Another side of the international style: A guide to Georgian modernism

Architectural observer Armen Harutyunov on eight modernist buildings in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi from the 1950s to the 1980s, the history of their creation, and their current state.

Photo: Roberto Conte

The cultural heritage in the former Soviet republic of Georgia is both valued and loved, though with a strange kind of love. Problems concerning monument preservation are approximately the same as they are in Russia: demolition, restructuration and disharmonious construction in the historical environment are quite common. And not only ordinary monuments, but even objects included in the World Heritage List. In 2010, for example, the Gelati Monastery and the Bagrat Temple in Kutaisi — both monuments from the 11th century — were included in the List of World Heritage in Danger after the reconstruction of the latter and remodeling resulted in the loss of 17th century elements. On July 9, 2017, in the latest session of the UNESCO profile committee, it was decided to remove the Bagrat temple from their list, and to remove the Under Threat status from the Gelati monastery.

Attitudes toward the legacy of the Soviet period in Georgia are even more complicated. The society still has strong anti-Soviet sentiments — there is even a Museum of the Soviet occupation. Of course, many avant-garde and Stalinist-neoclassical monuments are included in the registry of cultural heritage sites and are under the protection of the State. However, they are also losing this status with equal success, as has happened with the former IMEL building (The Institute of Marx, Engels, Lenin) in Tbilisi, built in the late 1930s as a project of Alexey Shchusev. Activists from the public movement Tiflis Hamkari (“The Association of Carers about Tbilisi”) repeatedly organized mass actions in defense of the building. The well-known Georgian public figure, film critic, and journalist Gogi Gvakharia, in an article dedicated to saving the IMEL building, described the attitude of the authorities toward the Soviet legacy through the example of Irakli Tavartkiladze, Batumi’s ex-mayor. Responding to the claims of specialists who were concerned about changing the appearance of a different work by Shchusev (“Intourist Hotel”), the then-mayor said that the building was not of historical value, and that, to him, Shchusev was not Gaudi, but the person who built Lenin's mausoleum. According to Gvakharia, the words of Batumi’s former mayor clearly exemplified the attitude held by the authorities and part of the population of Georgia toward the Soviet cultural heritage. In the end, the IMEL building was reconstructed as the 7-star Baltimore Hotel, leaving only the main facade relatively untouched, while a 34-story building was attached to the back of the monument, architecturally and dimensionally ignoring the established ensemble of Rustaveli Avenue and Rose Revolution Square (formerly Republic Square).

Historic preservation movements in Georgia are also engaged in the preservation of their Soviet modernist heritage. For example, the local branch of DOCOMOMO and the art association GeoAIR sought to attain landmark status for the Central Water and Sports Complex (“Laguna of Truth”). Unfortunately, this was to no avail. With rare exceptions, such as buildings like the Ministry of Roads and the Philharmonic Society, there are no objects of cultural heritage and other iconic works of the 1960s-1980s on the registry, a fact that is contributing to their rebuilding and/or destruction. Over the course of a quarter century, Tbilisi has lost such facilities as the Aragvi restaurant on the Kura embankment, Centrosoyuz (Tsekashviri) on Freedom Square, and the Brutalist composition on Rose Revolution Square. As a result of the reconstruction, the original appearance of the Iveria and Adzharia hotels was lost, the central department store on Rustaveli Avenue was radically rebuilt, the Children’s World toy store on Railway Station Square was badly damaged by the fire at the beginning of the year, and the aforementioned Laguna of Truth swimming pool is under the threat of demolition after a flood in 2015.

Georgian architects worked under the same conditions as their counterparts did in other parts of the Union, but there were also some features that made their practice easier. Georgia had its own architectural school and a continuity of generations was in place. But the fight against excesses and mass-housing construction limited, for a time, the freedom to choose materials and artistic techniques. For example, the 1961 Sports Palace, built by Vladimir Alexi-Meskhishvili with a dome in the spirit of an arena by Pier Luigi Nervi, has only a single decorative element — archivolt arcades. In this case, both the very presence of a completely neo-classical arcade, and its response to a Stalinist building on the opposite side of the square, are a kind of allusion to Soviet historicism. Also, in the interior of the 1967 Iveria hotel, there are all kinds of excesses as defined by Soviet criteria: paintings, sculptures, ceramics, carpets, and engravings. The decor could be explained by using national motifs. Working with the environment of the old city and constructing in a seismically-dangerous zone with a complex terrain required non-standard solutions and an individual approach from the draftsman. In a word, Georgian architects had more freedom than their counterparts had in many Russian cities.

