Georgian Arts Center on Restoration of Gelati: Roof Defects Impossible to Predict

Given the high public interest regarding the rehabilitation works of Georgia's Gelati Monastery Complex, the Georgian Arts & Culture Center, the contractor working on a new tiled roof of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, released its response to criticism, containing certain clarifications and detailed information about the ongoing works. 

"Considering the high interest of public and media, we believe it is essential to make certain clarifications and provide unrevealed information about the rehabilitation of Gelati Cathedral from the perspective of an organization that was carrying out the actual works," reads the statement.

The Organization has emphasized that the damage to roof tiling of the monument, which led to rainwater leakage reported last week, was "impossible to predict", with planning for fixing the damage still ongoing.

"Prior to the restoration, the roof was made of tin sheets within the scope of the previous maintenance in 1976-1977. They were attached to the roof woodwork and could not fully protect the interior from raindrops due to the amortization, resulting in a great threat of damage to the frescos. Apart from this, the vibration of the tin sheets – especially in windy weather, which is quite frequent at the site of Gelati Monastery – led to permanent contact with cornice stones and significantly damaged them, which was clearly reflected in the grave condition of the cornice as the majority of quadrants were heavily damaged and failed to function well. In addition, the sizable pointing of the roof from the dome did not match the church proportions and destroyed its artistic image," the Center said. 

"As a result of the analysis performed on the artifact fragments and on the basis of studies performed on the tiles used for roofing other Georgian cathedrals (Oshki, Khakhuli, Doliskana) of the same epoch, several types of tiles have been developed for use during the restoration, along with a technology of their glazing and roasting. Computer modeling was used to design the roof model, which revealed the practical and aesthetic relevance of tile roofing of the cathedral and defined its parameters. Experimental samples were made and lab tested for water-proof, freeze-proof and breaking load. Studies have revealed satisfactory results. Tiles thus lab tested and made with a method of pressure were used for roofing the principal cathedral in 2013-2017. Due to a short timeline of works to be commissioned under the tender conditions in 2018 and with an aim of increased capacity, the vendor of the clay tiles has been changed, while the pressure method was substituted with casting. Sample tiles produced by a new vendor with a new method were tested at the same lab on similar physical and mechanical features as the original experimental samples. Only after receiving the satisfactory results and clearance from donor agencies, a green light was given for the production. Nevertheless, part of the ceramic tiles produced at the last stage of restoration works failed to resist winter freeze and cracked.

"A natural question arises: why did only part of the lab tested ceramic material get damaged and was it possible to foresee the risks in advance? Whoever is competent in ceramic production, knows that glazed tiles are hard to produce and it is a gradual process. It requires roasting several times, precise adherence to the standards of temperature and technology cycle. It should be noted that tile construction masters and site managers were physically testing each tile with a method of visual observation between the production and roofing of the chapel. If and when a physical fault was identified or colors did not match, tiles were classified as faulty and returned to the supplier. Besides, as the recent rehabilitation works were funded by the Municipal Development Fund (MDF), the process was routinely controlled by an independent engineering-supervision company representative. Nevertheless, as none of the installed tiles had visual faults, it may well be said that it was impossible to predict the ultimate results.

"Irrespective of the fact that the International Arts and Culture Center fully shares the public concern, it stresses that we do not evade either financial or moral aspects of its responsibility from the period of defect identification. When snow was melting in February 2020 ceramic defects were identified. We wish to note herewith that the strong insulation layer placed under the tiles temporarily played its positive role and water infiltration was minimal. It should be stressed that the version aired through television media, claiming that the unique mosaic floor is under threat of destruction because of the damaged roof and that grind is shanking off, is far from the truth, primarily because the damaged roof is positioned opposite to the mosaic floor towards the west," reads the statement. 

The plan of corrective measures is being developed in cooperation with the National Agency of Cultural Heritage and the authors of the project, which will be implemented within the timeline defined in the contract.

"Considering the fact that Gelati Monastery is a vivid example of the world cultural heritage, each action towards it is only taken after a coordinated work with respective institutions. Team of best experts and subject-matter professionals (architects, restorers, conservators, geologists, hydrologists and landscape specialists) is working on each decision, while the actual works are performed by most talented restorers who have been long deployed by the state not only on Gelati Monastery but other most significant monuments, trusting their fate to them. Together with the International Arts and Culture Center, they have worked throughout 25 years on saving and sustaining the cultural heritage of Georgia and apart from Gelati, they have performed urgent and rehabilitation works at Kintsvisi, Martvili, Nikozi, Ikvi and other monuments. Timotesubani Cathedral to the Assumption of Virgin Mary stands out among them, which got awarded with the highest prize in 2006 for the project of the International Arts and Culture Center and Conservazione Beni Culturali (Rome, Italy) by Europa Nostra for the protection of cultural heritage within the European Commission. That is exactly why we believe it to be at least unfair to label them as incompetent and unprofessional," reads the release. 

The International Arts and Culture Center once again expresses readiness to correct the faults in a timely manner, for which it is actively working on the development of a precise project of fault correction together with the project authors, donor agencies, supervision institutions and vendors, including the coordination with National Agency for the Protection of Cultural Heritage since March 2020. Upon its completion, damaged parts of the roof will be substituted and current faults will be fully eliminated.

"We urge our friends and colleagues to keep away from politicizing the issue, as it has had no linkage with politics at any stage of the process," reads the statement. 

The International Arts and Culture Center became actively engaged in making effective steps towards saving the principal cathedral of Gelati Monastery in 2004 and implemented the project with the support of the US Ambassador’s Cultural Heritage Protection Fund, which was aimed at the diagnostic study of narthex and chapel frescoes at the Gelati Monastery of Virgin Mary (XII-XVIII centuries) and planning of the tier one conservation works.

Gelati Monastery along with its Academy, was added to the List of 100 Endangered Monuments created by the World Monument Fund (USA) with a nomination of the International Arts and Culture Center in 2008.

On the initiative of the International Arts and Culture Center, and with funding from the US Ambassador’s Cultural Heritage Protection Fund, a project was implemented in 2012-2013 for the conservation of frescoes in the Virgin Mary Chapel and South Gate of the Gelati Monastery within the scope of which emergency architectural damages were eliminated and frescos were consolidated.

Frescos in the dome of the principal cathedral were studied and emergency conservation works were carried out in 2014-2015 within the scope of the US Embassy Cultural Heritage Protection Program. Lab tests were performed on the structure of wall paintings; damages were identified along with their causing reasons.

The project for the rehabilitation of the architectural structure of the principal cathedral of Gelati Monastery commenced in 2013, which was funded within the Large Grant Program of the US Embassy to Georgia and until 2018 following was done in a gradual manner: restoration-rehabilitation works on roofing and masonry, including the dome and wing roofings, complete restoration of the façade and cornice stone.

The rehabilitation project of the chapel roofing, bows and drainage system within the Cathedral of Virgin Mary, carried out with funding of the Municipal Development Fund (MDF) in 2018-2019, in actual terms completed the rehabilitation of the architectural structure at the Virgin Mary Cathedral. The bulk of the referred works was focused on the elimination of serious damage to the roofing.

By Ana Dumbadze 

22 July 2020 13:40