Curators of the Tbilisi Architecture Biennial discuss their project and its context
Posing the question “What Do We Have in Common,” the second installment of the Tbilisi Architecture Biennial attempted to enrich, study, and research a “common” urban vocabulary in Georgia and beyond. It investigated ownership structures, common space transformations, everyday spatial common practices, spaces of resistance, and much more.
The Biennial took place in October-November 2020. Due to the pandemic, a digital platform became its main site. The website took the shape of a digital building prototype, which was slowly filled with the activities realized during the Biennial and evolved into a common symbolic structure.
The 2020 event built upon the inaugural Biennial that took place in 2018 and looked at the Georgian capital’s post-Soviet urban paradoxes and the transformative power of informal architecture.
Tbilisi Architecture Biennial is co-funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union.
EastEast Editor-in-Chief Furqat Palvan-Zade and Strelka Mag Senior Editor Timur Zolotoev spoke to the curators of the Tbilisi Architecture Biennial—Tinatin Gurgenidze, Gigi Shukakidze, and Otar Nemsadze—about what we have in common, and on holding the Biennial during a pandemic.
Timur Zolotoev: The challenges imposed by the pandemic seem to have turned into new opportunities, allowing you to bring together a great number of very diverse and interesting projects from all over the world. Could you tell us about your curatorial process? How did you transform the program and bring it all together in these extraordinary circumstances?
Gigi Shukakidze: When we started working on this year’s topic about commonness, suddenly the COVID-19 pandemic started, and then we had to somehow figure out what to do and how to deal with the situation. We decided not to cancel this year’s Biennial and to go ahead with a new kind of context—a digital space where the website could become a medium for any kind of event, and everyone could participate in it on a global scale. This kind of platform opened new possibilities to exhibit works from different countries.
Otar Nemsadze: I think it’s also important to underline that even though we went digital, we didn’t completely go digital because we still left areas for physical installations and physical projects. So we said that even though we are in a pandemic, if somebody wants to develop something physically, they can do it, even in their home country, whether it’s in Tbilisi or whether it’s in Chile. And then we translated it for the audience on our platform. So I would still call this more like a hybrid version of the Biennial, where the combination of the physical—with limited space—was still present, and most of its parts went to the digital platform. And another thing that was important with this Biennial is that it opened up different categories of projects. In 2018, we had mostly physical categories. So this year, we added digital projects, which I think was one of the successes of the Biennial. And also we added publications as a contribution category. Considering that we were all locked up in our houses, the scholars had opportunities to do the research around the theme of the Biennial and present the papers, which were also very interesting to read during the Biennial. So yes, we somehow transformed into a digital platform—but as you said, Timur, it can give us a little bit more opportunities by adding additional categories and additional audiences to the platform.
We didn’t have this kind of hierarchical structure, where we are the curators, and you are a participant
ZOLOTOEV: And since you didn’t have to bring people from abroad physically, how did you go about selecting the participants.
NEMSADZE:Well, that was the reality that we had to operate in. One of the solutions that we came up with was to announce the open call. And the open call emphasized four categories to which the participants could apply: physical projects, digital projects, publications, and the educational part with workshops. We had this open call running for more than one month. And surprisingly, we received over 400 applications, which is like a 500 percent increase from 2018. So I think this was the main source of dissemination of information about our platform and the main way of engaging with different people from different parts of the world.
Furqat Palvan-zade: We also wanted to ask about the connection between the previous edition’s theme “Buildings Are Not Enough” and the current one—“What Do We Have in Common.” Why did you decide to focus on the concept of commons?