MINISTRY OF HIGHWAY CONSTRUCTION OF GEORGIA

Address: 29a Gagarina Street

Architects: George Chakhava, Zurab Jalagania

Engineers: Temur Tkhilava, Alexander Kimberg

Year of Construction: 1974

Photo: Stefano Perego

The most famous modernist building in Tbilisi is the engineering building of Georgia’s Ministry of Highway Construction. "Magazines from almost the whole world have printed photos of the extravagant building for the Ministry of Highways of the Georgian Soviet Republic, erected in Tbilisi in 1974," wrote Nodar Mgaloblishvili and Tengiz Krirkvelia in the book "The Architecture of Soviet Georgia." "Ultra-modern, with cantilevered floors protruding strongly, the building is, at first glance, associated with the high-tech style, but the draftsmen adapted a complex spatial planning and constructive system that perfectly fits into a very complex landscape, coordinates well with the environment, and creates an interesting silhouette." At the time the building was designed, architect Georgy Chakhava held the position of Minister of Highway Construction, so he was simultaneously the consumer and the producer. He also chose a complex site for the construction. The height difference on the gentle slope between Gagarin street and the Kura embankment is about 33 meters. Five layers of two-story parallelepipeds, forming a grill or a musical sharp, stand on powerful supports and resemble a construction toy.

From the book "The Fate of the Engineer and His Accomplishments", Alexander Kimberg: "This solution permitted minimal damage from construction on the environment, preserved the natural stream without alterations, and fulfilled all the requirements concerning transport problems".

Elevators and stairs are situated in the vertical volumes of the building. The exits are designed both to the Gagarin Street side and to the embankment side. The total area of the building is about 11,000 square meters, and at the highest point it reaches 18 floors. The main task of the architects was to minimize the impact on the surrounding landscape. "The ability of a simple Georgian peasant to build his home where the most expressive landscape opens, sometimes preferring the beauty of nature to life's amenities, has always amazed me," Georgi Chakhava wrote about his work. “Probably, therefore, mastering the complex landscape became the defining moment in my work. I think that the more complex the landscape, the more opportunities the architect has." The building of the Ministry of Highways directly references several movements of world architecture. These are the organic architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright and the avant-garde projects of El Lisitsky in the 1920s with their horizontal skyscrapers. In addition, the building meets the five principles of functionalism formulated by Le Corbusier. The same construction of Chakhava and Jalagania’s “house on stilts” was attempted in a housing construction, but their project of hillside development in the Tbilisi Varaziskhevi Valley was never realized. The Ministry of Highway Construction was recognized not only by domestic and foreign media, but also by the party leadership of the country — the work was awarded the USSR Council of Ministers Prize. This is one of the two modernist buildings in Tbilisi that has been officially awarded the status of an architectural monument. It now houses the Bank of Georgia offices.

COMPLEX OF RESIDENTIAL BUILDINGS

Address: Nutsubidze Street

Architects: Otar Kalandarishvili, Guizo Potskhishvili

Years of construction: 1974-1976

Photo: Roberto Conte

In the era of mass housing construction and active city growth, it was especially urgent to a find a solution to the problem of erecting high-rise buildings оn Tbilisi’s complex topography. This led to many interesting experiments by local architects. In 1967, a project by Otar Kalandarishvili located at the end of Rustaveli Avenue emerged: the 20-story Iveria hotel on a high cape overlooking the Kura River. After 13 years, the architect returned to this site again, together with Guizo Potskhishvili. In the area around the ravine located next to the hotel, they created the main Square of the Republic with grandstands against the background of the great concrete composition that people called the “Ears of Andropov". And the ravine was not filled in: under the square there is a three-level complex with an area of 20,000 square meters, which includes a cinema, commercial premises, and exhibition halls.

