PRINT April 2013

Nikoloz Japaridze

Architects of Invention, Tbilisi Prosecutor’s Office, 2012, Georgia. Photo: Nakanimamasakhisi Photo Lab.

A SUPERCATHEDRAL IN TBILISI, a massive new parliament dome in Kutaisi, the first building of the new planned city of Lazika: Recent years have seen an incredible period of construction in Georgia, during which ambitious new buildings such as these have appeared with astonishing rapidity. But like all post-Soviet countries, Georgia faces a dual challenge: that of establishing a new identity for the twenty-first century while preserving its own history. Both are complex tasks today. Realizing a locally specific and sensitive architecture is increasingly difficult in our era of globalized icon-building, where the look of contemporaneity is ever more generic, and frenzied growth rarely leaves time for thoughtful consideration of existing urban fabrics or as yet undeveloped rural landscapes. Meanwhile, Georgia’s architectural heritage not only encompasses a unique mix of Eastern and Western influences but spans an extraordinary range—from churches built in the fifth century to Soviet Brutalist buildings constructed only decades ago—resulting in uniquely varied challenges for preservation. And because architecture’s ability to symbolize the future or connect to the past is matched by its direct entanglement with the material, cultural, and economic organization of the society in which it is built, Georgian architects must also learn to negotiate their role in everything from the production of building materials to the regulation of labor, the establishment of state institutions to the implementation of strategies for governance. It is through these processes that they might intervene in, and perhaps even shape, the ongoing transformation of Georgian culture and society.

The collapse of the USSR sucked Western culture into Georgia’s borders with the thirst of a vacuum. But Georgia was not a void: Its culture, and indeed its architecture, were already incredibly diverse and incredibly dense. Giorgi Chakhava and Zurab Jalaghania’s 1975 Ministry of Roads Building, with its interlocking forty-foot cantilevers and dramatic site on the steep banks of the Mtkvari River, is one of the most famous Soviet structures in the country. And there are other representative examples of a range of Soviet styles: Zarya Vostoka, the Constructivist building for the eponymous newspaper’s offices; the Tbilisi Sports Palace by Vladimir Aleksi-Meskhishvili; and the Imeli Building by Alexey Shchusev, who was also the architect of Lenin’s mausoleum. If Soviet architecture in Georgia is outsize and dramatic but also imposing, sometimes even brutal—perhaps not surprising, given that it was the architecture of imperialism—the nation’s surviving fifth-century churches display a humble geometric simplicity that reveals heavy Byzantine influence, balanced by a certain whimsy in their positioning within the Georgian landscape. In contrast, traditional Georgian houses are wildly ornate, adorned with balconies and elaborately carved woodwork. These timber structures are rebuilt regularly over time, and the continual working and reworking of these architectural intricacies is a tangible manifestation of Georgia’s long and complex history.

Yet post-Soviet Georgia suffers from a problem of perception—a lack of value placed on its true architectural legacy—and an underdeveloped idea of preservation. This is not true of the architectural historian and activist Maia Mania, whose work has been critically important in initiating and championing preservation efforts. Her exhaustive research has helped to establish the nature of Georgian architectural heritage, discerning its tradition from those of Persia and Europe that have perpetually traversed the country.

While Mania’s work continues to aid in the preservation of many ancient buildings, the treatment of Soviet buildings is often even more complex because they are repurposed, rather than simply restored. In this process, the original design is often contaminated or weakened, if not entirely hidden. The new Radisson hotel in Tbilisi is a case in point: The Soviet-era Hotel Iveria was reclad with a glass and metal facade, and the building’s texture has changed immeasurably, from classic Soviet modernism expressed in green limestone into something slick and banal. The alterative to such total overhauls is to faithfully preserve the distinctive character of such buildings while injecting new purpose into their spaces, but this requires terrific imagination on the part of architects and planners, all too often lacking in Georgia.

