It Will Not Be Easy to Turn Tbilisi Into Paris

Dirt-encrusted, decrepit and wasted by years of neglect, the exquisite Art Nouveau buildings of Tbilisi have long been desperately in need of serious renovation.

There are some remarkable examples of early 20th-century architecture in the Georgian capital, built when the city was a thriving mercantile metropolis in the latter years of the tsarist empire but left to rot during the Soviet period and the chaos that followed independence.

The economic crisis that followed the war with Russia in 2008 halted a credit-fueled property boom and left many construction sites idle. But despite this, the Georgian authorities are starting to restore some of the decorative elegance of the Art Nouveau quarter as part of their continuing attempts to transform dilapidated districts of the capital.

“This project means we will be proud to live in one of Europe’s most beautiful and special cities,” President Mikheil Saakashvili declared when launching the latest phase of the program. “This area most resembles Paris, and we will make it look like Paris.”

Georgia’s ever-enthusiastic leader has previously made pledges to turn the rundown port of Poti into a Black Sea version of Dubai and to create a “new Barcelona” in the tourist resort of Batumi. Accusations of hyperbole aside, not everyone has applauded his modernization zeal. Some architectural experts have been dismayed by the glass-fronted blocks that the authorities have allowed developers to construct amid the splendors of Tbilisi’s unique but decaying old town.

Preservationists also worry that restoration work could be rushed through, giving the city an instant but superficial makeover.

“Real restoration needs time, and it is impossible to do it quickly. Therefore, we have so much damage to architectural monuments in Georgia,” argues Nestan Tatarashvili of the Art Nouveau Preservation Group.

She isn’t alone.

A Facebook campaign group set up by Tatarashvili to preserve a particularly remarkable Art Nouveau cinema has already attracted about 2,000 supporters.

Saakashvili insists that he will continue to transform the landscape of his capital, whatever the critics say. As he warned them: “We will not give anyone the opportunity to stop what we are doing.”

Matthew Collin is a journalist based in Tbilisi.

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