The classic Tbilisi residential house

Most visitors to Georgia already know the classic Tbilisi residence and its successors from essential films of recent years such as „And Then We Danced“ by Levan Aikin or Nana Ekvtimishvili’s movies „In Bloom“ or „My Happy Family“. What these films have in common is that they provide very intimate insights into the lives of Georgian families, especially in their efforts to keep their heads above water despite the many crises of the 1990s and 2000s.

On the one hand, the closeness under which the housing situation, which always spans three generations, takes place, provides a solid social foundation. On the other hand, however, it is the lack of privacy that leads to many conflicts. But somehow you have to stick together, cannot do without each other, if only because of the precarious economic situation. Without the apartments and houses and their unique atmosphere, these films would be unthinkable – the built space and the objects in it are also, like actors, participants in the dramas that unfold among the characters.

And if one can escape the family, there are still the neighbours who inevitably notice everything. Each veranda is a stage on which the spectators look from the opposite side.

Narrow, winding and partly overgrown alleyways let us assume that we are already in a private property or that we will soon arrive in the rooms of the inhabitants. Moreover, there is a feeling that you are losing your orientation or you even think you are in a dead end – but suddenly the whole thing opens up and you are back in a familiar place.

Ralph Hälbig, author of CityTrip Tiflis / Tbilisi, cited via georgia-insight.eu

The so-called Tbilisi residential house style is characterized by pre-constructed balconies from which the individual rooms of one or more apartments can be reached. The stairs leading to several floors are also outside the actual residential building.
In the Bethlehem quarter, one of the oldest districts of Tbilisi, you will find several residential buildings of this type, renovated under the direction of ICOMOS-Georgia.

A particularly striking and therefore frequently photographed dwelling of this type is the building in Bethlemis kutscha 3, built around 1850, which features the following construction elements in an ideal way: The veranda or balcony extends over two floors and is decorated with lavish wood carvings. You can see the typical pointed-arch panelling and balustrade decorations. Preserved here is what you cannot find in this completeness anywhere else in Tbilisi: The staircase is covered with stained glass to reduce the light on the side exposed to the sun.

In today’s Museum of City History at Sionis kutscha 8, also known as the Old Caravanserai, you can study beautiful, detailed models of the Tibilis residential house. The building of today’s museum, which was erected in 1912 on the foundation walls of the caravanserai built in 1650 after subsequent buildings had burned down twice, is itself a work of art with a covered courtyard and verandas running all around. The façade follows the Art Nouveau style.

A certain eclecticism is undoubtedly typical for the architecture of Tbilisi in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is easy to see that the city has been historically influenced by many different political and religious forces. And Tbilisi was an important commercial centre, where the representation of wealth and influence was necessary – for architects and artisans an ideal background for new ideas.

An outstanding example of this eclecticism is the Gabashvili house in the Shota Rustaveli gamsiri 54, with its Rococo and Baroque style elements on the façade and a two-storey wooden veranda with a unique wealth of magnificently turned wooden pillars and intricate carving.

In addition, there is an innumerable amount of other houses of the bourgeoisie, whose former splendour is still visible. Most of them were built under tsarist rule between 1801 and 1917, when Tbilisi was the capital of the Georgian governorate. They too often have balconies facing the street, but only on the first floor. On the side facing away from the street, these extend to the ground floor.

In general, it can be said that open spaces, whether facing the street or the backyard, have always been an integral part of the architecture of southern cities. It is due to the many and often successful campaigns of conquest and the occasional rule of neighbouring empires that architectural borrowings from the building traditions of neighbouring cultures are so extensive. The impulses of architecture from Islamic influenced cultures are most evident in the city’s spa district. There, in turn, architectural examples can be found, especially from the 18th and 19th centuries. This is where by far the most renovation projects have been completed.

Text: © Stefan Applis (2020)

Photos: © Stefan Applis (2015, 2016)

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