& disciplinary discontents

Interview with Levan Asabashvili, architect and member of the Urban Reactor group, Tbilisi & DISCIPLINARY DISCONTENTS

interview conducted by Nataša Bodrožić & Saša Šimpraga Georgia was founded in 2010. On activities, it’s politics and modernist heritage in Georgia, MOTEL TROGIR talks to the architect Levan Asabashvili, one of the founders of the Georgian section and a member of the Urban Reactor action group based in Tbilisi.


Ministry of Higways, Tbilisi. Today Headquarter of the National Bank of Georgia (architect George Chakhava, 1975)

In the framework of the Motel TROGIR project, we recently started a series of interviews with members of different sections in order to bring closer the context and activities of this international organization focused on the protection of the modernist heritage. In one of our previous conversations, you mentioned that you see the ‘ discourse’ somewhat out of the context of post-Soviet countries. Can you elaborate on that?

Not only for post-Soviet countries. I think in general the position of this organization needs a serious overlook and update. Here I am bringing the main points from the mission statement of the organization:

· act as watchdog when important modern movement buildings anywhere are under threat

· exchange ideas relating to conservation technology, history and education

· foster interest in the ideas and heritage of the modern movement

· elicit responsibility towards this recent architectural inheritance.

These points themselves, taken as professional and disciplinary stances are fine, but here we come to the questions about what are the disciplinary boundaries of the profession and how effectively do they help us to fight back/tackle the deeper problems causing and reproducing our “disciplinary” discontents?

For example, what kind of articulation of the problem does the professional adopt, when some (in this case) modernist building is being destroyed or neglected? Are we interested in preserving and renovating physical bodies of the buildings or are we concerned more about a deeper social and political currents causing the disintegration of not only specific heritage- objects- but the whole living environments of various scales?

What do we mean by preservation? For example, are we happy if some big corporation takes responsibility of caring about a definite modernist landmark, renovates it according to all standards and puts inside of it its headquarters like in case of Ministry of Highways in Tbilisi? Or should we support the occupation of other modernist structures by small informal businesses, dwellings and so on, in which process the original physical integrity of the building is constantly altered by illegal additions, small separations but the whole picture clearly speaks about the current social reality and gives the building new, real life and social charge? Such cases also happened in Tbilisi especially in previous years.


Of course,  such confrontation of cases is quite superficial but I still think that the standard position of organization would be to support the first case or something near such scenario.

The knowledge that modernist spatial practice gives us is very significant for imagining alternatives but focusing on modernist heritage alone ( style) seems to me limited in a way that it essentially stays elitist. I think our efforts should be directed to strengthening the class consciousness in our disciplinary interests and if we do so,  completely new horizons could arise. This process also involves a complete rethinking of the question of heritage as such and its protection (where modernist heritage and dominant ways of its treatment also falls) and the interesting topic for me is to talk how we can do it, as I don’t have a direct nor simple answer. I think, somehow we have to escape liberal discursive framework of heritage and its protection and try to go beyond it.

Talking recently to a colleague (from Serbia) about the issue you are bringing out here, he stressed the fact that it is already a big progress when the modernist heritage built after WW2 is being accepted as (national) heritage without denying or negating the political system which built it. Basically you are talking about the historic revisionism now very much taking place all over the post-socialist world, which is a threat to socialist/soviet modernist heritage no matter if it wants to demolish it (remove it from the collective consciousness) or decontextualize/depoliticize it?


NARKOMFIN building, Moscow (architects: Moisel Ginzburg with Ignaty Milinis, 1928-1930)

I think the way how the post-Soviet ruling elites deal with the Soviet early and late modernist built heritage has gradually changed over the past decades. Here I am not speaking about Stalinist architecture which was mostly admired by the old as well as new (they are basically the same) elites. This is true at least for Georgia. There are several examples that I know in Russia as well. For example, if 5-10 years ago buildings from early Avant-garde period were completely neglected or intentionally erased, today there are cases when they are bought by the big companies or private art organizations and rehabilitated them  (the example might be the Bus Garage in Moscow by Konstantin Melnikov), there are plans to open a high class hotel in the house of Narkomfin by Moisel Ginzburg. In Georgian context there is a building of the Ministry of Highways which was bought by the biggest private bank in the country, renovated it and now they have a headquarters there. Another one is a former publishing house Merani built in 1920s and 1930s, reconstructed and converted now into the elite shopping centre.

