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Architectural Strategies in the Tbilisi House

At the beginning of the 19th century, Tbilisi – first made capital of Eastern Georgia, or “Iberia”, in the 6th century – lay in ruins after the devastating Persian raid of 1795. The country sought the protection of the Russian State in 1801 and thus joined a booming Empire that was to change the face of the capital in a fundamental way. Tbilisi became heavily Europeanised in terms of its culture and way of life, yet without completely losing its Caucasian feel. The Tbilisi house is perhaps the most poignant witness to this period.

Georgian dwelling houses were mentioned as early as the first century BC by Vitruvius who commented on the characteristic lantern domes (darbazi). In Tbilisi pre-Russian elements survive in residential architecture only in the street pattern of the central areas. As the growth of the 19th century wore on, an increasing number of structures were put up in masonry, stylistically following a thoroughly European model and even adopting the form of multi-occupancy tenements by the end of the century. What remained of the Caucasian features was in particular the use of courtyards, balconies and external staircases which enabled a characteristically Georgian (and Armenian, given the large number of inhabitants of Tbilisi from that country at the time) way of life. This revolves around a greater degree of openness to the street and cross-communication between houses and families than would be possible or desirable in the harsh climates of European Russia.

Paradoxically, this “communality” was enhanced by Soviet housing policies, the infamous komunalki, which saw the breaking up of old dwelling units into a multitude of small-scale apartments with shared sanitary and cooking facilities. The challenge that this provided was met with a typically Caucasian sense of ingenuity and improvisation through the construction of additional staircases, bridges and balconies that ensured private access to the various parts of the old houses. Decades of neglect and overpopulation were followed by the turmoil of the post-Independence era in the 1990s which did not allow for a meaningful analysis of the situation, let alone a concerted restoration effort.

Nowadays Old Tbilisi is faced with a mixture of wilful demolition, pastiche-type restoration and, thankfully, still large swathes of mostly unspoilt urban fabric. In particular the balconies and external staircases display a wide range of architectural solutions, from the sophisticated delicate woodwork of the 19th and early 20th centuries to makeshift repairs and additions of the Soviet period. Together with its medieval church monuments and important representative structures of the last two centuries, Old Tbilisi presents itself as one of the most interesting cityscapes on the territory of the former USSR.

Tbilisi river cliff houses
One of Tbilis’s most celebrated views: houses on the cliffs of Metekhi quarter with their overhanging balconies.

Some of the lanes are heavily planted with vines, achieving a somewhat rural pergola effect.

The facades bear the imprint of Russian provincial architecture of the 19th century while the popularity of balconies is characteristic of life in the Caucasus.

The preferred method for overhanging enclosed balconies, often of considerable size, is a lightly-built timber construction, as here at Kh.Abovian St.

This example of communicating balconies on Ilia & Nino Nakashidze St illustrates the idea of street life being continued into the houses.

This lane off Shota Kavlashvili St shows a rustic-looking belvedere at the back and an attempt at European Gothic forms in the foreground.

This balcony at the junction of Charkhuradze and Ietim-Gurji Streets shows the simultaneous presence of a European classicising mode, transmitted by Russia in the 19th century.

A collection of motifs from Tbilisi balconies to demonstrate their richness and stylistic variety.

This modern house on Shota Kavlashvili St shows the continuing appeal of features like balconies and overhangs.

The courtyard is one of the commonest elements of the Tbilisi house. This example on the South side of Lado Asatiani St shows a popular arrangement of a three-sided courtyard with superimposed galleries that opens onto the street.

Off the West side of Ietim-Gurji St, a well-maintained, fully functioning multi-storeyed set of galleries that give access to the individual flats behind them.

No.17, G.Abesadze St: the glazed galleries, in fact the sides of a courtyard, produce the effect of a light, translucent fašade towards the street.

This house on Ilia & Nino Nakashidze St gives a good idea of the role that the galleries play in providing access to individual dwelling units.

This restored house on the South side of Betlemi St displays a rather “Victorian” use of stained glass on the staircase.

