was a semi-permanent refugee settlement, giving it a wildly improvised appearance in the heart of downtown Tbilisi. Thus the embarrassment, because it was also a symbol of the government's inability to integrate the refugee population.

There were rumors for years that a (Japanese? Finnish?) firm had bought the Iveria and would turn it into a high-end shopping center, but to my astonishment, it morphed into another hotel. And the Radisson, for whatever reason, decided not to raze the previous structure, but to keep it intact and gut it from the inside out.

I was happy to see it still standing and refurbished. Did Radisson decide that the building's form had aesthetic potential? I want to think that it's an example of the "golden ratio," a la UN Headquarters in New York.

But this article throws cold water on the notion that many of the buildings we think of as based on the ratio actually are.

Note the presence of the fine statue of King David the Builder, still present as of the restoration in 2009. Unfortunately (and curiously), President Saakashvili ordered its removal to another site early in his administration. It's gone, and so are the refugees (who all got a buyout). And the Iveria has been restored to its former glory.

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