I think I could walk the streets of Tbilisi all day, every day and never get bored. The architecture is one of the first things visitors notice about the city, and something that is bound to leave a lasting impression. It’s beguiling in the truest sense of the word.
Some sections of Tbilisi are lined with classical European facades, grand enough to rival any Parisian boulevard. But this neat, ordered exterior is an illusion. Tucked away down the alleyways behind buildings is a mash of laundry lines, detached garages, staircases, wine cellars, underpasses and doorways – a hint at the communal, often messy nature of life in inner-city Tbilisi, where many families live under the same roof. In this city, your neighbours are considered to be on the same level (or even higher) than your family. Living in such close quarters and sharing living spaces demands a certain decorum; for example, it’s the height of rudeness and utterly unacceptable to not stop and chat to your neighbour if you see them on the street.
As well as the mechanics of everyday life, Tbilisi’s architecture also alludes to Georgia’s past. Thanks to multiple invasions and a vibrant history of immigration, each of the city’s neighbourhoods is culturally and architecturally distinct: Armenian, Muslim, Jewish (and now, on the horizon over there, Chinese). But there’s a consistent Tbilisi vernacular that flows through the city. It consists of intricately carved overhanging balconies and verandas, communal courtyards, and tightly wound spiral staircases.
It’s amazing that so many of Tbilisi’s cupcake-coloured houses and opulent Art Nouveau mansions survived the Soviet era. But that’s not to say 69-plus years of imposed austerity didn’t leave its mark on the cityscape. During Soviet times, many Georgian families from rural areas were encouraged (or forced) to move to Tbilisi so they could contribute labour and be more easily controlled. Large houses built at the turn of the century were subdivided into smaller apartments to accommodate the influx of families. Almost overnight, mansions went from supporting one household to sheltering multiple families. Everyone wanted their own entrance (and maybe some extra space too) so walls were knocked down, extensions tacked on, doorways added and new staircases constructed. These staircases link to a central courtyard, dominated by vine trellises, rose bushes and a well. Before piping, this would have been the building’s only source of fresh water.
The houses and apartments we see today on Tbilisi’s residential streets are a bit of a mishmash. Some mansion homes have been faithfully restored; others have been leveled or picked apart to make way for new developments. Many are in disrepair. This undoubtedly adds to their charm, but it’s also a bit of a shame – especially for those buildings that lay dormant, boarded up and unused. One reason why many houses haven’t been restored or redeveloped is that multiple families own the buildings. Any decision to sell or renovate the property would have to be unanimous. Many residents of the older mansions in particular are elderly and understandably reluctant to let go of their slice of property. So, many buildings remain just as they were at the end of the Soviet Union: shambolic but utterly adored; still serving their most basic purpose: to provide shelter.
I wanted to see and learn more about Tbilisi’s residential architecture so I organised a private tour with Tatiana Remneva, a Russian-born expat who has lived in Georgia for four years. Tatiana must get lost a lot because she has scoped out some truly hidden spots. She’s a talented photographer and has an incredible wealth of insider-knowledge about Tbilisi, its neighbourhoods and individual houses (she sometimes meets and talks with property owners). She is also incredibly generous with her time and more than happy to share her favourite finds with tourists like us. I wish there was a Tatiana in every city we visited!
Below are a few of my favourite buildings seen on our walk…
A TYPICAL SUBURBAN STREET, FEATURING DECADES’ WORTH OF DIY ADD-ONS.
ONE OF THE FEW (MAYBE AS FEW AS TWO) REMAINING STAINED-GLASS FEATURE WINDOWS IN A RESIDENTIAL BUILDING IN TBILISI. VIEWED FIRST FROM THE STREET AND THEN FROM THE INTERIOR STAIRWELL.
ONE OF THE FINEST COURTYARDS WE SAW ALL DAY. THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE IS VISIBLY DAMAGED BUT STILL IN USE, EVEN BY ELDERLY RESIDENTS.
MOST OF THE MANSION HOUSES WE VISITED WERE ONCE OWNED BY FAMOUS RESIDENTS AND HAVE SOME KIND OF DOCUMENTED HISTORY. THIS ONE, LOCATED BEHIND THE FUNICULAR STATION ON RUSTAVELI AVENUE, BELONGED TO A DOCTOR – BUT NOT JUST ANY DOCTOR… STALIN’S FAVOURITE DOCTOR. FOR THIS REASON, IT WAS SPARED AND NEVER SUBDIVIDED. THREE GENERATIONS LATER, THE HOUSE IS STILL OWNED BY THE SAME FAMILY.
THE DOORS TO MOST OF THESE OLD BUILDINGS WERE UNLOCKED AND AJAR; WE CAUTIOUSLY ADMIRED ONLY COMMUNAL SPACES WHILE DOING OUR BEST TO RESPECT RESIDENTS’ PRIVACY. TATIANA BUZZED A FEW RESIDENTS AND SWEET-TALKED HER WAY INTO SOME OF THE STAIRWELLS.
THE ENTRYWAY TO A MANSION HOUSE BUILT IN THE ‘ORIENTAL STYLE’ POPULAR AT THE TURN OF THE 20TH CENTURY. THE SHAPES AND PATTERNS ARE REMINISCENT OF ISLAMIC ARCHITECTURE; INTERESTINGLY, THE MAN WHO COMMISSIONED THE HOME AS A GIFT TO HIS WIFE WAS AN ARMENIAN JEW.
FLOOR TILES INSIDE THE WRITER’S HOUSE OF GEORGIA, FORMALLY THE RESIDENCE OF DAVID SARAJISHVILI, GEORGIAN BRANDY TYCOON AND PHILANTHROPIST. THE TERRACOTTA-COLOURED CERAMIC TILES ON THE LEFT WERE A LIMITED-EDITION RUN BY VILLEROY AND BOCH. IT’S SAID THAT ONLY TWO ORDERS OF THIS PARTICULAR DESIGN WERE EVER DISPATCHED FROM GERMANY: ONE LOT ENDED UP IN TBILISI, THE OTHER ORDER WAS USED ON THE TITANIC.
FLAKING WALLPAPER INSIDE ANOTHER MANSION, THIS ONE BUILT IN 1911 BY A RUSSIAN MERCHANT. THE HAND-PAINTED WALL COVERINGS ARE ALL ORIGINAL. THE PANEL ON THE LEFT BEARS THE OWNER’S INITIALS INSIDE A CREST. IT WOULD BE AMAZING TO SEE THESE RESTORED.
CAMOUFLAGED BY GREENERY, WE ENTERED THIS MASSIVE HOUSE VIA A LONG UPHILL TUNNEL. THE ORIGINAL OWNER WANTED COMPLETE PRIVACY, SO THE HOUSE IS VIRTUALLY INVISIBLE FROM STREET LEVEL. FROM THIS PERSPECTIVE (TAKEN FROM AN ELEVATED FRONT COURTYARD) YOU CAN SEE THE GRAFFITI THAT NOW ADORNS SOME OF THE HOUSE’S EXTERNAL WALLS.