The New Georgian Parliament rises out of the ground like a giant eyeball peering into a new world. Resembling something out of a 1960s sci-fi film, this architectural statement represents the new Georgia. The brainchild of President Mikheil Saakashvili, the structure is the government's attempt to shake off its Soviet past and reintroduce itself to the world as an open and transparent democracy. But at the same time, this official line is being challenged by groups both in and out of Georgia. The new parliamentary structure highlights the inherently political nature of national architectural projects, both because it is a political structure, and because of the symbolism contained within its very walls.
The sociologist Ulrich Beck once said that 'architecture is politics with bricks and mortar'. The new parliament represents a tradition of using grand national architecture to symbolise political values in an attempt to give tangible form to these abstract concepts. In the past such structures sought to embody and foster a national identity, unifying and tying together those under its jurisdiction. The most obvious examples are the castles and palaces built by the great imperial powers which ostentatiously gave testament to national victories.
But over the last century the onset of globalisation has challenged the notion of single national identity. The physical and imagined boarders between countries have been broken down, necessitating an openness to the 'other' from without. But this necessity to look outwards can result in architectural symbolism becoming contested, particularly between those that control the official discourse, and those on whom this discourse is applied. In Georgia this is framed within its Soviet past (and present) and its attempt to open up to Western ideologies and distance itself from its Russian neighbours.
Since independence in 1991, frictions between Georgia and Russia have simmered away over the contested regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This culminated in the 2008 South Ossetia War which left Russia and a handful of other states recognising the two regions as independent, and much of the Western world supporting Georgia's sovereign claim. Whilst Georgia has been increasingly aligning itself with the West since 1991, the war undoubtedly accelerated this process. But in order to maintain and strengthen these ties, Georgia has to be seen to be making the necessary changes that build a democratic nation. At least rhetorically, Western democracies don't like to be seen to be supporting countries that appear as though they've got something to hide.
The symbolism rife in the new parliament reflects the political values promoted by the Georgian government. The extravagant use of glass lends the building an air of openness and permeability. Or as the promotional video proudly states: "The dome conveys the principle of transparency, the transparency of the democratic system of the Republic of Georgia." The concrete stripe running the length of the building, anchoring it to the ground, denotes 'the sound principles governing the Georgian parliament'. And the ceiling of the parliamentary chamber, which channels light through openings shaped like the regions of Georgia, symbolises that 'every Georgian region enlightens parliamentary sessions'.
The building clearly represents the Western democratic values of openness and transparency that Georgia is seeking to align itself to. But the official discourse has steadily attracted criticism from a number of groups both in and out of the country.
The chief criticism mounted against the new parliament is that it is not in the capital Tbilisi, as one would presume, but 200km to the west in Georgia's second city Kutaisi. The government maintains that this is part of a policy to promote more even development across Georgia and decentralise democracy. But the placement of the building has drawn more attention for its proximity to the contested region of Abkhasia. This has be interpreted by some as an attempt to diminish Russian influence in the region and reinforce its claim on the disputed territory.
It has also received criticism because the relocation removes parliament from the political centre of Georgia. The majority of political think tanks, NGO's and government critics are in Tblisi, which some say will make it harder to hold the government to account. There is a certain irony, or course, in the fact that while seeking to promote open and transparent democracy on the outside, it has attracted criticism from the inside for doing the polar opposite.
In a final, and perhaps rather clumsy act of disassociation from Russia, the building was constructed on the site of a war memorial to Russian and Georgian soldiers who lost their lives in the Second World War. This has angered many in Georgia who think it is an insult to the 300,000 Georgians who died in the war, and it predictably infuriated Russians who claimed it was a 'symbolic attack'. The destruction of the memorial can be seen as an attempt to rewrite history, to erase traces of the past it wants to sweep away.
The New Parliament of Georgia highlights the political nature of national architecture and the power it has to represent values held by different groups. In seeking to align itself with the West it has inevitably and deliberately sought to disassociate itself from Russia and its Soviet past. At the same time it has polarised some groups within Georgia with some claiming it is damaging the shaky foundations of democracy, while others see it as a mark of disrespect for the dead Georgians of the Second World War.
In a globalised world where group claims over architecture are increasingly contested, the role of national governments in forming a coherent national identity is becoming increasingly difficult. The symbolism tied up in these buildings and the official discourse attached to them is increasingly challenged by separate discourses, often in response to official ones. Like many buildings rife with political symbolism, they are appropriated and contested and a discourse flows from and through them, ever negotiated and renegotiated. The New Georgian Parliament is a structure still in the midst of forming its symbolic meaning, and only time will tell what it comes to represent.
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