The Man who Bends the Mountains
Foreign Reports - Froh

The Man who Bends the Mountains

Tbilisi Panorama is one of the most contentious development projects in Georgia, amid some strong contenders. Ben Knight tries to put its extravagant, James-Bond-villain dimensions into perspective.

Read it in Archive of Transition

It was a very deep, wide hole, reaching down into the countryside below us. On three sides it was just rock and earth, while on the other side, to the left, the hole took another step down, to the bank of a nice little woodland stream. “Maybe they’ll put a nice restaurant there,” said Klaus sarcastically. He’s our team’s architecture expert and he has an imagination about these things. “People could sit by the stream there.”

We were standing among cement bags, brick piles and a couple of trucks near the roof-top car park of a building that belonged to Georgian Dream Studios, the broadcasting empire owned by Bera Ivanishvili, Georgia’s most famous rapper. Security guards, hands deep in their coats, kept coming out of their hut to eye us suspiciously. Three adult men who had gone out on a November day to look at a building site?

Klaus was excited, waving screen-shots he had printed out from the YouTube presentation that showed what this hole would one day be – one part of Panorama Tbilisi, the colossal $500-million building project conceived by Georgia’s only billionaire and former prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili (father of Bera the rapper), who lived in a concrete and glass Japanese-designed fortress on the side of a nearby hill, close to his creation.

“Unbelievable! Look, we’re standing here,” said Klaus, pointing to the small rectangle that represented Georgian Dream Studios, “and we were just up there.” He pointed high up, at least a hundred metres up over our heads and to the right, to the top of the mountain where we’d been ten minutes before. “And look, in between there’s this!”

He was right, it was quite unbelievable – the print-out showed that in place of the hole in the rock in front of us there would one day be a whole new mountain, as high as the one we’d just been on. Except it was going to be less a mountain and more of a mountain-shaped building – a luxury hotel consisting of irregular glass-and-concrete storeys that made it look like its own life-size contour map. The video also showed that the top three stories of this rounded mass would be connected to the natural, pre-existing mountain, whose top would be flattened and fitted with a shiny new heli-pad. Ivanishvili is out to re-form the very ground.

Me and Klaus and our driver stopped for a minute to picture all this, towering over the spot where we stood.

Screenshot “Sololaki Hills – Sololaki Rise. Project Animation 2015” (Youtube.com)

But Ivanishvili has barely started. The 291st richest man in the world has decided that even the natural mountain is not big enough for him: it too will get an extra set of concrete contours, distending out from its side into shallow raked terraces – the so-called Sololaki gardens – stretching out so far that tunnels will have to be built beneath the new wooded terraces to make space for the winding mountain roads.

The roads will only be for the normal people though. The real people, guests in the hotel in the hills, will descend the mountain on a cable-car. That must be an exciting image for the rich: to glide down a silver wire in a glass cabin straight past the golden St. George on his column to land on Freedom Square, in the very heart of the Georgian capital. At the moment, there is another big hole in the ground there, but one day, the plans say it will be a “seven-star hotel”, whatever the hell that is.

Newspapers have written about the similarity between Bidzina Ivanishvili and a Bond villain, but sometimes it seems like he’s trying to audition for the role. Georgia’s richest man has already built his headquarters (his $50-million house, designed by a Japanese architect, contains part of an art collection reportedly worth a billion dollars and a cafeteria inside a mirrored sphere), and now he’s working on world domination. He has even spawned Bera, an albino rapper whose music videos make him seem less a son and more like the result of a genetic program – an impression enhanced by the fact that he recorded a song called “Georgian Dream” to launch his “father’s” political party. But the elder Ivanishvili got bored of politics fairly quickly – he founded Georgian Dream in April 2012, and within 18 months he had led it to electoral victory, become prime minister, and resigned from his political career – as any villain knows, true ambitions can only be achieved outside public office.

Now Ivanishvili’s $500-million project will change the landscape of the city and even the mountains around it, parts of which are, or were, publicly owned. It’s hard to describe the size of the Panorama Tbilisi project without resorting to mind-bending lists: the Caucausus Business Week described it as a “multifunctional complex” that will include a “1,000-seat conference centre … modern apartments, underground parking places, commercial assets, tennis courts, basketball and football halls, open and closed swimming pools, café-bars and restaurants, educational and tourism assets, planetarium and aquarium.”

The problem with all this is that no one, apparently, got to decide about any of it who wasn’t called Ivanishvili, and that has enhanced the average Georgian’s paranoia that the man in the mansion on the hill is still the real leader of the country.

But for many people, the Panorama project is just one of a string of major buildings in the city where private developers have been given a free pass by public authorities, who have been willing to change laws whenever something displeases them. Nata Peradze, of the activist group Guerrilla Gardening, has been arrested five times protesting against the Panorama project – for disobeying the police or disturbing the peace. Now she’s sitting in the dark hunched over her computer, telling me her protest stories through Skype, and cigarette smoke, and her cough.

“The pattern is really the same – changing the law and making what the investor wants without any infrastructural logic.”

“It’s different people building but the pattern is really the same – changing the law and making what the investor wants without any infrastructural logic,” she said. “Just before they built Panorama they changed the law, and wrote that each building with a lift should be a fifth-class building. That meant that no art historians should discuss it – even city hall shouldn’t discuss it. It was really strange.”

The same thing happened before in Vake Park, in western Tbilisi, where developers would have built a new hotel if the Guerilla Gardeners hadn’t camped at the building site for two years, sleeping in the park. “In Vake Park they changed the zoning laws – how you can build in recreational zones,” says Nata. Eventually, earlier this year, the building work was stopped, but the construction site remains fenced off from the public while everyone waits for the courts to make a decision.

Panorama, though, is a bit of a bigger deal – more money is at stake for Ivanishvili and more of the city is at stake – while Ivanishvili and his investor friends sink $500 million into the project, the town centre’s historic buildings are almost collapsing in disrepair. Nata says that all she wants is for more people to be asked. “My feeling is it should not be built but that’s just my opinion and I am one person,” she said. “The professionals should discuss it and more people should be involved in the discussion about it. They should listen to the opinion of professionals – but they make it without any questions.”

“We are not like Tarzans or Mowglis running in the woods – we are not against investment in Tbilisi, but it should be reasonable – we should be sure that this investment should work well in the future, in the long term,” she concluded. “It’s possible to make a good project with good planning and build it somewhere else – more people friendly. It’s not possible to put everything in Old Tbilisi – after some time no one will be interested in coming to Tbilisi – it will be like Dubai or something. The most interesting thing in Tbilisi is this old city.”