Tbilisi, the sprawling capital city of Georgia in the Caucasus, has been shaped by a dramatically turbulent history. Conflicting ideologies and over-enthusiastic egos have made their mark on the city’s fabric, ensuring a vibrant, if chaotic, form of urbanism. Much of the city is characterized by the grand experiments of the former Soviet Union, with vast microrayons providing housing on the city’s peripheries and concrete monoliths built to demonstrate the cultural superiority of the USSR. This is joined by the architectural adventures of the former president Mikheil Saakashvili, who commissioned a collection of superfluous icons to proclaim Georgia’s adoption of representative democracy, and with it a preference for ‘western’ ideals. But it is the space in-between that really reveals Tbilisi’s unique urban character as it has been colonized with an extraordinary number of self-built structures – garages, extensions, kiosks and ‘kamikaze loggias’ that render each home unique and every street particular.
Tbilisi Architecture Biennial, the first in Georgia since its independence, has pinpointed this informality as its initial topic of investigation. Rather than exploring the contentious icons that litter the city centre, the biennial’s curators have honed in on Gldani – a Soviet microrayon in the Northern periphery of the city that is known for its spatial saturation of adaptation and appropriation. This sea of concrete tower blocks, a vision of an absolute architecture built in the 1970s to provide accommodation for a rapidly industrializing and urbanizing Tbilisi, has been altered almost beyond recognition, with each apartment’s facade adjusted by its inhabitants to infill balconies, extend rooms and expand apartments.
We would like to emphasize that the alterations and adjustment made to architecture and the built environment have been undertaken by inhabitants to suit their changing needs: buildings have been transformed as the lives of those who dwell within them have been transformed.
Tinatin Gurgenidze, Natia Kalandarishvili, Otar Nemsadze and Gigi Shukakidze
– Tbilisi Architecture Biennial curators
This wealth of adaptation is the product of a particular set of socio-economic conditions, in which state-owned apartments defaulted into private ownership following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but were left without the supportive infrastructure of the state. From this evolved a culture of ‘DIY urbanism’ that made its mark on apartments, but also transformed the common ground in-between. The sudden shift in ownership rendered all shared space – parks, paths, stairwells, lifts – as an ambiguous territory of undefined rules. Not private, but not quite public. This became the battleground for ownership claims and privatization, leading to a seemingly endless variety of garages, kiosks and sheds. These small-scale appropriations are products of a scarcity of means, but also revealing of a particular constructional and spatial ingenuity.
The Tbilisi Architecture Biennial’s series of built installations can be read as further manifestations of this form of architecture, built with minimal budgets but engaging with a range of themes around ownership, maintenance and commonality. Scattered across the length of Gldani, this treasure hunt of installations provided an opportunity to explore the district and get to know its unique urbanism first-hand. While built on a shoestring, the strength of many of these installations was in their engagement with local communities through their construction, use, and even deconstruction. Viennese architects Adrian Judt and Helene Schauer built a blue platform on to which they placed a variety of building materials that were free to take. Their installation, To Be Constructed, was dismantled in just 30 minutes by local self-builders who seized the opportunity to collect materials for an array of DIY projects.
As suggested in the Tbilisi Architecture Biennial’s name – ‘Buildings Are Not Enough’ – the event provided an opportunity to explore topics connected to, but not necessarily dependent on, architecture. Stefan Rusu, an artist and curator based in Chisinau, built a 1:1 replica of a typical Soviet entrance space, abstracted of materiality but retaining its characteristic concrete form. Passing through the entrance threshold, visitors were confronted with a diving board and paddling pool in place of the expected apartment block – ‘questioning the meaning of socialist habitats’ and their relation to social transformations after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Moscow-based architect Maria Kremer created a habitable space within a covered bridge that spans Gldani’s central strip and currently houses a boxing club and a hotel. This ‘Habitat’ inserts a semi-private room into the public circulation route by extruding one of the bridge’s many arches, providing a rare space for contemplation. Block 76 offered one of the biennial’s most intriguing events, with a community of residents opening up their homes to provide a brief and fascinating glimpse into their original Soviet apartments – a rare opportunity to look beyond the public realm and into the intimacy and care of the domestic interior.
Alongside this constellation of built interventions, the biennial orchestrated an ambitious weekend of symposiums and lectures exploring themes of post-socialist transition, architectural informality and new economies, with invited speakers from the likes of Strelka Institute, the Floating University, Future Architecture Platform and various local universities. A wide-ranging lecture from Reinier De Graaf of OMA / AMO was balanced with that of Paper Architects’ Alexander Brodsky, who narrated an absorbing presentation of his whimsical architectures, both built and imagined.
But it was David Brodsky that captured the essence of the biennial in opening up his home as the after-hours ‘Boiler’ venue, for both the week-long event and an undetermined period afterwards. A wooden staircase was built to connect the street directly with Brodsky’s apartment, entered through the threshold of a removed window. Open all hours regardless of whether Brodsky was home, Boiler was a manifestation of the informality that the biennial set out to investigate. Ambiguous, undefined and open-ended, this space was not so much defined by its modest architectural intervention but by the unpredictable social interactions it enabled. Boiler, and indeed the biennial as a whole, was a timely reminder that architectural intention has its limits, and room should be left for the unexpected.
The author is a member of Medium – a design collective based in Copenhagen who participated in the Tbilisi Architecture Biennial. Medium’s research and installation, 8-23-VI, explored themes of ownership and commonality by creating a public space within a semi-private territory.