THE POLITICAL LIFE OF ARCHITECTURE: Soft Power and Politics in the Adaptive Reuse of Tbilisi’s Institute of Marx, Engels, and Lenin Building

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Thursday, January 28th, 2021

Thursday, January 28, 20214:00PM - 5:30PMExternal Event, Zoom webinar
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Eurasia Initiative


In 1938, the Soviet Georgian administration inaugurated the iconic Institute of Marx, Engels, and Lenin (IMEL) in Tbilisi, Georgia under pretenses of socialist unity and friendship among Soviet nations. Three quarters of a century later, the same building—now privatized, heavily renovated, and re-branded—was re-inaugurated as the seven-star Biltmore Hotel. The hotel’s inauguration included a video projected at enormous scale onto the western façade of the building, telling the story of a new friendship among nations—now between the Republic of Georgia and the United Arab Emirates as the hotel’s financiers.

In this first talk on the political life of architecture, Suzanne Harris-Brandts tracks the shifting symbolism associated with the building’s adaptive reuse. She discusses the social, political, and economic implications that surround the continued use of friendship rhetoric in politics and architecture in Tbilisi, done to normalize foreign initiatives, and discusses the larger implications for urban development. In doing so, she charts the manipulation of architecture to communicate the power of its patrons.

The work draws from fieldwork conducted alongside colleague Dr. David Sichinava of Tbilisi State University, including site observations, media analysis, personal interviews, and focus groups. It break down how the IMEL building/Biltmore Hotel served as a medium for soft power and politics and shows how, rather than an outmoded means of public service announcement, symbolic architecture continues to be a crucial arena for political legitimacy in the city.

Dr. Suzanne Harris-Brandts is an Assistant Professor in the Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism, and a faculty associate with the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at Carleton University. Her research brings together design and the social sciences to explore issues of power, equity, and collective identity in the built environment. Suzanne’s current book project, entitled Constructing the Capital, draws from her dissertation uncovering the politics of urban development and image making in Eurasian capital cities. It examines city building campaigns in part-democratic/ part-authoritarian hybrid regimes, foregrounding the cases of Tbilisi, Georgia and Skopje, North Macedonia. The work demonstrates how architecture and urban design are manipulated for power retention in such regimes, while also highlighting bottom-up, community-based strategies to resist these actions. Suzanne received her PhD in Urban Studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is a licenced architect in Ontario and co-founder of Collective Domain, a design-research practice for spatial analysis, urban activism, architecture, and media in the public interest.


Dr. Suzanne Harris-Brandts
Assistant Professor, Carleton University, School of Architecture + Urbanism

Prof. Robert Austin
CERES, University of Toronto

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