Narkomfin building (1928-1930)

Such approaches are welcomed by professionals and among them organization such as because the buildings are kept and preserved but no one asks what is going on beyond this. This is a classical liberal approach towards the built heritage when the main aim is to keep the physical integrity of the building in question and not being interested what kind of economic or social meanings such interventions can have. So, I would agree only partly with the colleague you mentioned. Of course, it is already something if such buildings are accepted as important pieces and this gives us the possibility for further articulation of the subject but the fact is that most of them are privatized, integrated by the market and commercialized. This, in exchange of “preserving” them, I think is the result of pure and superficial approaches to the problem from the monument protection groups and public in general.




Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage, Moscow (architect Konstantin Melnikov and Vladimir Shukov, 1926-1927). Today Center for Contemporary Art

You were one of the founders of the Georgia. What are the main activities of the Georgia?

I am one of the co-founders of the local branch of this organization. I think it’s not worth devoting much time and resources to the professional struggle on the local or international scale as I believe changes come from completely different fields of action, but still as a person having education in this sphere I always use the chance of problematizing disciplinary issues which are basically imported from the “progressive” west and implemented here without critical appraisal. So being a member of this professional organization sometimes gives me a possibility of talking about problems from the different perspective while still staying on a formal stage.

Basically its activities are research based and educational. It has collected considerable material from the private and public archives. It has organized several exhibitions regarding the architecture of the late modernist period and made some publications. But overall its activities have not exceeded the disciplinary boundaries I have mentioned above.


Merani building, Tbilisi. Historically the headquarters for the Russian-language newspaper Zarya Vostoka (architect David Chisliev, 1931), later it housed the publishing house Merani

In general I think it is possible to put such organizations as in service of the progressive change but for this the elaboration of rigorous theoretical frameworks are necessary through which the organization would see its activities and role in the overall political, social and economic process.


Merani building, Tbilisi today

Along with other Caucasian Republics, Georgia became quite known lately for a specific modernist heritage mainly from the Soviet period. How do you explain such a range of good architectural projects realized in Soviet Georgian Republic, was it in relation to a special status of Georgia within the USSR?

I don’t think that Georgia has some specific architectural heritage from the time. There are extremely interesting pieces in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, I don’t have much information about central Asian part of the Soviet union but I know there has also been conducted a considerable work, especially in town planning schemes as well as in architecture.


Oleksandr Burlaka_Tbilisi

Nutsubidze plato, apartments buildings, Tbilisi (architects Otar Kalandarishvili & G. Potskhishvili, 1974-1976) Photo: Olexandr Burlaka

How extensive is the formal protection for significant buildings of the Soviet modernist movement in Georgia? Are there buildings built after WW2 which have already been recognized and listed as monuments by authorities? Or protected buildings refer mostly to the beginning of the century modernism?

During the Soviet period and later during Shevardnadze rule (1992-2003) all significant buildings from this period already had formal protection as they were listed as monuments but after Saakashvili came into power (2003-2012) all such buildings were delisted from the protection list and stay in such formal status until today.


Like many other places, Tbilisi has gone through a radical transformation since the fall of the USSR. Do you think that any architecture built today in any way reaches the quality of some of the most distinguished buildings erected in soviet times? What is the common ground of the city being built today?

Of course buildings being built today don’t reach the socio-spatial quality of late soviet structures in any sense and it would be theoretically incorrect to make such assertion. I believe that in the period of an overall reaction no progressive architectural idea can be realized.


Tbilisi today. A panoramic view.


Eduard Shevardnadze (1928-2104) was a Georgian  politician and diplomat. He served as First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party (GPC), the de facto leader of Soviet Georgia from 1972 to 1985 and as Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1991. Shevardnadze was responsible for many key decisions in Soviet foreign policy during the Gorbachev Era. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, he was President of Georgia (or in equivalent posts) from 1992 to 2003. He was forced to retire in 2003 as a consequence of the bloodless Rose Revolution

Mikheil Saakashvili (1967), politician.  Involved in Georgian politics since 1995, he became president in January 2004 after President Eduard Shevardnadze resigned in the November 2003 bloodless “Rose Revolution” led by Saakashvili and his political allies. He was re-elected in the Georgian presidential election on 5 January 2008. He was widely regarded as a pro-NATO and pro-West leader. On 2 October 2012, Saakashvili admitted his party’s defeat in Georgia’s parliamentary election against the Georgian Dream coalition led by the tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili. He is the current Governor of Ukraine’s Odessa Oblast (region).


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