Such a living dialogue with the past must be combined with an exchange across cultures in order to maintain Georgia’s urban fabric and its landmarks. Soviet architecture itself is exemplary in this regard, as it sometimes discreetly cross-bred with traditions outside its borders. For example, the Ministry of Roads Building is strikingly reminiscent of the work of the Metabolist movement that had been active in Japan since the 1950s. In this way, the building gestured toward the world beyond the USSR. It was a statement meant to resonate in an international architectural conversation, amounting to a subtle rebellion against censorship: a difficult and dangerous achievement in Soviet times. Yet despite the structure’s strong stylistic resemblance, the ideas underlying Metabolism made little sense in Tbilisi. The Georgia of the 1970s bore no resemblance to the Japan of the Metabolists: That latter movement was born of rapid expansion within Japan, which meant that a huge and growing population had to be housed in a limited area; by contrast, the Ministry of Roads served a country with one of the lowest population densities on earth. And so, paradoxically, the building’s quasi-Metabolist form was actually a response to an entirely different set of conditions. The site was a rocky hill; the design came from a desire to challenge gravity by pursuing structural complexity on this demanding landscape. While the building achieved many of the effects desired by the Metabolists—–it liberated the land below, achieved the largest possible floor area with the smallest footprint, and ultimately integrated itself into the existing landscape—Jalaghania claimed that “the project was derived from the plot of land given to build this building,” and this was, in a way, the simple truth.

The Hotel Iveria, 1967, Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo: Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images.

Neglecting Soviet-era heritage threatens to abandon this legacy of negotiating between international styles and domestic character at the very moment Georgia is enlisting contemporary architecture in its struggle to establish a post-Soviet identity. New buildings are being constructed to stamp cities with freshness and a sense of national pride. But world architecture is becoming so universal in its forms, typically derived from the same technologies, that you can rarely identify today’s buildings by the places in which they are constructed. How, then, can one create an architectural expression that projects any sense of place?

After the brief civil war in 1991, newly independent Georgia survived more than a decade of rationing, with limited hours of gas, power, and water daily. Georgians responded to this state of crisis by implementing alternative systems of supply, and, in turn an architectural vernacular emerged. The era saw a revival of the Silk Road, which opened merchandising routes from China, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey, allowing easy import of cheap goods such as plastic water-storage tanks, small oil-power generators, portable gas heaters, and boilers. As Georgians increasingly circumvented rationing by employing these ad hoc systems, communal heating-supply systems became redundant and cast-iron radiators were sold as scrap metal. Blocks of apartments were converted to individual units with self-supplied utilities. So the balconies of these dwellings were used as storage areas for boilers and generators, causing outdoor urban spaces to be overwhelmed by motor noise and the smell of oil. The result was unstable temperature regulation of the buildings, which accelerated the degradation of stucco facades and other architectural components. In the meantime, a thoughtful, organized response to this crisis was impossible, because the city-planning institute had been closed, and the planners unemployed, since the end of the Soviet era. The chief architect of Tbilisi simply issued planning permission for the expansion of apartments into so-called extended loggias (also known as kamikaze loggias)—in other words, balconies acquired walls, partially hiding the mess, but the underlying problem remained unsolved.

At the same time that Georgia’s urban environments were physically crumbling, the infrastructure and technology supporting its building industry were deteriorating as well. After the collapse of the USSR, almost all factories producing building materials were dismantled, to be sold in pieces or abandoned, as they were no longer able to meet the demands of a suddenly “Westernized” society. Most research and scientific institutions shared the same fate, rendering the development of new materials impossible. Instead, imported materials and technologies flooded the local market. This sent the country into stagnation and prompted a more than 200 percent increase in the price of goods. The foreign technologies introduced required knowledgeable staff and trained labor, which were largely unavailable. And when advanced materials or techniques were employed, the speed of construction increased, leaving architects struggling to keep up. Worse, these building materials were required to be certified under old Soviet legislation, which made it impossible to deploy them in innovative ways. Ironically, while the state aspired to a contemporary European aesthetic, a kind of impoverished “all-white” minimalism became the de facto vernacular because of a lack of design knowledge and the low construction cost.

