The first architecture Biennial since Georgia’s independence was held in Tbilisi in October 2018, with an ambitious and diverse programme of exhibitions, installations and events. The Biennial transformed a vast microdistrict into an architectural playground, highlighting the particularities of the existing urban fabric as much as the temporary installations.
Tbilisi has had a turbulent relationship with architecture since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Whether mobilized in the formation of eccentric icons such as the music theatre and exhibition Hall in Rike Park, or to represent ‘transparent’ institutions through dozens of glass-box police stations, architecture has been used largely as an expression of political egotism and as a tool for the assertion of power. Beyond these symbolic gestures, the urban fabric of the city is a combination of speculative development for hotels and luxury apartments, along with a saturated road infrastructure with a lack of public space and green areas.
Within this context, a few architects are striving to challenge architectural discourse and concerns in Georgia, and propose to focus on a practice of architecture which goes beyond buildings.
Thirty years after the first architecture ‘Biennial’ in Tbilisi - which included in the jury Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas who went on to design several of the mentioned eccentricities in the city center - a team of architects and researchers set about organizing a new architecture Biennial under the theme ‘Buildings Are Not Enough’.
“In recent years, Georgian authorities have been attempting to generate modern values through new ‘starchitectural’ contexts, these are however rootless and disconnected from local society. The architectural Biennial wished to show and study the ignored socio-economic environment that lies beyond Tbilisi’s expensive décor,” says Gigi Shukakidze, Biennial co-curator.
For a week in October 2018, a combination of installations and exhibitions occupied a variety of incongruous venues: inside private apartments, outside crumbling housing blocks, on rooftops, across a busy road, and within a former KGB building.
The project of the Biennial is an ongoing collaboration between local and international architects, with the support of four international partners through the Creative Europe programme; Realizasom, Medium, Copy Paste and MistoDiya. It focuses on Gldani, a Soviet microdistrict in the North of Tbilisi that houses roughly 150 thousand inhabitants, and its transformation from a rigid and compartmented masterplan during the Soviet period, to its contemporary adapted urbanism and multiplicity of informal extensions.
The kick-off to the Biennial was a two-day symposium of keynote lectures and panel discussions. Guests and visitors addressed, among other themes, the radical transformations in Tbilisi from the former centralized soviet planning to current market-led developments, as well as the possibility for architecture institutions (such as the Biennial) to develop and establish an agency in future spatial plannings of the city.
Professors and guests from the Floating University in Berlin, the Free University in Tbilisi, and the Strelka Institute in Moscow discussed the role of architecture education and its alternative forms in creating opportunities for new architectural practice and discourse. Two radically different keynotes punctuated the symposium: one by AMO co-founder Reinier de Graaf, who spoke of the complicity of architects in creating and enforcing power apparatus; and the other by Russian architect Alexander Brodsky, who whispered of secret spaces and poetical architectures.
Portuguese participants Realizasom extended these themes into the surrounding urban fabric, through the creation of a mobile application gathering all events and installations. The interactive map invites visitors to explore Gldani beyond the specific Biennial projects, and discover first hand the context common to all of them.
The Copenhagen based collective Medium built 8-23-VI, a multi-leveled plinth which extends from the shared entrance of a housing block in Gldani, for local inhabitants and Biennial visitors to sit, meet and discuss. 8-23-VI attempts to establish a dialogue between the semi-private circulation space of the housing block and the surrounding public exterior, by extending and activating the threshold between them. In the coming months, the plinth will become a permanent pavilion with the addition of movable panels and a partial roof, forming an outdoor room for inhabitants to share and occupy. This extends the spirit of the Biennial beyond its initial duration, by using it as an opportunity to form a permanent common space for Gldani.
In contrast, artist Nika Kutateladze spoke of uncommon and unwelcoming spaces with his installation “To Protect My House while I’m away”. A replica of a home from the rural region of Guria was filled with dried spiky branches, creating a sinister but fascinating atmosphere. The installation was inspired by a common practice in Guria: when planning to go away, local inhabitants sometimes fill their homes with freshly cut branches from lemon trees. With time the branches dry out, becoming a razor-sharp barrier that protects the house from potential intruders. While aestheticizing this practice for its powerful enigmatic character, the work of Kutateladze also defines it as the symptom of insecurity and alienation between inhabitants.
