Click on cities to see Project Gallery profiles for J. Mayer H. Architects projects in Georgia.
“This is a country just of three things,” groused Levan Jangirashvili. “Cows, police, and Ford Transits."
Jangirashvili, known to his friends as Leo, was driving fast down a country highway somewhere between the Black Sea and the village of Anaklia in Georgia, a country nestled in the Caucasus Mountains on the southern border of Russia. Roads there are rarely more than two lanes, and for the previous five hours Jangirashvili, a native Georgian and sometime tour guide, had proven himself fairly adept at circumnavigating a variety of obstacles—both bovine and vehicular—by whipping his not-quite late-model Nissan Serena into and out of the oncoming traffic. On each occasion, these maneuvers elicited shrill pleas for divine protection from his passenger and client, a 30-something American design journalist not typically known for his deeply held religious convictions.
Now Jangirashvili was caught behind yet another Transit, a cargo van in widespread use as a rural workhorse and inter-city bus. But this time, as the Nissan overtook the Ford coming around a hairpin curve, something different happened: Instead of the dreaded tanker trailer or puppy, the road ahead revealed nothing, running dead into beachy coastline. This is what the driver and his charge had come here for.
There, rearing up against the horizon and the sun setting into the tideless sea, stood a huge, anthropomorphic white form on a pier 60 yards into the water. Jangirashvili stopped the car and gaped.
“So what is this?” he said.
“It’s a frozen splash of sea water,” said architect Jürgen Mayer H. several days later, sitting in his office in Berlin. “Or a smoke signal. Some people say it looks like Mickey Mouse with an erection. I don’t really care. Any meaning or association might be wrong or not: the more you find, the better.” Mayer—his middle name is Hermann; the initial-switch was largely a matter of branding—is the designer of the seaside installation, which is composed of a series of steel fins hanging from an interior skeleton. Within the bulbous, filigreed mass there’s nothing but struts and girders (though Jangirashvili had a look, just to check). “We thought maybe there should be a way to walk up, or a pavilion downstairs,” Mayer says, “but they were always clear about not using it programmatically. It’s just a sculpture with lights, a lighthouse for the city.”
Back in Georgia, this last aspect of the brief was difficult to grasp, as the “city” to which Mayer refers is nowhere in evidence. Stretching southward down the beach from the sculpture and pier is nothing but a vast construction site: Welcome to Lazika, a planned community for 500,000 people, which was announced in 2011 by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Mayer’s nominal client for the pier project. The town takes its title from the name that Jason and the Argonauts gave the ancient Georgian seacoast when they went hunting for the Golden Fleece almost 3,000 years ago. If and when the new town is completed, Mayer’s sculpture will be the urban mascot of Georgia’s second largest city and biggest seaport, a new commercial and recreational hub connecting Europe to Central Asia. It’s a bold initiative—and it’s just one piece of a still bolder scheme by the government to reinvent Georgia for the 21st century, a scheme to which Mayer, 48—who was born in Stuttgart, Germany, and studied at the University of Stuttgart, the Cooper Union, and Princeton University (where he has since taught)—has become a key, if somewhat unlikely, accessory.
The Lazika commission is only one among a clutch of new structures that Mayer has realized in the country over just the last three years. He’s not the only Western designer who’s responded to the architectural gold rush in Georgia: Holland’s Ben van Berkel, Hon. FAIA, just completed a new airport in the country’s central plateau, and Italy’s Massimiliano Fuksas, Hon. FAIA, has both a new concert hall and government building in the capital city of Tbilisi. Though younger than either of his colleagues, Mayer has done the largest volume of work in Georgia, with 11 public and commercial projects—from gas stations to civic centers—either finished or just wrapping up. There’s also an impressive villa for a private client underway, to say nothing of several unexecuted proposals that might yet be built depending upon which way the political winds blow.