In my own work as an architect in Georgia, I have directly experienced the ways in which the rush to produce a new architecture has collided with disorganization, lack of regulation, and crumbling infrastructure to produce chaos. In 2011, for example, we were forced to make several important decisions about a building before its design was even finished because the client, Tbilisi’s chief prosecutor, wanted to start construction immediately. At his insistence, the foundation had to be calculated and digging begun even before we knew what the actual building would look like. The brief was to create a government building to contain sixty people for the purposes of prosecutorial work—there were literally no other guidelines. This lack of constraints made it extremely difficult to proceed with the design, and we were also delayed because of a disagreement with the client about a set of fire-escape stairs, which he wanted to eliminate to save money and time. No one knew how to proceed, because there is no regulation about fire escapes imposed uniformly across construction in Georgia. In the end, we made a secret agreement with the builders to get the stairs built. Then, to avoid extra expense when moving ahead with the construction, the client demanded that the contractor proceed with his work despite our geotechnical engineer’s discovery that water was likely present just belowground on the building site. When a tractor was leveling the ground in preparation for the foundation, it sank under the groundwater—this mishap gave us the vital extra time needed for the design. It was only luck that allowed us to resolve the problem.

Architects of Invention, Lazika Municipality Building,
2012, Georgia. Photo: Nakanimamasakhisi Photo Lab.

Architects prefer to work with some element of constraint, some conceptual boundaries of design. We had none, so we looked to the fundamental program of the building itself for inspiration. We took the idea of law, of the “rule” itself, as our guide, giving the building a strong and highly visible external steel frame to represent the firmness and structure of the legal system. Glass cubes, housing the offices and other programs, are suspended inside the frame. Their dynamic positioning lends them a sense of movement, suggesting a potential for evolution that is especially important for post-Soviet countries, where developing legal systems must respond to the changing needs of the societies they serve. Our design also features a prominent central staircase, which acts as a sort of interior street, serving as a meeting point between not only the structure’s volumes but its inhabitants, in this way breaking down hierarchies within the judicial system and generating interaction within the building. We also considered the impact the structure would have on the public. It has a simplicity, with all its components evident and visually available, that gives passersby the feeling that they themselves might rearrange the masses and voids within the frame at will; we wanted the building to be a reminder that the law must be openly examined and tested constantly if it is to remain fair and just. In this sense, the refined detailing and transparent quality of the Tbilisi Prosecutor’s Office are a vehement departure from the Soviet style, which often emphasized opaque material, narrow windows, and commanding scale and geometry. We hoped this contrast would emphasize the ever-advancing dialectics of democracy in Georgia.

Much-needed constraints are slowly materializing in Georgia, evidenced in the recent adoption of several key building codes from German regulations, as well as plans to improve architectural education, both historical and professional. And yet Georgia is not a wealthy country; economic pressures remain. For example, concrete construction is still favored for its low cost. But because the ratio of cement to sand and water is unregulated, it often simply reflects the demands of a market where quantity is more important than quality. The result is cheap and unreliable construction. But technology may tempt the market away from its predilection for cheap concrete.

We sought to address some of these challenges in our Lazika Muncipality Building in 2012, by incorporating innovative design and fabrication techniques into a regional, historical tradition. Lazika is a planned city on the border with Abkhazia, intended to be an international port that will foster increased communication across the Black Sea. The architecture of this area was always stilt-supported, and we interpreted this precedent to create a series of floating objects. Our design was made possible by the deployment of a so-called Building Information Modeling (BIM) process. This enabled us to work directly with a steel manufacturer through a shared digital interface, allowing the building’s structure to be prefabricated in the factory while still granting us the freedom to customize details of the design, which is typically not possible when using prefabricated components. This flexibility fit well with the building’s program. It was planned as a site to promote e-governance, to provide citizens with online access to public programs and services. Indeed, the Lazika Municipality Building is one in a series of structures across Georgia tasked with making citizen-to-government communication more efficient through similar initiatives, and the government consistently requests transparency in their briefs for these sites. The open structure of our elevated design literally enacts this quality, in addition to allowing a layout that gives easy passage between all the interior spaces. But even beyond responding to both the official brief and the local vernacular, this project took the utopian grid of Yona Friedman’s “floating city” as its inspiration. The suspended volumes create public spaces and an architectural benchmark for a city to come. Instead of Friedman’s gesture toward the future, this building offers a site for planning it.

Nikoloz Japaridze is the principal of Architects of Invention, based in London and Tbilisi, Georgia.