This staircase at No.2, Mikhail Lermontov St, a later addition to an originally rather grand courtyard, is remarkable for the sensitive use of wood in a makeshift structure and decidedly Ottoman in its forms.

The metal staircases, predominantly a product of the Soviet period, tend to disregard the compositional qualities of the original structures, yet they often form daring, spectacular features in their own right. Their purpose was to give direct access from the street to the small dwelling units of the Soviet “komunalki” (B.Akhospireli St, Abo Tbileli St, Ietim-Gurji St).

The street fašade of No.23, Lado Asatiani St would not be out of place in St.Petersburg, yet behind it stretches a courtyard with characteristic multi-storeyed galleries and typical Caucasian life.

The deplorable state of preservation of many structures reveals glimpses of the former bourgeois splendour of Tbilisi houses (lower Ietim-Gurji St).

As can be seen in this structure, visible from Ovanes Tuvaniani Turn, modern materials and construction techniques are ubiquitous in the “restoration”, in most cases complete reconstruction, of old Tbilisi houses.

Around Charkhuradze St: Historically more sensitive restoration produces the kind of sterility that one nowadays witnesses on sections of Charkhuradze St where the liveliness and spontaneity of Old Tbilisi is no longer expressed in architectural forms.

Old Tbilisi consists of a few main thoroughfares and a host of lanes and cul-de-sacs, as this side street off Charkhuradze St.

Balconies accentuate most facades: there is an emphasis on late 19th-century ironwork, combined with myriad later alterations.

This balcony on Betlemi Rise demonstrates the inventiveness of generations of inhabitants that turned it into an additional interior living space.

A.Dumas St, showing here its entrance from Kote Afkhazi St, is an excellent example of balconies communicating across the streets.

Ottoman elements can be discerned in the yoke-shaped arches of this balcony on the West side of A.Dumas St.

Orientalising forms are also expressed in the lace-like decoration of the arches on this balcony on Ietim-Gurji St.

Balconies, verandahs and related structures have been interpreted in a variety of modern materials, often in a somewhat makeshift fashion and with surprising results.

In this large dwelling on Betlemi Rise, the courtyard galleries also fulfil the function of balconies, as they afford a panoramic view over the entire old city.

The lightly built overhanging structures have not only been subjected to frequent alterations but are also under particular threat from decay and neglect (L.Gudiashvili Sq., SE corner).

No.11, Beglar Akhospireli St: a grander version of the three-sided courtyard, symmetry accounting for a sense of monumentality despite the use of light materials.

A similar composition, yet consisting of only two storeys, with a glazed ground floor, an often-used device in Tbilisi.

This courtyard on lower Ietim-Gurji St shows a more classically inspired composition which is somewhat reduced by the glazing of much of the upper gallery.

M.Lermontov St, North side: an example of modern infill around a traditional Tbilisi courtyard.

A recently restored complex on Botanikuri St with spectacularly cascading staircases that follow the natural contours of the hill.

A rickety, but original staircase on the West side of A.Dumas St.

Many visible external staircases are additions of later periods when the internal organisation of Tbilisi houses underwent considerable changes (East side, Ietim-Gurji St).

This complex on lower Ietim-Gurji St, with its sloping two-storeyed bridges, is one of the most compelling examples of the improvised nature of many traditional Tbilisi dwellings.

The Stomatological Clinic on Kote Afkhazi St, the main thoroughfare of Old Tbilisi, is a poignant modern interpretation of the traditional staircases of the historic city centre.

A side view of No.35, Lado Asatiani St, shows that 19th-century European facades are often mere screens in front of traditional Tbilisi structures.

This palatial structure at No.16, Geronti Qiqozdis St exhibits a similar combination of solidity at the front and lightness and translucency in the Tbilisi-type gallery on the side.

The dangers to the survival of Old Tbilisi are everywhere to see. Large-scale demolition is under way in many quarters, as here on Jerusalem St.

“Improvements” often come in the form of complete reconstruction with only the most superficial concessions to traditional forms, as here on the corner of G.Abesadze and V.Beridze Streets.