Tinatin Gurgenidze: Actually, the idea of the new topic developed, of course, before the pandemic. It was just a coincidence that this somehow was connected with this entire situation—something in common that everybody suddenly had. After the first Biennial finished we started thinking about the new topic. It was kind of a result of all that happened during the first edition. Our initial idea to establish a platform, a festival like this, was to bring different actors—like civil society, politicians, and professionals—together to talk about the same problems that we all face in the city of Tbilisi. It was our idea to create a common platform. And also when we established the event, we saw it as a common good for the city and not our personal kind of ambitious project. But what we noticed from the first edition was that the engagement was not so high from the people of Tbilisi, and many people saw it like our own personal curated festival, and they didn’t really see themselves as part of it. So we decided to kind of build on this and convert it into a topic that would make people be part of it. So we also changed the concept a bit. We didn’t have this kind of hierarchical structure, where we are the curators, and you are a participant, but more that we jointly organize this event. So that’s why we had really different projects, and each person was a curator of their own one. And of course, this topic of commons, it’s really, really problematic in post-socialist cities and the understanding of commons, for us, is really difficult. How do we understand this? And we really find it important that we have to start and go even further with this topic and find more local phenomenons of commons in Georgia.
We see a little bit of a change of habits due to the pandemic, but the thing is that when the situation gets better, this extreme harvest of common space will continue
ZOLOTOEV: What has COVID-19 made us realize about common spaces and shared resources? And therefore, how do you see the post-pandemic city globally, and perhaps locally in Georgia?
SHUKAKIDZE: It will be much more filtered, I think, and healthy. I think the lifestyle of cities will change and it will not be as it was before, maybe it will be better. There is more awareness about commoning and social responsibility. Cities will become more utilitarian. Most of the new buildings and new architecture will be more utilitarian than they were before, in the starchitects era.
NEMSADZE: I was just thinking about this not really in terms of architecture, but actually in terms of urban common space. All this commoning leads me to Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons, where the people are harvesting common spaces to the extreme. And I don’t think that it will change much. This is like the transition period right now—at this stage, we see a little bit of a change of habits due to the pandemic, but the thing is that when the situation gets better, this extreme harvest of common space will continue. It’s in human nature—I think this thirst for harvesting the commons will continue and not much will change, whether it’s urban or even rural common space.
GURGENIDZE: But what I hope will stay is what we observe in probably all cities around the world—that the public spaces or common spaces have been occupied. When you have bars closed or you cannot go anywhere, you occupy whatever space is available outside. I can observe every day in Berlin how people just use whatever corner is available and eat there. And parks, they’re full all the time. And I think it’s something positive that we could also appreciate and claim. But we’ll see. Maybe everything will be the same again when this is over.
ZOLOTOEV: What you described is a case of people reclaiming the commons. How can, in your opinion, architects and designers help reclaim these commons? What can they do?
GURGENIDZE: That’s a difficult question. I don’t like this idea of architects solving all the problems. I think it’s going to be natural. I don’t think that now architects have to start designing these COVID-safe public spaces or architecture. I really hope it won’t happen.
PALVAN-ZADE: How do you address the problems of Tbilisi? What is your vision? What are the most important things, or a set of problems, that you want to work with as an institution?
GURGENIDZE: We’re not an institution actually, we’re still really a self-made thing. We’re independent people who established it without any connection with institutions. And the idea why we wanted to establish this festival was exactly that; we wanted to address the topics locally and bring them to a more global level and there are so many topics that you can address in Tbilisi. It’s never-ending.
NEMSADZE: If you ask me what’s our aim—for me, it’s very concrete what this Biennial wants to achieve. I think Gigi was mentioning this somewhere, that we want to increase knowledge, create a space for discussion, create a space for knowledge sharing. And he was giving an example that most of the architects in Tbilisi are really occupied with: building high-rises. And that’s their harvesting of the commons. And this is what we want to achieve—show these people or discuss with them together that there is something more than building high-rises and there is something more to discuss and to address. For me, this is the crucial role of the Biennial—that it increases this discussion.
Some people are tired of this post-socialist and post-communist and other post-, post,- post-, because they’ve already been over for a long time
PALVAN-ZADE: Tinatin already mentioned this post-socialist reality we all live in. Could you talk a bit more about whether we still have something in common in this post-socialist reality, and how you work with the challenges and possibilities presented by this reality? Is it something that’s important to you?