The works of Kalandarishvili and Potskhishvili are not limited to public buildings. In the mid-1970s, the architects designed a complex of residential buildings on a steep slope along Nutsubidze Street. Three typical large-paneled buildings were arranged in ascending order. The lowest, at 16 stories, serves as the access point for the two other 9-story buildings located higher up the slope. The structures are connected by a serpentine road. Groups of elevators were designed from the access point to the higher buildings with transitions located at different levels.

PALACE OF RITUALS

Address: Bochorma Street, 21

Architects: Victor Jorbenadze, Vazha Orbeladze

Year of construction: 1985

Photo: Stefano Perego

Another building associated with Tbilisi modernism is the Palace of Rituals on a hill near the dam for the Ortachala Hydroelectric Power Station. The work of the architects Jorbenadze and Orbeladze is an example of a new type of Soviet temple, the need for which had been discussed since the mid-1940s. The buildings of Victor Jorbenadze — for example, the ritual building in the Tbilisi cemetery of Mukhatgverdi — resemble the temples of Kenzo Tange and Le Corbusier, but the architect weaved in an international style and elements of Georgian church architecture. Jorbenadze was well-acquainted with the medieval heritage of Transcaucasia. In an interview, the photographer Yuri Mechitov recalls that it was Victor Jorbenadze, that introduced Sergei Parajanov to the monuments of Armenia, as a result of which the script for the famous film "The Color of Pomegranate" was born. The Palace of Rituals is full of all sorts of symbols and historical references: bells and clocks with zodiac signs in the dome and the rounded volumes of the building — a peculiar interpretation of the apses of Orthodox churches. Jorbenadze had used plastic facades with rounded volumes in his earlier work, such as the building for the Museum of Ilya Chavchavadze in Kvareli. The interior is as florid as the exterior, with many complex transitions and rooms, and decorated with paintings, stained-glass windows, and metal decor. The stepped wooden vault of Gvirgvini used in the hall is a replica of an element used in the ancient dwellings of eastern Georgia. The entrance to the hall for ceremonial rituals is decorated with two columns with metal capitals, which can be interpreted as an allusion to the pillars of Boaz and Yakhin in Solomon’s Temple of Jerusalem. The eclecticism of the Palace of Rituals, a departure from functionalism in the direction of artistic expressiveness and imagery, complexity, and a high quality of execution — from the bright urban accent to the elaboration of the smallest detail — makes it possible to number this work among the ranks of the best works of postmodernism from the USSR. In 2002, Badri Patarkatsishvili, an entrepreneur, bought the structure and set it up as his residence, after which the building was called the Arkady Palace (Arkady is the real name of the businessman). The oligarch was buried in the garden of the residence in 2008. Today, the building again functions as the Palace of Rituals: weddings are held here and the banquet hall is open.

THE HOUSE OF POLITICAL EDUCATION

Address: David Agmashenebeli Avenue, 61

Architects: Vakhtang Abramishvili, Guram Mirianashvili, Georgy Salukvadze, S. Meliashvili

Artist: Zurab Tsereteli

Years of construction: 1978-1980

Photo: Roberto Conte

The site for the construction of the House of Political Education was allocated on the rather narrow avenue of Plekhanov (now David Agmashenebeli Avenue), which is the main street of Tbilisi’s Chugureti District. The architects were faced with the task not only of creating an expressive structure, but also of skillfully positioning it into a dense pre-revolutionary development site.

The draftsmen designed the building with a ten-meter indent from the setback requirement. A fountain and lawns were positioned in the resulting courtyard. The facade of the House of Political Education was divided into two parts: the first and second floors were open-spaces with a vestibule and a balcony, and a windowless wall enclosed the upper floors. Functionally, the building was also divided into two blocks. In the first, in addition to the vestibule, there were halls with 700 and 300 seats, a buffet, and an exhibition space. The second block was educational, which was complete with a library, classrooms, and an auditorium.

