Transforming a Nation: Jürgen Mayer’s Georgia
Near East, Issue 1, Istanbul, June 2014
Star architect Jürgen Mayer H. is best known for his Metropol Parasol, a futuristic canopy that transformed Seville, Spain, putting the city squarely on the contemporary architecture map. But regenerating one town through a “statement” project was just a warm up. Mayer has since played a key role in a national architectural revolution. Championed by the former President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, his quirky designs for a border checkpoint, airport, train station, highway rest stops and much more have changed the face of this country. Mayer’s newest project (the world’s tallest sculpture, no less) has just been completed in Lazika on the Black Sea coast. High time, then, to sit down with the German architect to discuss his Georgian portfolio.

How many projects have you completed in Georgia and how many did you prepare?

I think we made about thirty to forty designs, for all kinds of projects; public, private, infrastructural, cultural, landscape and urban planning schemes. I think we have twelve that are built now or under construction.

Does this figure include your highway rest stops?

No. There are supposed to be twenty rest stops. We are now finishing the third and hopefully the rest will be built within the next five years.

Why so much Georgia?

The initial project came through the government, who saw our project in Seville – the Metropol Parasol – and thought it would be a good reference for a new public space for social and cultural transformation in Tbilisi. We made a couple of schemes but in the end our designs weren’t realized. There were too many different interest groups involved. But it was a starting point for a great exchange and collaboration that properly began with our new border station at Sarpi on the Black Sea coast. The government is quite visionary in the way it sees architecture happening in infrastructures that are not usually conceived as cultural projects – like a border checkpoint, a rest stop or a small airport, for instance.

A lot of your buildings are for border zones or places of transition; outward facing locations – railways, highways, airports etc. How did you think about this function and approach related social issues through your designs?

Agriculture is a big part of the Georgian economy and in the future there will be strong development in the tourism sector – along the Black Sea coast and in the mountain villages for skiing, hiking and so on. Transit is also a very important business; from Azerbaijan to Turkey and the Black Sea, and to Europe. So a new train station, a border checkpoint or rest stops are likely to be the only architectures that one encounters while passing through. These are the places were one has a chance to get in touch with localities.

What’s interesting is that the government really saw these projects as places to meet, as places to introduce local culture to people in transit, and provide a social place for the community. In terms of the latter, the rest stops have markets and even arts and craft rooms. At Gori, for example, some couples have already asked to hold their wedding festivities in the rest stop buildings. Some of them have been built in areas where there is no highway yet – these kind of buildings are bringing social infrastructure to parts of the country that can profit from a new dynamic. In terms of the former, the Sarpi checkpoint is unique because it has conference rooms and terraces overlooking the sea and countryside. Turkish and Georgian people only need to bring their ID cards to enter it and do business with one another. So it functions as a meeting place instead of a site of separation between two nations. These kind of initiatives communicate a new understanding of neighbourhoods and adjacencies.

You’re talking about functionality. What about style? These are places where one encounters a manifestation of what Georgia intends to be, or what it is in this very contemporary moment. But whatever their differences, the buildings obviously display your aesthetic signature. Is there a single stylistic principle involved beyond Jürgen Mayer? In what way do such projects address local conditions?

There is of course a very sculptural aspect in our work, and an idea about the future – maybe a lost future that is recaptured or re-enacted somehow. There are also metaphorical or programmatic ideas that trigger aesthetic approaches. For example, the rest stops have a basis in the idea of driftwood along the highway, and the border station near the sea is composed of two waves – a line that becomes oscillated to create spaces and pockets between overlaps. However, there is not only one reading or idea in each project. Designing is a messy process. There are a couple of associative and programmatic ideas behind such buildings but, to a certain extent, how one composes something for a specific location is an intuitive process.

The associations that you mention are natural features such as wood and water. Perhaps mountains have inspired some of your other buildings. But did you ever taken into account the built environment and, more generally, Georgia’s historical architecture?

There’s actually nothing built around the rest stops and very little historic architecture around the border station – just some houses in the hills. So a new identity arrives with these constructions. Of course there might be some metaphorical references but they’re also anchored in the development of our work for the last fifteen years. Sometimes we do want the context to be echoed. When we worked in Mestia – in a very old village context – we looked into the characteristic pitched roofs of the area and the historic stone towers. This research informed the finished structure. At other times we really want to be contra – pushing a certain estrangement factor that forces the viewer to look again at what we’ve made and appropriate it for themselves. And let’s not forget references to Georgia’s bold sculptural architecture of the Soviet period in recent history.

In terms of the idiosyncratic inspirations for these buildings and the ongoing interests that you have – what would you say your unique concerns as an architect are?