“All this happened in a very short amount of time,” Mayer says. “There’s just an urgency that we [Westerners] don’t quite understand.” Mayer was drawn into this whirlwind process beginning in early 2009. His Metropol Parasol, an urban portico started in 2004 and completed in 2011 for the city of Seville, Spain, had brought the designer’s practice into the international spotlight; among its admirers were representatives of the Saakashvili administration, just entering its second term at the time. Saakashvili, elected following his country’s pro-democratic Rose Revolution in 2003, had presented himself as a liberal reformer who could open the country up to the West and to the world. A renewed national infrastructure on par with Europe was a major component of that program from the outset, and to find designers equal to the task the government decided to look beyond its own borders. From Mayer’s first meeting with the president on his very first visit to the country, the architect was impressed by Saakashvili’s willingness to use design as a vehicle to bring his country into the global age. “He’s experienced Georgia as this very gray place,” Mayer says, “and he wants things that are colorful, moving, and have a dynamic impact.” Using the bully pulpit to argue for quality design, Saakashvili has not only put Mayer in charge of a slew of high-profile public work, but has also talked corporate sponsors and developers into taking on the architect for several privately funded projects. The line between the two spheres can blur: For his organically inspired café-pavilion in the waterfront city of Batumi, Mayer was asked by the government to design a public building for a public park—but his client was a large company that had donated the funds for the construction at the administration’s behest. “The park is kind of a plaza for Batumi,” Mayer says, and Saakashvili persuaded the local patron that daring new design could be a prop to civic pride.
The Batumi project also points at some of the other, singular aspects of working in a still-developing country where the norms of the building trade as we know them don’t apply. Mayer’s proposal for the café, calling for a curving, open façade to create a strong connection to its leafy surroundings and nearby beach, met with a positive reaction at first— until the donor-client abruptly broke off communications. Six months later, Mayer was slightly shocked to find himself invited to the project opening. “I said ‘I’ve never heard anything about this,’ ” recalls the architect, who did eventually manage to provide some additional design input and receive proper recognition for his work. But that oversight aside (and it was never repeated, Mayer claims, by his other Georgian clients), it’s not clear that the building has been effectively managed since its completion: When seen in October, its gleaming white façade had developed a greenish growth in the moist sea air, and it sported a banner reading “For Sale.”
That, in a very real sense, is a sign of the times. A decade after being swept into office, the Georgian public has turned substantially against Saakashvili, and that’s threatening to leave Mayer’s buildings as something like cultural castaways from a shipwrecked political project. Despite sustained growth, unemployment in Georgia remains stubbornly high, and in 2008 a long-simmering dispute with Russia exploded into a conflict that’s left two of the country’s northern provinces under military occupation by its neighbor to the north. At the time of writing, it was expected that Saakashvili’s party (the president is limited to two terms) would not be returning to power, leaving the future of development in Lazika and much else in doubt. [Note: Giorgi Margvelashvili, of the Georgian Dream party, won the Oct. 27 presidential election, marking a shift from the leadership of Saakashvili’s United National Movement party.]
Making matters worse, widespread allegations of corruption have tainted the reputation of a man once seen as the new face of Georgia. And while none of the allegations specifically touch any of Mayer’s projects, they certainly color the public’s view of them. Georgians might well wonder why there’s a gleaming new border-station-cum-conference-center resembling a gigantic seabird—created by Mayer for the town of Sarpi at the Turkish border—in a place where some of the roads leading to it are nearly impassable at six o’clock, when the farmers are driving the herds home for the night. There’s simply something inherently jarring about such high-design projects in such rural, underdeveloped environs.
Or as Jangirashvili put it succinctly, gazing up at the Lazika sculpture: “What is the point?”
Saakashvili himself explained the point this past May, when he was in New York to receive the A+ Award from design website Architizer. “We are this poor, destroyed, destitute former Soviet country trying to come out of nowhere, out of the cold, to become one of the most exciting building sites in today’s diverse world,” the president said. “We want more architecture to come to Georgia because we as a country are out shopping for people who are interested in ideas—for their business.” Saakashvili was among friends at the tony Manhattan gala, being himself a graduate of Columbia University and a fluent English-speaker. This was precisely the crowd that Saakashvili had meant to appeal to when he reached out to Mayer: The kind of people who could appreciate the audacity of bringing a relatively untried, avant-garde designer to Georgia; the kind of people, possibly, with the money to make the dream of Lazika a reality.
