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Landscapes of Fear | Interview with architect and city researcher, Nano Zazanashvili

An iron door with two locks, upper and lower, both fastened at night. A metal grill to protect the balcony and windows, also padlocked overnight. A horseshoe facing upward over the entrance door as an additional guarantee of safety.

A cross sticker outside in the hall signaling that the apartment has been blessed.

A thick curtain on the window in full moon to protect the infant from moonlight.  Human beings, for thousands of years, have been designing personal or common spaces to deal with their own fears, building all kinds of defensive obstacles, walls, and moats.  What defines a sense of security in a modern city? How does social inequality deepen fear? How is fear used as a tool of power in urban planning? Can a city be designed so as to neutralize fear triggered by the density of settlements among people since time immemorial?

T.B.: Is it possible to map fear in the city? Where does a feeling of fear make its presence felt?

N.Z.: It probably depends on who tells the story of the city. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot that the city, as seen through the eyes of women and men, is two different matters. Once, I asked my mother’s uncle to describe postwar [WWII] Tbilisi.  In response, he went on about walking from Vera neighborhood to Nadzaladevi—because there was no transport at the time—also about street showdowns and sit-downs, reconciliation meals, with their participants traveling from one neighborhood into another, an act of crossing the borders between two spaces.  My aunt’s storytelling, on the other hand—especially from the 1960s-1970s—was suffused with caution, that is, how dangerous it was to visit private traders [prohibited in the Soviet Union] in the vicinity of Leselidze Street to buy things usually missing from regular stores.  “We would go to Leselidze,” this phrase encompassed winding alleys and backstreets and characterizing the area as something unexplored and dangerous.  Generally, in the Soviet era, when Tbilisi’s historical neighborhood was still in disarray, this is exactly how old neighborhoods looked like, resembling slums, hut settlements with poor living conditions. And that’s exactly how it was depicted in the city masterplan from the 1930s: The historical section has no value whatsoever, so it must be demolished, and the city must be rid of it.  The attitude changed after Kavlashvili launched the historical city’s renovation, followed by the rising popularity of old neighborhoods that gradually transformed into attractive tourist destinations. The then architects of the city came up with particular nuances to enrich Tbilisi’s narrative and the idea of a historical city.

T.B.: Architecture has the potential for helping society embrace its special character and diversity and get rid of the fear of one another, right? And Tbilisi, too, has this tradition of acceptance. You mentioned Tbilisi’s key idea, its core myth, which must be grounded in the notion of openness and peaceful coexistence.

N.Z.: Of course, and there’s even a temptation to romanticize about what we read about Tbilisi in the books by Ioseb Grishashvili or Aka Morchildze: Walking through Tbilisi without setting your foot on the ground by stepping from your balcony over to your neighbor’s, and many details like that.

T.B.: In contrast to our rooftop terraced city, I remember Çatalhöyük, a Neolithic proto-city settlement in southern Anatolia—a true revelation for me—where mudbrick houses have no windows or doors, with ceiling openings serving as the only way in or out. Otherwise, these houses are totally isolated from the outside world.

N.Z.: Pueblo’s mudbrick architecture is exactly the same, isolated, no openings or tiny apertures at best, and there are two reasons for that, both defensive in nature. That’s how people protected themselves from the hot local climate, on one hand, and from evil spirits, on the other. They believe that the outside world is the realm of evil spirits, but home is a protected place where no outsiders should be allowed to enter or even peek in.

But Tbilisi, both rooftop-terraced and balconied, is a very open city. The rooftop terrace is a public space, not just for household use—it’s where wedding receptions are held, where people are enjoying themselves. Tbilisi also has its culture of bathhouses, also public spaces in their own way and hotels in one, meaning that newly arrivals could stay overnight in case they had no place else to go.  And what dangers did medieval Tbilisi pose? Besides enemy raids, sieges, burning, and looting—which is a different story altogether—we see social inequality as a potentially dangerous factor, something found virtually in every city, when the gap between upper and lower social classes is too obvious, with the lower classes posing a potential threat.

T.B.: Based on this factor, hypothetical borders are drawn in every city, sometimes marked as distrust borders because of urban planning decisions. That’s what happened in Tbilisi after the River Mtkvari lost its function as a unifier, as a point of reference, also after the purpose of squares and marketplaces shifted, with infrastructural projects given priority. Can the railroad project implemented in Tbilisi be considered one such turning point?

