Page last updated at 00:56 GMT, Wednesday, 2 July 2008 01:56 UK

The battle for Tbilisi's soul

By Matthew Collin
BBC News, Tbilisi

A candy coloured stained glass window decorates a balcony in Tbilisi's Old Town
A coloured stained glass window decorates a renovated balcony in Tbilisi

"Don't destroy the building," pleaded a placard held by a young demonstrator outside a late 19th Century block in the centre of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

But it was already too late. As the small group of conservationists held their protest, construction workers were standing nearby, preparing to start knocking it down.

A demonstrator against demolition in Tbilisi
Demolition is an emotive issue in historic Tbilisi

The historic building was cleared for demolition after the authorities deemed that it was too damaged to be renovated.

It will be replaced by a modern office block.

One of the protesters said this showed that a "battle for the soul of the city" was under way.

The dispute pits the conservationists, who believe the architectural heritage of Tbilisi's old town district is under threat, against profit-seeking developers and the city council, which lacks the finances needed to restore the Georgian capital's magnificent but crumbling architecture.

Enchanting jumble

"Old Tbilisi has its own unique value," said protester Gvantsa Chikovani.

Typical building in Tbilisi's Old Town
Tbilisi's Old Town is an enchanting, eclectic jumble

"We shouldn't just destroy everything and build fashionable new offices or apartments just to make money."

Tbilisi's enchanting old town is a jumble of crooked streets, courtyards and overhanging balconies decorated with intricate wooden latticework.

Its architecture is an eclectic mixture of European and Middle Eastern influences, and includes some fine examples of Art Nouveau and neo-classicism.

But because so many buildings have fallen into disrepair after a long period of economic decline - and widespread damage caused by a powerful earthquake in 2002 - the authorities in this impoverished former Soviet republic say it would be impossible to find the money to save them all.

Architectural treasures

Tbilisi's Deputy Mayor Mamuka Akhvlediani told the BBC he also believes that far too many buildings in the city have been classified as historical monuments.

Mr Akhvlediani said he wants the number to be reduced from 1,700 to 500, and suggested that some will inevitably be demolished.

Tbilisi's Old Town is home to many beautiful, but crumbling, buildings rich in iron and woodwork.

"Very many of these buildings are beyond repair," he explains. "That's why the number of historical monuments should be restricted."

The conservationists are worried that this means some architectural treasures will be supplanted by glass-fronted business centres and upmarket apartment complexes.

Marina Khatiashvili, a Georgian art historian who serves on the city planning commission, says there are often bitter rows about which buildings should be saved.

"We don't dream that we can preserve everything, but we want to do as much as we can," she says.

"The authorities are not against preservation, but they don't have money."

However, some Tbilisi residents actually want their dilapidated buildings to be knocked down by developers, in return for new apartments or cash payments.

"Many people are really very poor, and they see it as their only way to get money," explains Ms Khatiashvili.

"For the authorities it's also convenient, because then they won't have problems with these people who are living in very bad conditions."

Some residents refuse to do repairs because they are waiting for investors to buy them out, while others have disfigured attractive courtyards and balconies by adding shoddily-built extensions or concreting over traditional woodwork to create more living space.

The city authorities say they want to transform Tbilisi into a prosperous, European-style capital, while retaining as much of its architectural charm as possible.

Bending the rules

Deputy Mayor Akhvlediani says the council is spending significant funds on renovation work, such as a high-profile project to restore the faded grandeur of Tbilisi's main thoroughfare, Rustaveli Avenue.

Dilapidated apartments in Tbilisi
Most residents do not have the money to renovate their homes

He says the authorities have been working with international architectural experts to prepare a new plan for developing the city, but he argues that Tbilisi can only be regenerated successfully with the help of private investors.

The deputy mayor insists that developers are subject to strict guidelines about what they can build, and that they have to respect the "Tbilisian style of architecture" in the old town.

But Maia Mania, a professor of architectural history, claims that the rich and powerful can sometimes circumvent the rules.

"You can put up whatever you want and destroy whatever you want if you have good backing," she told the BBC.

The Georgian capital is currently going through a minor construction boom, but the conservationists fear that as the authorities attempt to create a wealthier future by bringing in much-needed investment, they are allowing developers to erase part of the past forever.

"Tbilisi's heritage is not just our heritage, it is world heritage," argues the art historian ms Khatiashvili.

"If this process continues, Tbilisi will become just another uninteresting modern city."

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