The whole plane of the windowless wall of the main facade was decorated with a relief mosaic panel by Zurab Tsereteli. This work is similar to, for example, the panel at the Tbilisi bus station or at the trade union center, not only an element of decoration for a single building, but an independent work of Soviet monumental art. And Tsereteli’s mosaics, perhaps, are the best of his work.

Since the 1990s, the building has been occupied by various organizations, including foreign embassies. Today, the House of Political Education is the Mosaic business center, the open lower floors have been enclosed in glass, and the courtyard has been replaced by a parking lot.

CENTRAL WATER-SPORTS COMPLEX NAMED AFTER LENIN KOMSOMOL

Address: Merab Kostava Lane, 34

Architects: Shota Kavlashvili, Guram Abuladze, Ramaz Kiknadze

Artist: Nikolay Ignatov

Years of Construction: 1976-1978

During 1970s, Shota Kavlashvili was serving as the chief architect of Tbilisi. His main creation is the renovation project of the old city and the creation of a security zone with state operation of the natural reserves. Because of the restoration of Tbilisi’s colorful balconies, the architect was even jokingly named the Prince of Balconies, and, in the 1980s, he was invited to Moscow for the reconstruction of two mansions in the historic Arbat district.

In parallel with the rehabilitation of the old city, Kavlashvili co-designed modern residential and public buildings with other architects. One such construction was the Central Water-Sports Complex on the embankment of the Kura River, made in conjunction with Ramaz Kiknadze and Guram Abuladze.

The construction of the swimming pool began in 1968, but was soon suspended. They returned to the project only in 1976. The complex consisted of three blocks. In the center were three different sizes and depths of pools with brutalist diving towers. On the embankment side was a group entrance with ticket offices and commentators' cabins. On the other side of the pools were open grandstands with 5,500 seats, under which was designed a three-story complex with showers, training rooms, cafes, assembly and exhibition halls, and office spaces. The facade on the embankment side was decorated with yellow tuffs from Bolnisi. Its upper part was decorated along the entire length with a mosaic panel made by the artist Nikolai Ignatov.

At the time of its opening, the swimming complex met all the international standards. All-Union (inter-USSR) and international competitions were held here. In 1982, the work of these architects was awarded the USSR Council of Ministers Prize.

The "Lagoon of Truth," as the swimming complex was called in the 1990s, functioned until December 2013. In the summer of 2015, the Georgian preservationists appealed to the National Agency for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage with a proposal of assigning landmark status to the complex. The future of the building is still unknown. In addition, in the summer of 2015, the complex suffered during a severe flood of the Vera River, and the owners are not in a hurry to put it back in order.

ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM

Address: Digomi, Trelskaya Hill

Architects: Shota Kavlashvili, Shota Gvantseladze, Tengiz Kikalishvili (sculptor)

Year of construction: 1988

Photo: Stefano Perego

Another work of Kavlashvili is the Tbilisi Museum of Archeology on the western outskirts of the city. The district of Digomi began to be built up in the 1960s, mostly with 5- to 8-story standard-model houses. In the 1970s and 1980s, the architectural appearance of the housing estate became more diverse due to the construction of large-paneled buildings. At the same time, the development of the hill located at the intersection of the Robakidze Avenue (the former Friendship Avenue) and the Avenue of David Agmashenebeli (the beginning of the Georgian Military Road) began. In 1981, on one of the hills, a 45-meter monument called "Happiness to Nations" was erected by Zurab Tsereteli — a revised version of his memorial and decorative complex "Friendship and Happiness of Peoples" (also called "Happiness for the Children of the World"), presented to the American city of Brookport in 1979. The development project on this mountainside in Tbilisi contained plans for the construction of a complex including a tourist hotel and the Archaeological Museum, in addition to the memorial. The selection of the museum’s location was not accidental. On the hills along the Georgian Military Road is the Trelsky burial ground — one of the largest archaeological sites in Tbilisi, from the end of the 2nd to the beginning of the 1st millennium BCE. The museum was located on the edge of the hill along the axis of Friendship Avenue and is the visual focal point of the district. The building in the plan consisted of three vertical cylinders stretched out in a line. The explanation for this spatial-planning solution was decided upon in order to adapt the reservoirs located there for water storage. The building is lined with yellow tuff from Bolnisi. The central entrance is accented by bas-relief work of Tengiz Kikalishvili depicting a person lying in an ancient grave.

