The inaugural Tbilisi Architecture Biennial reviews the city’s post-Soviet urban paradoxes and looks at the transformative power of informal architecture.
The capital of Georgia, Tbilisi is a peculiar mix of styles ranging from elaborate traditional wooden mansions to imposing Stalinist architecture, to a collection of modernist gems such as the former Ministry of Highway Construction building. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, gone were the centralized urban planning and regulation coming from Moscow. Georgia, like the other former republics, was free to define its architecture and urbanism on its own.
During the rule of former President Mikheil Saakashvili, a number of costly starchitect projects began adding to the eclectic urban fabric of the city – from the white petals of Massimiliano Fuksas’ Public Service Hall to the gaudy po-mo presidential palace by Michele de Lucchi.
Yet like elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, it is the ubiquitous prefab housing blocks that are still one of the most dominant features of the urban landscape. The suburb of Gldani, located northeast of Tbilisi, is a classic example of a “microrayon” – a residential district exemplifying the Soviet modernist vision of a happy and wholesome collective life. Designed by architect Teimuraz Botchorishvili and built in the 1970s, rows of grim apartment blocks are structured around the central avenue which is crossed by a concrete Ponte Vecchio-inspired bridge. In the 1990s, the suburb received a large influx of refugees fleeing the civil war in Abkhazia. Some 170,000 people are estimated to live there these days.
Despite being snubbed by many Tbilisi residents as an underprivileged periphery, Gldani was chosen as the location for the inaugural Tbilisi Architecture Biennial (TAB) that took place in October.
With the title “Buildings Are Not Enough,” the biennial, which was co-funded by Creative Europe Programme of the European Union, focused on informality as a defining feature of Tbilisi.
“The informal built environment of Tbilisi somehow reflects the entire situation in the city and the country,” Tinatin Gurgenidze, co-founder of the biennial, told Strelka Mag, while noting how much informal architecture can tell about the post-Soviet history of Georgia.
A law passed in 1989 allowed for balconies and verandas to be added to individual housing units to make up for the lack of space. This led to the widespread unchecked construction of extensions and informal structures, transforming the standardized concrete landscape into a patchy and chaotic urban fabric.
“As the overall economic and social situation in the country is still not good, these informal structures show how the people come up with their own solutions to their problems by adjusting the built environment to their needs,” Gurgenidze said.
Taking over unsuspecting Gldani and blending in with the everyday lives of its residents, the biennial put the ordinary in the spotlight, providing a valuable reflection on what it means to live in the post-Soviet space – a discourse relevant to many former Socialist countries.
The biennial consisted of the Indoors Exhibition that occupied a former KGB building in a witty and ironic nod to the past; the Outdoors Exhibition, which invited architects and artists to explore the neighborhood with their interventions; as well as lectures, panels, workshops, guided tours, film screenings, and performances.
The two-day Symposium brought together acclaimed architects, critics, and researchers from all around the world, from OMA’s Reinier de Graaf to revered Russian architect and artist Alexander Brodsky, who presented his installation “Mainstream.”
Strelka’s education program executive director Olga Tenisheva spoke about the Institute and its research at the “Pedagogies at Peripheries” panel that looked into the content and methods of a number of experimental pedagogical platforms.
“For the past 20 years, there has been a significant turn of architecture, to look at what people need and want especially in terms of their housing design and arrangements as informal architecture,” American architecture critic Nina Rappaport, one of the keynote speakers at the Symposium, told Strelka Mag. “Rather than having top-down decisions made for people, it is now essential to engage residents in the community and to have them be part of decision-making. This is becoming more of the status quo in architecture, especially when designing in a new community.”
Reflecting on the theme of the biennial, Karin Matz, Rutger Sjögrim, and Helen Runting of the Swedish architecture office Secretary addressed the socially vulnerable town of Fisksätra which – like many modernist housing projects of the late 1960s and 1970s in Sweden – is now a site for the clash of political ideologies. Their installation “This Space Between Us,” which was placed in the hallway of the former KGB building, explores “the notion that architecture might in fact approach, at its furthest limit, a state of being precisely enough,” Runting said. “In examining Fisksätra, we looked to a complicated socio-environmental system and tried to see it as one very big building. In this, we hoped to provide a timely reminder of an effort to build environments which would, in their generosity of space and the affordability of their apartments, aspire to being precisely enough.”
Moscow-based architect Maria Kremer intervened in an empty space on the DKD bridge that crosses Gladni’s main road with a wooden arch. Inspired by Ponte Vecchio, the bridge is an example of Soviet-era mixed use – it houses shops, a gym, a hotel, a hair salon, and even a fertility clinic. “‘Bridge Habitat’ speculates around the existing phenomenon of the occupation of empty spaces in Gladni,” Kremer said.
“What if we look at architecture as filling empty spaces; not limiting ourselves with existing rules and norms, but looking at the existing social and cultural landscape?” she asks. The “habitat” offers a cozy little observation spot and a gathering space that brings a warm feeling to the concrete structure.
Those visiting the biennial had the unique opportunity to experience the spirit of Gldani through “Block 76” – a participatory and community project that took place in a single residential building. Inviting visitors into private homes, the project brought together artists and residents to create a shared social environment and an atmosphere similar to that of a neighborhood festival.
“It seems hard to impress me,” said Polish architect and former Strelka tutor Kuba Snopek, who explored Soviet-era microrayons in his book “Belyayevo Forever.” “But I find the curatorial idea of opening up about a dozen apartments in a single building and inviting artists and visitors of the biennial very impressive.”
According to Snopek, the theme “Buildings Are Not Enough” has precisely defined what everyone often talks about – that we need to somehow expand the architectural profession by adding knowledge and skills from other disciplines. The biennial program has allowed for that, he argues.
“Based on his vast experience, Reinier has clearly defined the state of the architectural profession today. Young Georgian anthropologist Tamta Khalvashi presented her research about elevators – an element that exists in every apartment block and which transformed dramatically over the past 30 years. The difference in scale and approach between Tamta and Reinier shows how broad the field of architecture is, and how diverse contemporary architectural projects can be.”