N.Z.: The railroad has played a tremendous role in the formation of the city, directly impacting new development projects on the left riverbank, also defining Tbilisi’s social structure: Nadzaladevi and its adjacent micro-districts were occupied by workers, with the Railroad Workshop, one of the largest and most productive manufacturers, serving the Transcaucasia Railroad. This contrast existed between the Nadzaladevi settlements and those on other side of the Mtkvari River, such as those populating areas near Rustaveli Avenue, for example. Generally, railroad have had a similar impact on other cities as well, linking two remote neighborhoods, for example, but at the same time creating a dead end of sorts isolating adjacent areas, consequently causing degradation in developing neighborhoods in its surrounding territories.  It is a challenge, but it can be dealt with.  It is possible to arrange the railroad’s adjacent territories so as to bring about healthier developments in these spaces.

From my personal observations, although there have always been various forms of social segregation in Tbilisi, it is still a city of vertical segregation.  This form of segregation is when a certain process, hypothetically, takes place in one building: Lower-class residents occupy the basement, an upper-class family lives on better, upper floors, and finally you have lower-class members again in the attic.  Before micro-districts were built in Tbilisi—where apartments were distributed among those lower classes previously living in Old Tbilisi’s basements—we had this very kind of vertical segregation. And it is very important that one space, one courtyard, allowed you to meet “others” face to face. In this way, they come into view, and you can observe their culture up close and personal.  That may be followed by conflicts between neighbors, but the good news is that these “others” have a human face, and they are not detached or abstract.

Tbilisi has always been a densely populated city. To continue our conversation on courtyards, Kurd wedding receptions are frequently brought up.  These celebrations, lasting for days, engage everyone in a sort of ritual, when younger generations take over a public space, temporarily filling up the street and instilling a sense of unity.

The first instance of major interference with this form of relations was the construction of so-called Khrushchev housing units in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  As a result, Kurds and other ethnic minorities received apartments in newly built residentials, most likely to cause that diversity once found in a single micro-space of a courtyard to spread across these new districts.  The ethnic and cultural diversity, once thriving in Old Tbilisi, have been sort of absorbed by these mew micro-districts. And even today, it is here, in one form or another, that this diversity is preserved, though in a different urban setting, only as a social reflection of what Tbilisi courtyards used to display.

Another wave of changes was related to the policy of urban consolidation, when tenants without residences would be allowed to move in with households enjoying larger areas than it was considered normal.  In certain neighborhoods, this policy proved impossible to follow through, because Tbilisi was a pretty densely populated city to begin with.  It did work, though, in some places like Sololaki, for example.  This policy of urban consolidation also changed the social structure of Tbilisi’s districts, even creating risks of distrust.  For example, your next-door neighbor could have been an informant, someone you shared a kitchen or restroom with, and someone you would expect to maintain normal neighborly relations with you.

T.B.: That reminds me of a passage about informants next door from Linda Green’s novel Fear as a Way of Life: “When terror is accepted as routine, it grows stronger, more intense. People start living with a mask of normalcy when they are in chronic state of fear. At this time, terror starts tearing apart the social fabric from within…. Self-censorship becomes a second nature accompanying people’s lives who seem to have embraced Bentham’s panopticon.”

N.Z.: The period of repressions in 1937 is one such period full of terror and fear-suffused memories for Tbilisi. In times like these, terror becomes an everyday norm, living in fear turns into something mundane, and each of us has a story illustrating this period and involving acquaintances, if not immediate family members. My grandfather was arrested right before my grandmother’s eyes in the 1940s, and these practices of survival were deeply rooted in my family, too. Grandma used to recall orphaned children from repressed families, how she and her friends helped such kids, supplying them with food on the sly at night, and continuing life as usual by day. Every time I hear stories like this, I picture silence reigning in the streets throughout this period of terror. Even the way people walk is silent. These are fears revealing themselves in behavior.

T.B.: And, to some extent, in the environment as well, the same disappearance of sounds from the surrounding setting that you describe. The function of a public space is annulled to be replaced with danger.