Since the 1990s, the museum has been functioning as a storehouse, in which there have been about 10,000 exhibits. According to the National Museum of Georgia, the building is under reconstruction, but it has, in fact, been in an abandoned, dilapidated state for many years. The "Happiness to the Peoples" on the neighboring hill was not being preserved as well. In the early 1990s, the monument collapsed. In 1994, Zurab Tsereteli installed in its place a bronze sculpture of St. Nino, a copy of which is exhibited in the courtyard of the Moscow Museum of Modern Art on Petrovka Street.

NEW COMPLEX OF TBILISI STATE UNIVERSITY

Address: Universitetskaya Street

Architects: Zurab Kopaladze, Bidzina Maminaishvili, Nodar Mgaloblishvili, Leri Medzmariashvili, Nodar Mikadze, Solomon Revishvili, Alexander Sabashvili, Devi Chopikashvili, Sh. Kachkachishvili

Years of construction: 1971-1980s

Photo: Stefano Perego

One of the largest modernist structures of the ‘70s and ‘80s is the New Complex of Tbilisi State University on the western border of the city. The scope of the project occupied an area of 240 hectares on both sides of the Vera River in the districts of Saburtalo and Bagebi. The section in the Saburtalo side housed educational and administrative buildings, with dormitories on the other shore. The complex was intended to accommodate 8,000 students.

In 1968, before the design of the new complex, a building was built for the Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics — the so-called "skyscraper" of the university — so the design team had to tie the architecture of the ensemble in with what had already been constructed. The project, in addition to the other academic buildings, envisioned the construction of a scientific library with a storage facility for 5 million books, the office of the university’s president, a museum, and an assembly hall with 1,300 seats, a canteen, and sport facilities. The implementation of the project was only partially realized. Neither the stadium nor a portion of the buildings were built. A bridge (architect: Guram Lagorashvili, designer: Georgy Kartsivadze) was erected across the ravine of the Vera River. The construction of a dam further downstream was planned, to be followed by landscaping and beautification of the reservoir that would have been formed.

RAILWAY STATION

Address: Station Square

Architects: Revaz Bayramishvili, Alexander Dzhibladze, Givi Shavdia, I. Kavlashvili

Year of construction: 1969-1988

Photo: Roberto Conte

The construction of the new railway station is one of the last works of Tbilisi modernism. The first railway station in Tbilisi appeared in 1872, and in 1952 a new building was erected in its place under the project management of Gabriel Ter-Mikelov. The Stalinist ensemble of the square was complemented by residential buildings on the opposite side.

The shape of the square began to change after 15 years. In 1966, the Tbilisi metro opened, which included a stop that led to the railway station, and in 1969, near a Stalinist-neoclassical building with a gilded spire, the railway’s technical building was built. Ten years later, the architects Vladimir Kurtishvili, Merab Kavlashvili, Zaza Isakadze, Gia Tkemaladze and Alexander Totibadze designed the Children’s World toy store and, on the adjacent lot, decided to build a new train station in place of the old one.

The railway station complex includes a neighboring building with a waiting room, platforms, and technical rooms, as well as an underground complex with a system of walkways, and shopping pavilions. A hotel is located in the high-rise part of the building. A wide ramp provides easy access to the terminal’s entrance, and a massive awning along the entire perimeter of the building offers protection from the elements. In general, the scale and architecture of the buildings resemble, most likely, an airport rather than a railway station, with the asymmetrically-located hotel block resembling an air traffic control tower.

In 1992, the team of architects received the State Prize of Georgia for this work. In 2006, the building was leased to a private company for 49 years. After reconstruction, most of it is now occupied by a shopping center and the Tbilisi Central Hotel.

Original Text: Armen Arutyunov

Translation: Maxwell Koopsen

Photos:  www.robertoconte.net, stepegphotography.com