Whenever Jangirashvili stopped to ask for directions to Lazika, old women and bored young men along the roadsides fell into fits of laughter: It was as though he’d asked them if they knew the way to El Dorado. But joking aside, Georgia is a country so in need of economic stimulus that almost any grand projet, however fantastical, might not be a bad idea. “I like to compare it to postwar Germany,” reflects Mayer. “People have to have bus stations, to have basic infrastructure.” Seen from this perspective, the architect’s projects have the potential to do double duty, serving both as down payments on that new infrastructure and as striking advertisements for the international investment necessary to build more of it. Mayer’s roadside rest stops in Gori, completed in 2011 and 2012, are essential economic armatures, providing gas stations for a brand-new stretch of highway as well as spaces for local artisans to sell their wares. They’re also—in their sweeping, quasi-Brutalist grandeur—stirring declarations of Georgia’s beguiling otherness, its mountainous beauty and boundless potential.
Much the same could be said of Mayer’s arresting airport in Mestia, a smartly minimalist composition of black and white, and of the design for his largest project to date, a sleek train station in the southern city of Akhalkalaki that will function as a conduit for rail passengers from Turkey to Azerbaijan starting next year. But there are other, still more vexing imperatives behind these projects than those of nation-building and a bit of good PR.
If one looks north from the pier sculpture at Lazika, scarcely a couple miles to where the coast juts out slightly, one is looking into Abkhazia, one of the occupied territories. In Gori, the rest stops are within shouting distance of occupied South Ossetia; the 2008 conflict’s worst battle was fought nearby. So too the Sarpi border crossing, though not near Russia, is located in an autonomous region that has had a strained relationship with the central government, and the Akhalkalaki station, which will reroute commercial traffic away from Georgia’s sometime adversary Armenia.
All of these projects, in one way or the other, reflect complex geopolitical considerations, and act as an extension of Saakashvili’s longstanding vow to crack down on separatism and foreign interference in his fractious republic. The Lazika pier sculpture isn’t just a “marker,” as Mayer puts it. It’s a fluttering flag, a signal of defiant nationalism.
Whether or not one thinks it’s a good idea to use progressive architecture as an instrument to bind the Georgian people closer to their government—and to twit Russian President Vladimir Putin—may depend largely on one’s view of Georgia, of Putin, and of architecture. But Mayer’s architecture, in particular, tends to bring the intrinsically fraught nature of Saakashvili’s commissions into high relief: even when they emerge fairly intuitively from the program, the gestures and abstractions of the designer’s highly developed formalism make the buildings seem all the more like set pieces in someone else’s drama. At the very least, they certainly engender some odd juxtapositions. As Jangirashvili drove back from the coast towards his home in Borjomi (where he runs a very commendable guest house), he pointed out the largest recent public works projects in the country, a series of sprawling housing developments, squat boxes with pitched red roofs. These are refugee camps for the displaced families from the north who fled the Russian invasion. Needless to say, they aren’t the work of an edgy designer from abroad.
To contrast them with the glittering private villa that Mayer is designing near Tbilisi—or with any of his new buildings in the country—is to suffer a moment of parallax, the disorienting concurrence of new and old, of high ideals and challenging realities. In this environment, the feeling voiced by many Georgians that Mayer’s buildings “don’t fit” (a familiar enough complaint to architects at the forefront of the profession) is all the more understandable; yet it’s also unfortunate, since Georgia deserves good contemporary architecture. Perhaps, as the architect himself observes, there are different ways that design like his can be of use: His buildings, as he sees them, are there to “wake up local architects,” presenting them with “a vision for the future that may only be useful for the next 20 or 30 years, before the country comes to normal development.” Mayer’s architecture might not be the right thing at the right time. But Georgia, with 3,000 years behind it, still has time on its side.
To view all of the projects in Georgia by J. Mayer H. Architects, please visit ARCHITECT Magazine's Project Gallery.