SHUKAKIDZE: Our two themes were both related to post-Soviet transformations. For example, in the first Biennial, the theme was informal architecture. And the notion of commonness was the theme of this year’s edition. The collapse of the Soviet Union changed many countries, including Georgia, and these transformation processes are very interesting to focus on in the context of tying them in with this architecture Biennial.
GURGENIDZE: I am working with Belarus and Ukraine a lot, with these post-Soviet mass housing neighborhoods known as microrayons, so I could compare how differently they have developed after the system changed. I think the tendency that I would notice is these neoliberal processes. For sure in Ukraine and in Georgia I saw many similarities, like when you see the cityscape and what kinds of constructions there are and how they function and so on. But for sure, there are a lot of differences at the local level everywhere. Some people are tired of this post-socialist and post-communist and other post-, post,- post-, because they’ve already been over for a long time. We are in a new era.
ZOLOTOEV: How has the urban context of Tbilisi changed since you started the Biennial?
GURGENIDZE: We observed very positive tendencies this year. We had more local participation and also very interesting projects because during the first edition, we could hardly choose something local in the open call. And also one of the most important things that we saw is that some volunteer students who were helping us during the first edition made their own projects this time around. There were quite a few of them who participated this year. So I think this gives us more motivation to go on. Because we noticed that what we are doing is really bringing something to the table. If the younger generation can go beyond this high-rise building, planning, and rendering architecture, and ask more questions, that’s also our intention. So we ask questions beyond the physical appearance of a building and encourage students to read more, to research more, to discuss more.
ZOLOTOEV: What main answers and insights did you get to the question “What Do We Have in Common,” in relation to Georgia and beyond? What would you like people to take away from this Biennial?
NEMSADZE: Every year we learn a lot of things. It was good to learn how much effort you have to put into any biennial in order to engage people, in order to make things interesting. For me, the most interesting thing this year was the open call itself. As I said, we received a massive amount of very interesting applications. That, in my opinion, really shows that this architecture biennial is becoming an important platform. The importance of the platform is increasing compared to 2018, and more Georgians are getting involved.
GURGENIDZE: We also try to be very interdisciplinary, because we believe that architecture and urban space cannot exist independently. It’s part of our life. We design and build for humans, which means that we are really connected with everything; we cannot exist as a discipline alone. It’s very important for architects to know that. If we look at this edition we can see that it has been very interdisciplinary—we didn’t have only architects or designers or urbanists among our participants.
SHUKAKIDZE: I hope people will learn to look beyond buildings and how to criticize architecture in different kinds of ways. This is a place and a platform to express these things.
Co-founder and artistic director of the Tbilisi Architecture Biennial. She studied architecture and urban design in Tbilisi and Barcelona. Currently, she is working on her PhD thesis concerning the (post-) Soviet mass housing settlement of Gldani, a suburb of Tbilisi. Lives and works in Berlin.
Co-founder of the Tbilisi Architecture Biennial. He holds an M.Arch degree from the Georgian Technical University and an M.Sc. in Urban Management and Development from the Institute of Housing and Urban Development Studies, Erasmus University, Rotterdam. He is currently doing his PhD at Tbilisi State University, focusing on land ownership and conflict.
Co-founder of the Tbilisi Architecture Biennial. Gigi completed his studies at the Georgian Technical University, Faculty of Architecture and Urban Planning. He lives and works in Tbilisi, where in 2013 opened his own architectural practice Wunderwerk, with a broad range of projects and an experimental-analytic direction. Since 2016 he is an invited independent expert for the Mies Award Prize.
Editor-in-chief of EastEast, independent curator, researcher, and filmmaker. Since 2014, he has worked on the syg.ma project – a community-driven publication and an expanding online archive of texts on society and art. In 2023, he started a Ph.D. program at Yale’s Slavic and Eurasian Languages and Cultures department.