Updated: Sep 24, 2020
Georgia is famed for its medieval churches and monasteries tucked into the forested mountainsides, but Georgia is also home to some striking examples of modern architecture that have their own unique Georgian twist. How did Georgia become home to such a wide collection of modern architecture?
To understand Georgia’s relationship with modern architecture, you first have to understand a little about Georgia’s politics. After Mikheil Saak’asvhili began his sweeping anti-corruption reforms following the peaceful Rose Revolution in November 2003, he began to rebuild the Georgian government from the ground-up, both figuratively and literally.
A New Era Begins
To accomplish the task of building a new Georgia, Mikheil Saak’ashvili hired Italian architect Michele de Lucchi to design new homes for what were once the most corrupt institutions in Georgia--the Presidency and the Ministry of Internal Affairs (which controls the police).
The Presidential Palace was built in Avlabari--a district which once was home to numerous royal and aristocratic residences. The central dome of the Presidential Palace is constructed out of glass to symbolize the transparency of the presidency. The main structure itself is a modern interpretation of the White House in Washington DC. The resemblance to the iconic American structure shows that the then-newly reformed presidency is a continuation of a long-established tradition of the separation of powers and democracy.
In 2013 the Tbilisi Public Service Hall was opened. This elegant structure claims to be the world’s largest public service center covering 28,000 square meters/301,400 square feet. The building is composed of seven large box-shaped sub-structures that encircle a large central lobby which houses the services of the Justice Hall. This central lobby is entirely open and acts as the hub for the building. The seven box-like substructures house various government agencies and are connected by interior sky-bridges which traverse the central lobby. The building is topped by large white “petals” that overlap each other and are supported by tree trunk-like columns soaring to 35 meters/115 feet high.
Tbilisi isn’t the only city in Georgia to have received interesting government buildings. Gori’s Public Service Hall is a large glass cylinder that is wrapped in swooping white strands. Today, every major city and town in Georgia is home to one of these modern architectural centerpieces. Kutaisi, however, perhaps takes the cake for the most grandiose modern government building--the former Parliament of Georgia building. The building is actually two separate structures--the parliament chamber is its own building located in the central of the glass dome, while the roof, including the glass dome itself, is a separate structure. Unfortunately, this building never reached its full potential. Due to a number of reasons, the Georgian parliament was relocated from Kutaisi to Tbilisi in 2019.
Saak'ashvili also built much of the country's transit infrastructure in a similar architectural fashion. Tbilisi's airport is a large glass structure with a wave-like roof, while Kutaisi's airport is composed of various geometric designs coalescing into a singular structure. Even the small towns of Mestia and Ambrolauri--both towns are located in some of the most mountainous parts of the country--received new airports that look more like an abstract art sculpture than an airport terminal.
The Era Continues
All of these modern government structures kicked off a new era of Georgian architecture.
Other transparent contemporary buildings began popping up all over Georgia. One notable example of this is the large gas station located on the E60/ს1 on the outskirts of Gori. This gas station uses concrete as its predominant material as an ode to the Soviet brutalist architectural style, however, the interior of the gas station is open, and all exterior walls are made of glass as a means of keeping architectural continuity throughout Georgia.
Batumi’s Alphabet Tower is a large observational tower made of metal and glass. Gracefully embracing the sides of the observational tower is a double-helix with each strand adorned by the letters of the Georgian alphabet. The usage of the Georgian letters in place of nucleotides (guanine, thymine, cytosine, and adenine) represents the prominence of the Georgian language within Georgia--that Georgian is the DNA of Georgia. By placing this ancient alphabet on such a modern structure shows that Georgia, with all of its proud history and culture dating back millennia, is ready to embrace the future.
Another notable modern structure is Axis Towers in Tbilisi’s Vake neighborhood. These 37-floor towers reaching a height of 147 meters/482 feet. The two towers are a mirror of the other--one rotating clockwise and the other counterclockwise and one is white while the other is black. Each floor rotates two degrees around the tower’s central axis. This makes these towers the first twisting skyscraper in Georgia, and one of the few like it in Europe.
The Debate for Georgia's Soul
The large influx of modern architecture in Georgia is not without its critics. Many claim that the Bridge of Peace, which crosses the Mktvari River connecting Old Tbilisi to Rike Park, has the undesirable epithet “The Diaper Bridge” due to the glass structure’s resemblance of a sanitary undergarment. Many Georgians also say that the bridge feels out of place in Old Tbilisi and clashes with the neighborhood’s crumbling and quaint centuries-old buildings. Almost universally loathed is the Tbilisi Biltmore Hotel, located on Rustaveli Avenue. Local residents refer to this building as “the pimple” since it looks like a gigantic pimple on the city’s otherwise low and even skyline. Batumi is perhaps considered by Georgians to be the worst example of contemporary architecture gone awry--much of the city’s old town has been replaced by ultramodern hotels and condominiums and the entire beachfront is lined with gargantuan high-rises taking on various eclectic and eccentric shapes.
Many of critics of this push for modern buildings claim that Georgia is losing what makes it so unique--its charm. Each year, it seems as if a little more of Georgia's traditional quaint and humble buildings are being replaced by large pretentious out-of-place showstoppers which clash with the architectural heritage of Georgia. Tbilisi and Batumi especially feel like cities that are having an identity crisis--do they want to fit in with the stereotypical charm found throughout Europe, or do they want to blend in with the splendor and glamour of cities such as Dubai, Shanghai, and New York City.
No change is without critics, and Georgia’s modern architectural movement is no different. The Saak’ashvili administration used architecture as a means to show physical progress to his government’s reforms. In doing so, he created a new era in Georgia in which modernity was swiftly brought in. The days of large government showpieces seem to be over, but the legacy of modernity appears to have taken root in Georgia. If architecture is used as a measure of a country’s mode, then Georgia is marching towards the future.