Georgia is in many ways an exceptional country. Outstanding pristine nature, wild mountains, clear blue skies and deep forests bear witness to a turbulent past that left marks on its heritage and in its people’s minds. A constant struggle between three great empires, Persian, Russian and Ottoman, to dominate the Caucasus region, made Georgia one of the culturally most diverse countries in the world. Unlike its neighbours, Georgia took advantage of its complicated past and turned it into art. Outstanding architecture of all different styles, a refined sense for plastic arts and superb cuisine are just some of the ways in which Georgians express themselves.
One would not expect such a variety of architectural styles in a country located on the battle field of civilizations. As a rule, each civilization tends to impose its cultural values on others by destroying the alien one and building its heritage. But architecture of Georgia somehow survived. From ancient stone towers and monasteries to medieval fortresses and traditional houses. Even the neoclassical, art nouveau, cool socialist and ultra-modern architecture, it’s all there at its finest! Not only its incredible capital Tbilisi and the sea side resort of Batumi house an enormous architectural treasure, but the rest of the country has a lot to offer too.
Set amongst the mighty Caucasus Mountain Range, Svaneti is home to thousand year old defense towers, now World Heritage Site. Svan people were not always in peace with northern and eastern neighbors, especially when there wasn’t enough food for all. In order to protect themselves they had to build some kind of stone fortress. Unlike elsewhere in the world where an entire village was built within a surrounding fortress, in Svaneti each family would have its own in the shape of a tall stone tower. During a siege, the whole family (up to hundred people) would hide inside the tower and stay there until the oppressor left.
Georgia was the second country in the world to adopt Christianity in the 4th century. Historically, the church played an important role in preserving Georgian identity, and while largely left aside during the communist rule, it has emerged as the country’s most loved institution. Hundreds of medieval monasteries can be visited all around the country. Reminiscent of Romanesque art they are easily recognisable, due to their tall drum and conic shape dome. Apart from that, Georgia is home to two uniquely authentic cave monasteries: Vardzia and David Gareja.
In Georgia there is a long tradition of building colourful vernacular architecture. Different regions have different house types but some features can be found everywhere. A typical Georgian urban house would be a two storey building with a characteristic balcony with lace like decoration. Some of them with modest classical wooden balustrades others with arabesque shapes. Tbilisi’s houses are larger and have balconies spanning over several stories. In the wine region of Kakheti, the town of Sighnaghi hosts many outstanding traditional houses.
Fin de Siècle and Art Nouveau Architecture
Following the discovery of oil in Azerbaijan in the mid 19th century, massive pipelines were laid throughout Georgia to bring oil to Europe. Money from the oil boom financed international style architecture all around the country. In Batumi, a large port on the Black Sea, hundreds of elegant fin de siècle buildings were erected bringing a European feel to this charming city. Although in style neoclassical, their colours and shapes were far off the usual grid. In the meantime Tbilisi was a Mecca for numerous Art Nouveau artists. The best example of that exciting period is the cosmopolitan David Aghmashenebeli Avenue.
Soviet times were marked by the massive construction of huge residential blocks all over the country. While late post-war architecture reflects simple lines, the early national socialist style incorporated some elements of Georgian art. Probably the most interesting example of that period is the Georgian National Academy of Sciences in Tbilisi. The other extraordinary building is from the late period and serves as the headquarters of the National Bank of Georgia. Built as the Ministry of Infrastructure in 1975, it was inspired by the surrounding forest. The idea was to cover the least space possible on the ground and leave it for nature.
Contemporary Architecture of Georgia
Despite the fact that the economic situation in Georgia since the fall of Communism isn’t bright the state funded numerous large projects. Cool innovative designs and different materials, shapes and colours were used for public service halls, border crossings, police stations, government buildings, airports, office towers and hotels, especially in Batumi and Tbilisi. New interesting parks and bridges and several grand scale renovations gave new life to a nation slowly awakening.