N.Z.: And from public spaces it infiltrates inside homes. People turn off the light at home so that they cannot be seen. A knock on the door at midnight is another symbol of terror. Next, that which is revealed through our personal experience is a different kind of fear of terror. With criminal turf wars in the 1990s, the fear of being assaulted and robbed takes over. Now crime appropriates public spaces, and behavior changes accordingly. Avoiding dark alleys and underground passages, or refraining from short skirts, also crossing to the other side of the street if threatened, become a major means of protection.

There were also other ways to protect oneself. When guns were fired in our courtyard, we would drop on the floor, away from the windows. We had no grills, but we did have well-developed skills we used depending on the situation.

T.B.: But even the absence of metal grills was a method in its own way, meaning that I don’t have grills because I’ve nothing to hide.

N.Z.: of course, there were camouflage strategies as well, those used by people since way back in the soviet era. I’ve often heard from people of that generation that those who had some wealth, but couldn’t show it publicly, would fake not having anything at all.

However, our generation is more inclined to have open, tangible threats boiling down to collective fears. The specific masculine manner of speech I may hear in the street evokes in me unpleasant feelings associated with violence, or a sudden gunfire, or blinking red lights….

T.B.: And at some point, there comes a time when people translate their distrust into architecture and environment, when it is not urban planning that creates confronting areas, and it is not architecture that expands the boundaries of fear, but it is a human being to start interfering with the physical environment to be able to deal with fear, meaning unauthorized development, expansion, and others.

N.Z.: Garages are a the most vivid examples of that. They may not embody terror as fully, but their emergence is certainly dictated by a desire to protect one’s wealth.

Those who had money protected their garages with metal grills, those poorer settled for lock and key, so that thieves couldn’t steal gas, car stereos, batteries, or the car itself.

Over time, garages started wearing another head by doubling as warehouse spaces.  Today, they may serve as wine cellars or gathering place for males in the neighborhood, man caves.  Garages have had the biggest impact on neighborhood spaces, having been physical manifestations of the anxiety and dangers of the 1990s.

T.B.: It seems that these methods of protection—including grills over windows, iron doors, and fenced garages alike—have taken a back seat to other means, right? On one hand, we have outdoor surveillance cameras with their ambiguous effect as they are a way to ensure safety and, at the same time, a source of distrust and stress because of our being constantly monitored.

And, on the other hand, we have closed neighborhoods where, along with residences, people buy peace and quiet in a homogenous community, a sense of protection from crime and “the alien outside world.”

N.Z.: Today’s mechanisms of protection engage modern technology. But security cameras, remote control panels, and private residences with tall compound-style walls are still few and far between, including in our country. Four-meter walls in Tskneti were the first examples in the 1990s, and so was Sairme Hill, but gradually other closed communities followed suit. And we’re not necessarily talking about new residences built in remote areas. Even inside the city you may run into a micro-district where a boom barrier will prevent you from entering because you are not a member of this community. In this way, enclaves of sorts are emerging both inside and outside the city, areas seemingly ripped out of the general social fabric and striving for isolation to make sure that their residents feel safe.

In this context, I see private schools are very illustrative examples. These are closed, tightly controlled territories where you can send your children and later pick them up, feeling comfortable about knowing that they’re not going anywhere until I come for them.  And in case something happens, I knew whom I should hold accountable, because I’m paying for safety.  This is a crucial guarantee of tranquility for people who grew up in the 1990s and are parents now, especially for those who have sons. These are human experiences that constantly accompany us and even define our decisions to some extent, especially when we have premonitions of new crises around the corner. I guess it was in the very first months of the pandemic that we noticed how lockdown, reawakened in people the fears of the 1990s, and the first instincts that it brought back to life were, in an irrational manner, linked to the experiences and practices of that period.  Let’s take food supplies, for example.  What I did first was make pickled cabbage, just like my grandfather did amid the crisis of the 1990s, saying that, this way, we would have at least something to pair with beans. Seemingly, those threats have revived together with the current crisis, and the relevance of the then core household facilities—such as basements, attics, pantries, and every nook and cranny that can be used for storage—has made a comeback.

T.B.: Back when you were talking about manifestations of the fears from the 1990s, it reminded me of compact settlements for IDPs, a topic we absolutely cannot skip. Can these places, among others, be seen as symbols of cultural threats or intolerance that Tbilisi’s society, itself full of crises, has instilled in IDPs?