Architecture usually comes with a positive idea about the future, because you only invest if you expect to produce a positive change. In Georgia and Seville there was the idea of a different dynamic, a different meta-story that we wanted to tell. In Seville the new structure was supposed to completely elevate the city. The project became part of a contest with other Spanish and global metropolises to attract tourism and stimulate the economy – demonstrating how they can reinvent ideas about history and the future simultaneously. Georgia was similar – we tried to use architecture as a catalyst to bring people into public space, to celebrate it as a communal experience. This agenda was complemented by our concern for pushing the limits of architecture as a discipline – using virtual space and looking at new ways of construction. The kind of forms that we developed required new construction techniques, new details and new materials. We brought in specialist engineers and companies who were also willing to become part of this adventure of architecture, pushing the limits of what we know how to do.

Apart from the professionals, these building are completely new to the general public. Perhaps even shocking. How do you temper the alien factor? Or is it important that your buildings are alien?

If you can successfully explain what the references are when you design something then people are capable of understanding and, more often than not, willing to learn and getting excited about the New. They can embrace eye-opening moments about how a found condition can be transformed into a state of the art contemporary interpretation. In Seville, for example, there were huge trees in the neighbouring plazas whose forms became references for our Metropol Parasol. The undulating stone roof of the nearby cathedral was also a touchstone. But I do like the idea of alienation, because it really throws one back into the context in which familiar things become reassessed. You start with something very precious but which also needs to be updated, and then you begin a dialogue about now and then. This is something we can achieve with our architecture. I don’t see our work as solutions to a site, our buildings function more as questions – and if they open up dialogues then I think we’re successful.

I’d like to tie that into something President Saakashvili has said, quoting Winston Churchill – “We shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us”. At least in terms of quantity, he has been your most significant patron to date. Did you deal directly with him? How did your relationship develop?

I saw him on most of my trips, even if it was only for a short talk. He was the initiator of an extreme and fascinating change in the country – one that has perhaps slowed down a bit now. We are one of the few studios who have been part of this transformation and it was exciting to see how public institutions can discover what the socio-cultural potentials of architecture are. All these ideas about where architecture can happen – infrastructure projects, commissions for cafes and pavilions, projects facilitating the enjoyment of outdoor space and the public sphere: I think these were his initiatives.

Were you ever advising him on what should happen next? Some have complained that although there are many new buildings going up in Tbilisi the majority are run down. The question as to whether Georgia actually needs new buildings or just better care for existing ones is being asked. Did you ever discuss such questions with him?

How the country as a whole should develop architecturally was never a topic. The overall master plan was not part of our discourse – we were just one piece of a larger project. Our interaction was quite acupunctural – the ideas for where innovation could happen came from the client. But the government did, in fact, take care of heritage sites that were forgotten during the Soviet period – restoring important mountain villages with cloisters and fortresses. At the same time, there was strong interest in contemporary architecture. It was actually a really broad attempt to push the architectural landscape of all styles, on all programmatic levels. The variety that the government was creating was quite impressive and I am all for variety and multiplicity.

There has been a recent change of leadership. How has this affected your ongoing projects there? – Specifically, there is the Akhalkalaki railway station. Is this still going ahead and have any others stalled?

At this point we have four projects under construction. One of them is the international train station. This one is difficult because it is in a really remote area on a mountain plateau that takes nine hours to reach by car. We mostly communicate through photos and drawings with the local architects from Tbilisi who also rarely go there. We’re more involved with a private house in Tbilisi, and even more so with our new pier sculpture in Lazika on the Black Sea coast. Each project is a little different but most of the time there is a remote way of communicating with the local responsible partners.

But have any state projects been cancelled since the leadership change?

Not any of our projects, but I know that the idea to build a new metropolis in Lazika for 500,000 people was cancelled by the new Prime Minister. All the other projects are ongoing – the train station needs to be completed because it is part of the economic background of Georgia and the houses are also going on. I don’t know about the rest stops but I think the highway project is also another important one that will make the country a working organism. The ones that are under construction are ongoing but I’m not expecting anything else to come.

Why is that?

A new government needs time to find out where a country is going to go.

And yet it’s reported that the new Prime Minister wants to build a Guggenheim, which would suggest that a commitment to statement architecture.

That’s news to me. Well, his house was built by Shin Takamatsu so he does like contemporary architecture. This was perhaps the first contemporary architecture piece in the country for a long time. But have I also heard that a lot of the architecture projects of the last few years are not so welcomed. I read that he is even talking about destroying some of the newly built projects.

Rewinding to Lazika. I read that the city was supposed to be for 1.5 million but Georgia’s population is not growing. The sculpture has just been completed – Does it matter to you personally if it crowns Georgia’s newest city or if it just stands there on its own?

