“They are hipsters,” he said. “But they are still making tons of money, and they live a pleasant lifestyle and make it in life. They are no longer a marginal part of society.”
– former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili on the Williamsburg neighborhood in New York
On the surface, there appears to be a certain verve to Tbilisi these days. The city has finally emerged out of the post-Soviet darkness after numerous setbacks, including civil war, economic collapse, and Russian invasion. Starting during the Saakashvili regime, the idea was that Tbilisi would become a center of tourism for people across the world because of its fine balance of Western and Eastern influences, along with that magical Georgian character. Since then, the billboards that lined the streets in the late 2000’s that promised “The Face of Old Town Is Changing” have come true, with an ever-growing multi-ethnic make up of tourists from Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia on the main tourist street of Leselidze. In 2016, Tbilisi saw its most successful year in tourism. The transformation from post-Soviet backwater into vogue tourist location appears to be almost complete.
What makes this all the more remarkable is that Tbilisi has not become just another city that coincidently had cheap booze and Ryanair flights for 15 euro. Instead, what has enabled Tbilisi to become such a desired travel destination is a multifaceted culture that did not just hold rich historical beauty, but was also dynamic and forward-thinking. Although the romance of Old Tbilisi and areas like Mtatsminda might attract some tourism, Tbilisi has proven itself to be so much more than a highly Instagrammable city with publications such as Vice, CNN, and the Economist proclaiming it to be a must-see city for anyone looking to step outside of conventional streams. It is a city that has the essential infrastructure to be comfortable, but has yet to become too overridden by Americans with selfie-sticks proclaiming their amazement with cobblestones. If Paris had the Belle Époque and Berlin had the early nineties, then it would appear that now could be Tbilisi’s golden period.
Tbilisi has long historically been an exception to the rule for former Soviet republics. From its beautiful opera house to the fact that it hosted the Soviet Union’s first rock fest back in 1980, called the ‘Soviet Woodstock’ – Tbilisi has long stood out. Georgia as a whole was afforded far more room to manoeuvre during the Soviet Union due to the fact that many Georgians occupied a disproportional number of positions of power, as well as it being a favourite of Soviet vacationers. As such, the city has long held a far deeper level of charm by housing a dynamic counter-culture extending through a number of mediums of art, ranging from cinema (Sergei Parajanov, Tengiz Abuladze, Levan Koguashvili), artists (Ana Chaduneli, Vajiko Chachkhiani), photographers (Giorgi Tsagareli, Dina Oganova, David Meskhi) and musicians (Irakli Charkviani, Gacha, Tato Rusia). Unlike the other cities of the Caucasus and Central Asia, Tbilisi has bridged arabesque charm with a progressive cultural scene. With the emergence of tourism, Westerners are finally starting to realize what has always been special about Tbilisi.
With greater frequency, Tbilisi has been labelled “The New Berlin” instead of the traditional clichéd references to Stalin and its namesake state in America, which is largely a result of the fact that it is cheap. That said, it is undeniable that counter-cultural establishments, principally Bassiani, have created a seismic shift in the impressions of Tbilisi because of the flourishing club culture from a bygone era in the rest of Europe. The club has attracted rave reviews from the Guardian, Resident Advisor, and Vice Magazine. Bassiani, along with many other establishments, has helped shaped the current perspective that Tbilisi represents something that is both substantive and exciting.
Although initially more popular within the backpacking community, Tbilisi has with increasing rate started to appeal to more upper income travellers. Channelling that similar unique alternative culture vibe, Rooms Hotel has looked to inspire a similar forward-thinking taste in high-minded culture found in Tbilisi, with its sophisticated design in an ex-publishing house. Located on a leafy street in the Vera district, it has been met with acclaim and has been labelled a hotel of distinction for its fine balance of world class service, along with falling in line with Tbilisi’s cultured taste. In a New York Times review, it was presented as a hotel for both “V.I.P.s and Sophisticates Alike”. Along with its sister hotel in Kazbegi, Rooms has become a staple of any review of Tbilisi’s tourism industry.
The amazing success of Rooms comes from an unlikely source. It is owned and operated by the Adjara Group, whose owner Temur Ugulava’s portfolio also includes Georgia’s largest online/offline casino Adjarabet. With Ugulava’s business portfolio, predilection for model wives, and accusations of not paying his taxes, it would appear not to be unfair to draw a parallel to Donald Trump. Yet, whereas Trumps taste is all Roman columns of gold, Ugulava has built a reputation for highbrow taste with both Rooms hotels and restaurants like Lolita, that merge Georgian hospitality and high-minded culture. They are favourites of the majority of taste makers in Tbilisi from those involved in business or the NGO community. With his marriage to current Tbilisi it-girl, Ugulava has cultivated an incredible amount of cultural capital for a man whose original source of income came from slot machines.
