Architectural Odyssey


Old Tbilisi is guaranteed to quench your thirst for architectural wonders

Crooked streets lined with dilapidated mansions painted ochre and blue, higgledy piggledy staircases and rickety balconies, grape vines creeping over the trellis. Many of the houses have large, sprawling courtyards where children play, which are interconnected with the next house, dotted with mulberry trees and festooned with lines of drying laundry, that hark back to community living in the past.

That’s Old Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, tucked between Russia and Turkey, which is a patchwork of architectural styles, from Art Nouveau buildings to Gothic and Baroque churches and stark Soviet architecture. For an architecture buff like me, the main attraction is its eclectic architecture reflecting its location at the crossroads of Asia and Europe. Though decades of neglect, earthquakes and Soviet rule have taken its toll on many buildings, there are still a few that are worth visiting.

Marvels of architecture

When you step in Tbilisi, the first thing that will catch your attention is the delicately carved and filigreed wooden and wrought iron balconies, often called the hallmark of this city. These overhanging balconies were constructed to offer a respite to the locals from the summer heat.

In the Abanotubani or the Bath districts are the brick-domed sulphur baths that have been used by people for ages. These baths were built in Persian style with colourful glazed tiles. Scattered around old town are caravanserais where the traders on the Silk Route camped in the past with their caravans and camels. Today, some of these magnificent buildings have been restored meticulously, like the one that houses the Tbilisi Museum of History.

The city is home to several exquisite Orthodox churches with beautiful frescoes and ceilings, gilded icons and altars. Rustaveli Avenue is the Champs Elysee of Tbilisi, with stately neo-classical palaces and buildings lining the length.

Fresh lease of life

Urban renewal has given a fresh lease of life to many run-down buildings. A case in point is Fabrika, an old Soviet-era sewing factory, that has been converted into a 400-room hostel decorated with wall murals, with quirky art and craft shops as well as a café. Another great restoration is Café Littera, which is an old Art Deco mansion from 1903 that belonged to a Georgian philanthropist. The show stoppers here are the limited edition ceramic tiles in the hall of the building, made by Villeroy and Boch.

Tbilisi also has its share of modern architecture. There is the much-maligned bow shaped Peace Bridge designed by Italian architect Michele De Lucchi, which the locals detest because it is discordant with the old architecture. I also see the neoclassical Presidents Palace with its egg-shaped glass dome and the abandoned music theatre project that look like legs of steel. The Tbilisi Public Service Hall, with its multi-domed roof that looks like a UFO, is the one-stop place for all registrations.

Many heritage homes and buildings in Tbilisi have gone under the bulldozer, in the construction boom, but in recent years there is a lot of awareness to conserve old architecture. One successful restoration project that I see is on David Agmashenebeli Avenue. Tbilisi has a wealth of urban architecture and concerted efforts have to be made to preserve it in the years to come.

By: Kalpana Sunder

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