It has a special aura to it when you imagine that now it sits, lonely, on the Black Sea coast – glowing at night. There is a kind of resort town not far from it, just a couple of kilometers away. So it might be part of the beach culture of that region. But imagine it sitting in front of a big city like Barcelona in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea... I would really like to sea it alive for the people.

What are you thoughts on “instant city” projects in general?

We don’t come from a culture where this is a big issue. We are coming more from a context of modest growth, maybe managing a status quo and sometimes even shrinking cities rather than overpopulation. The challenge is really important, and it happens all over the world where new homes have been initiated and promoted, and where big cities may offer new chances to make your living. You can start building a lot of innovative infrastructure when you start from scratch. For example, driverless cars or a completely new electric power infrastructure. How much that actually adds to an emotional anchoring of people to a site I don’t know. It might take a couple of generations for it to happen. For example, our very first project – the town hall in Ostfildern on a former US military base outside of Stuttgart was a new anchor piece for a new urban development of 30,000 people. The city knew that they needed architecture to make it special, to make it worthwhile living there. When you start from scratch you need to take care of that there is something people can be proud of, something unique to the place. There needs to be some special identification moments and I think our Lazika pier was one of these first keystones to create a special place.

Looking at its design – there are striking similarities in its feel to the Metropol Parasol. You mentioned that the parasol was inspired by the nearby trees – so was there a unique formal rationale behind producing that sculpture for the Lazika site?

When you have worked for a period of time you create a body of work, a sort of creative primordial soup from which projects emerge. I wanted to give Metropol Parasol a little offspring, so that it didn’t just stand by itself – so it could become a kind of a set of projects. That’s why this structure came about. We wanted to create a splash moment for Lazika and it won’t be the last time that we use this grid-like structure. This universal orthogonal grid is built inside an amorphous invisible envelope and continues conceptually outside the materialized form.

You were saying earlier that you were not the only foreign architect to produce signature projects for Georgia. There are Masimiliano Fuksas, Shin Takamatsu, UN Studio and others. I’d like to quote something written by a critic: “there doesn’t seem to be a single important building in Georgia designed by Georgians these days. On a local scale the new buildings appear exotic, modern, parachuted, alien”. Is this a problem?

I think it is a moment of transition. Part of what we are doing is creating design concepts and then collaborating with local offices to realize a contemporary architectural language, and to research how to build it. It is part of a professional process – bringing different expertise into the country, generating discourse. Before the recent architecture boom in Georgia there wasn’t much interesting architecture happening – now you have young offices cropping up. I think the competition has forced them to wake up.

Did the briefs ever stipulate that you had to work with local offices?

You always need and want local collaborators. In our case the design came from us and there was an ongoing exchange about how to make it happen with the local partners.

In terms of the peculiarities of working within Georgia’s contemporary situation – you must have to operate with a certain degree of reactivity when dealing with what is thrown at you. But did you take anything more fundamental away from your experiences?

It was a great testing ground. A lot of ideas that we couldn’t have built in such a short period of time, or in general, were tested and we could see what their potentials were. Some of the ideas we had for a long time, and seeing them in real space was important. I’m not saying it was building test models in one to one scale but it was a great way of getting things done that will prepare us for many years to come. We were lucky that it was made easy for us to participate in this construction and remodeling of the country. It was a very special situation and the complexities with how things were built were put aside for the moment to make it happen in that very short period of time. It was fantastic.

I read somewhere that you had to design the Mestia airport in a single night.

I was in Venice at the architecture biennale when I got the call to design the airport. I think it was the 24th of August 2010. They said they wanted a small airport designed by tomorrow. So we designed it the next morning, it got approved the next day, delivered the construction drawings in two weeks and it was built three months after that.

In the history of state commissioned airports that’s probably the fastest ever. It must have been exhilarating to be involved in a project like that. Is anything lost when working at this speed?

In Georgia there is still a lot of handmade work. When you do a curve here in Germany the construction company says it costs such and such more because of the curve. In Georgia nobody really cares how many curves you have because they just have the manpower to do it, somehow, and it’s part of the local construction business. I’m surprised how good the quality of work was, even more so when you consider the time.

But what about the design process?

As I say, it doesn’t come from nothing. With us it comes from ten or twelve years of design. So you have a certain body of work that you’re already developing and it was just the right opportunity to make this happen.

You spoke about your primordial soup of ideas. Now you have realized so many ideas in Georgia, have any of your experiences there fed into your European projects?

The experience of mobility and architecture with our rest stops in Gori and Tbilisi, the border checkpoint in Sarpi and the airport in Mestia gave us a great insight into issues that we were exploring with our Audi Urban Future Award, and with the projects we are developing for Autostadt in Wolfsburg which should open in May 2013.

Is there anything you’d like to say?

Go see the projects on site in Georgia – it’s a real treat.