The winding streets of the old part of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, are a study of beauty amid decay. Laundry hangs from wooden balconies adorned with stylized vines. Delicately sculpted angels perch atop crumbling buildings. Elaborate murals peek out from soot-covered walls.
Early in the 20th century, Georgian builders embraced Art Nouveau architecture, incorporating it into hundreds of buildings in the capital and throughout the country. But when Georgia was forced into the Soviet Union in 1921, the nonutilitarian style was declared bourgeois and banned from use. In the intervening years, more than half of the country's Art Nouveau interiors and exteriors fell into disrepair and disappeared.
A group of preservationists is now trying to save Georgia's Art Nouveau heritage after eight decades of neglect. The Georgian Art Nouveau Preservation Pressure Group (GANPPG), formed in 1997, has documented dozens of endangered buildings in hopes of securing restoration funds and government support, which has been elusive. "The government doesn't understand that preserving our cultural heritage is good for tourism and economic development," says Nestan Tatarashvili, the group's director. With the country mired in poverty, she says Georgia's new leaders are more interested in building modern offices and apartment blocks than protecting an important cultural legacy. Until a benefactor steps forward, the fate of these buildings remains uncertain.
For more information on preservation efforts in the region, visit www.itic.org.ge/heritage. Tours of Georgia can be arranged through Long Beach, Californiabased outfitter Distant Horizons (800/333-1240; www.distant-horizons.com).