N.Z.: That has turned out to be a new motive for another confrontation within society, with flexion being the first heralding sign that “grated on the ears” and gradually manifested itself in attitudes toward spaces, particular buildings. Hotel Iveria where IDPs were eventually settled, for example, transformed into our country’s face that nobody wanted to recognize. Complaints could be heard all over town: “It’s a shame what Iveria looks like nowadays! Guests are coming, and what do they see?” Calls to sweep it under the rug were overwhelming—out of sight, out of mind. And then, after Saakashvili’s coming to power, the first thing they did was remodel, overhaul Republic Square top to bottom.  However, this desire to get rid of, to push away, fired back, and the conditions we were living in at that time were brought to the fore. We in the city center did not see or feel that as clearly, because there was no more Iveria for IDPs. Instead, we bumped into it in other, peripheral spaces, and these encounters with forgotten reality were an especially big surprise for those living downtown. And it’s the same today, with still operating compact settlements appearing even more shocking outside the beautified city center.

T.B.: In an interview for one study, the creator of Edward Scissorhands, a Hollywood movie from the 1990s, recalled the pink facades in the film, saying that these monotonous features were picked on purpose, to emphasize the setting that was about to accept Edward—everything around seems normal, only Edward is out of the context. This standardization of urban environment is often a political act, is it not?

N.Z.: As an illustration, we can bring up the urban transformation in the first years after the Rose Revolution. Remodeling Republic Square, which we just mentioned, and the removal of so-called Andropov’s Ears was an attack on the Soviet past. “We must glamorize these appalling-looking residential buildings,” the new slogan read to give rise to brightly lit colorful balconies, kitsch justified with strict, categorical principles. Police stations were transformed, too. After all, they symbolized violence and grievous, brutal crimes, so they had to change. Encircling police stations with translucent glass walls was a statement, an attempt at physically reflecting the country’s modernization in architecture, and a message that the police system was about to change, too. However, precisely these examples of transparent facilities reveal that architecture may have a number of symbols that don’t necessarily ensure intended substance, the true meaning, in this case a sense of security and trust in the system.

T.B.: What can we call the city’s fear factors nowadays?

N.Z.: Presently, Tbilisi’s historical section evokes fear, meaning the lamentable conditions of the buildings. Many people live in fear that their buildings may collapse any moment, forcing them to move out, but lower social classes stay out of fear that, if they leave their residential spaces, they may lose them forever. The issue of housing stock is also very important in relation to IDPs and other homeless groups. In the same vein, so-called touristification poses a threat to the city’s historical neighborhood in that it causes drastic changes in its social structure.

There are other urban areas in Tbilisi that we tend to neglect when talking about the city. Speaking of fear borders that we mentioned earlier, Tbilisi—probably not as vividly as American cities, but still—feature urban enclaves where we feel uninvited and vulnerable, areas that we steer away from. We have neighborhoods where we know drugs are sold. For me personally, the territory adjacent to Central Railroad Station and the marketplace is a striking example of inequality, therefore an area posing a threat, especially in the evening when trade is over and the place is empty. Walking in the area at that time is not safe at all in that it often turns into a turf war battlefield, thus triggering a whole array of brand-new fears. Those engaged in outdoor trade there perceive these threats differently from sex workers, for example. It seems that tidying up these areas would be a matter of image for any city mayor. But removing those who make a living in this public space somehow becomes an end in itself.

T.B.: What makes people flee the city today?

N.Z.: For certain strata, escape from Tbilisi stands for emphasizing their privileged status. Longing to flee the segregated urban environment is apparent. It’s also clear that the area in which different social strata mingle is growing smaller.

The process of uncontrolled urbanization has been in full swing here since 2009, resulting in public space privatization and the total degradation of urban spaces. What I’m trying to say is that spaces where people can meet, places with greenery and recreation areas, have shrunk catastrophically in the city. And the environmental issue takes the central stage in such areas, when the fact that privileged strata opt for moving into the suburbs puts a spotlight on the city’s environmental conditions: I’d rather raise my children in peace and quiet, far away from traffic.

And that’s very important. Groups themselves involved in the degradation of the urban environment, those who benefit materially from these spaces, are fleeing the areas of their making, leaving it up to us to face these places with exhausted resources, worn-out potential, and in need of cultivation and revival. And places, where they are moving now, are likely to share the fate of those they’ve just left.

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