Georgian artist Lado Lomitashvili created the installation ‘Water and Everything Resistant’ on the roof of a half-completed kindergarten, currently occupied by two families. Objects extracted from everyday life and elementary shapes were scattered on the grey surfaces of the abandoned rooftop. Lomitashvili modified and punctuated the unused space to instigate forms of inhabitation from visitors and locals.
In front of a former KGB building located in the middle of Gldani, Georgian collective Copy Paste built an installation addressing the multiplicity of styles present in Gldani, notably through self-made extensions or ‘Kamikaze loggias’. A field of interlocked panels fragmented the entrance space of the KGB building and juxtaposed various materials - reflecting the sometimes clashing material expressions and human coexistence of Gldani.
Within the former KGB building, the exhibition ‘Built Temporality’ gathered Georgian and international artists who occupied the space with installations and performances. The exhibition made visible the unstable character of social conditions in Georgia, where war and political unrest have created a consciousness of unpredictability among citizens. These changing conditions are manifested in various ways in the urban fabric of Gldani. The myriad of self-built garages are one example - built in response to widespread insecurity and a desire for an extended private territory, many later transformed into shops or workshops, bringing activity and life to the undefined spaces between the housing blocks.
As part of the exhibition, the Ukrainian collective MistoDiya designed a game of dominoes about processes of appropriation in Gldani, called ‘Not Enough Building’. With building parts instead of classic domino tiles, players transform the given grid of a micro rayon into a disorganized sprawling, until they reach a dead-end and can not make a further move. Using the allegory of dominoes, the game interrogates the inhabitant-led transformations of Gldani, and the lack of a collective overview.
MistoDiya also participated with 17 other artists in the curation of Block 76: an ‘open apartment’ event with installations inside each home. Whether by clashing with ornately decorated interiors by means of a remote-controlled inflatable shark, or ambiguously merging with them through a trompe l’oeil photo installation revealing the original layout of an apartment before its inhabitant-led adaptation, the event exposed the singular richness of these interiors.
This might be one of the key points of the Biennial project: to bring attention to the existing context as much as to its interpretations by various architects, like an open invitation to further probe into current potentials and problematics. Even the installation of Alexander Brodsky, built on the roof of a multifunctional pedestrian bridge, was an opportunity to observe the melancholic beauty of the surrounding housing blocks and their glowing kamikaze loggias. Inside this bridge building, Russian architect Maria Kremer built a perched refuge from where to observe the city, extruded from the arcades of the pedestrian overpass.
Further along the bridge a photo exhibition gathered the work of eight photographers, focused on providing a broad context to informal architectures in Gldani. With photographs from different parts of Tbilisi as well as Georgian rural areas, the exhibition illustrated the social and political background to contemporary processes of inhabitation. Nika Mchedlidze photographed an abandoned car dismantling factory occupied by refugees - capturing the meeting of brutalist architecture and fragile informalities.
Georgian architect David Brodsky transformed his first-floor apartment into a late-night public meeting space: the Boiler. A staircase brought visitors directly from the street into his living room through an open window. “During and after the Biennial days, hundreds of different kinds of people passed into my house,” said David Brodsky. The “temporary sacrifice” of his home’s ownership was inspired by the secret apartment exhibitions held during the Soviet period. It created an ephemeral and intimate public venue through the apartment’s perforation and reorganization as the Boiler.
Biennial visitors were also invited to take part in a tour of the Mukhatgverdi cemetery complex, designed by architect Victor Jorbenadze a few years before he built the Palace of Rituals - known as a masterpiece of late Soviet Modernism. Built as a crematorium but never used as such, the decaying buildings have been transformed by local workers into a stone workshop, among other adaptations.
“After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the urban landscape of Gldani became a rough canvas for self-expression and led to the development of informal architectures driven by instincts, values and necessities. A thorough analysis of these expressions can contribute to healthy urban reforming, involving professionals and local communities,” Shukakidze continues.
The diversity of the week’s events, from exhibitions, installations and talks, to film screenings, guided tours and workshops, provided a multifaceted approach to the ‘Buildings Are Not Enough’ theme of the Biennial. Rather than defining architecture solely as a form-making and representative practice - like the previous Biennial seemed to advocate with the likes of Massimiliano Fuksas - this Biennial and the ones to come have an important role in establishing a direction for architectural and urban thinking in Georgia. By embracing the diversity of architectural practice, Tbilisi’s architecture Biennial revealed the many different routes that could be taken.