Recently, he has opened his most high-profile project with Fabrika last summer. In conjunction with Multiverse architecture firm, Fabrika has promised to be the epicentre of culture in Tbilisi. Housed in a former Soviet-era factory, Fabrika is a massive multifunctional complex that has been opened close to the Marjanishvili district on the left bank of Old Town. The complex includes bars, restaurants, shops, gallery space, a co-working space, and most significantly a 400-bedroom hostel. In one quote, the head of marketing Marika Kvirkvelidze stated that it would not only help inspire, support creativity, and be a junction of collaboration, but it would be “a space for rebellious minds to create and share”. Ambitiously, Fabrika has set its ambitions upon galvanizing the Tbilisi counter-culture and to become the hub of creativity within the city.
Upon entering into Fabrika on Ninoshvili Street, it is undoubtedly true that no location in Tbilisi can really compare. An impeccably well-designed open concept recalls spaces like Kastrychnitskaya Vulitsa in Minsk and Art-zavod Platforma in Kyiv. Clearly, $5.5 million was well spent to ensure that in each and every way the space fell into the collective imagination of what fashionable culture is meant to look like in 2017. Exploring through the hostel lobby, the mixture of couches and carpets are sorted in a fashion to look completely in disorder yet perfectly in sync. A sushi and noodle shop sit in the courtyard, while close a couple bars serve beer. There is an organization and a curating that begs the viewer to imagine that this is all just an organic result of like-minded creative individuals coming together for the betterment of Tbilisi. For a moment, calling Tbilisi “the New Berlin” appears to be rather obvious. In this fashion, Fabrika impresses upon every superficial level, but like anything that fits neatly into a box, questions must be asked where the corners have been cut.
What is clear about Fabrika is not that it has broken from conventions, but that it exists within a historical void. It has all the key signifiers of what we have come to associate with so-called hipster culture: artisanal shops, skateboards, Asian cuisine, bars marketing themselves of their dinginess, and even a plant shop. Were one to construct a movie set to showcase what is generically alternative, then no one could find a better alternative, yet this all seems perplexing. There was nothing ‘Tbilisi’ about it. For the many years that I have been returning to Tbilisi, I had never noticed Asian cuisine like sushi and fried noodles selling for 10 lari, nor articles of clothing selling for hundreds of euros being integral to Tbilisi counter-culture. Far less glamorous post-drinking food like cheap khinkali and Turkish-made clothing tended to be preferred, reflecting the economic circumstances of the majority of young people in Tbilisi. What exists in Fabrika is something far more cynical.
Fabrika is the corporatization of counter-culture in Tbilisi. Instead of reflecting the rugged culture of Tbilisi’s creative youth, Fabrika offers a pastiche of gentrified Berlin and New York. In doing so, the creators of Fabrika do not offer any new ideas other than a Disneyfication of Tbilisi’s counter-culture that has been sanitized of the grungy elements of establishments that fostered Tbilisi’s culture, such as Pirimze, Salve, Arsad (RIP), Canudos, and Meoba. It showcases a far more Western taste with its genericized aesthetics, no smoking inside, and a high level of security. It does not represent a grassroots attempt to establish a space of like-minded individuals, but instead appeals to tourists and a certain echelon of Tbilisi society looking to consume alternative culture.
In contrast to the aforementioned spaces, Fabrika is owned and operated for the sole purposes of tapping into the counter-cultural enthusiasm in Tbilisi and reducing it into a commodity. For all its embracement of ‘new ideas’, one cannot help but imagine that, once individuals begin to question the gentrification that Fabrika has undertaken on the right bank or the astronomical effect of a 400 bed hostel on smaller proprietors, then we will start to see Fabrika’s corporate nature. Like any other corporate co-opt of counter-culture, it seeks to de-politicize it imagery that challenges prevailing norms regarding sexuality and identity in favour of a variation of culture devoid of resistance. It is a familiar pattern of corporatization of counter-culture that has occurred millions of times before. As Ryan Moore argues,
The past half-century has witnessed the proliferation of rebellious cultural practices and subversive symbolic expressions, particularly in subcultures surrounding music and the arts. But if these acts of cultural resistance are now ubiquitous, they also appear increasingly harmless to the political order and profitable for the economic order.
The consequence of this co-opting of counter-culture is the removal of the creative energy that will destroy the dynamism that Tbilisi’s largely working class citizens have long cultivated. At best, Fabrika is to counter-culture what Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ad is to protesting.
What stands so problematic about Fabrika is not that it represents the further corporatization of Tbilisi, like the oil money projects of the Biltmore Hotel and East Point. It is that it strikes directly to the heart of what makes Tbilisi such an inspired city. It stands on the shoulders of so many individuals, whose work has helped shape Tbilisi into an amazingly vibrant city, for the sole purposes of profit. It does not look to support this creativity, but to drain it. For all the celebration of Fabrika enhancing the belief that Tbilisi is becoming the new Berlin, the Berlin experience has shown what a damaging effect the corporatization of a city’s counter-culture can have. For all the glamour it may initially provide, it fundamentally re-alters the city and destroys all the creative energy it once held. It removes the authenticity and replaces it with a playground for the tasteless. The end result is that people merely move on, look to create new communities elsewhere, and the city’s soul is lost.