Posted on 7 September 2012 | By Jennifer Walker
When we think of the great art nouveau cities of Europe, images of Paris’s Metropolitan and Barcelona’s Gaudi-lined streets come to mind. Even high up in the Baltics, Riga has firmly established itself as one of Europe’s iconic art nouveau cities, with its own particular brand of modernism.
Yet there is one city that is nearly bypassed on each and every list, whose name has only started to be recognised by art nouveau aficionados – Tbilisi.
Above: Narikala Fortress, Tblisi, Georgia. Photo: G. Gaeser, 2011
artes fine arts magazine
Many people have never heard of the capital city of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, a small country nestled between the Caucasus Mountains, the Black and Caspian Seas. Although the recent wars may have put Georgia on the media map, its artistic treasures are often overlooked.
Tbilisi is city rich in eclectic architecture, from its iconic old town dotted with medieval churches and galleried houses to the grand and austere structures left over from the Soviet Union. Yet when tourists and travellers visit the city, they are likely to overlook some of Tbilisi’s finest architectural gems – the Georgian take on the German Stil (Style) Modern movement, a parallel development of the French “new art,” or art nouveau. The curved motifs and iron-wrought ornamentation can be found throughout the city, hidden behind endangered flaking façades to shiny buildings that have been a victim of poor restoration work. The examples of Stil Modern are almost anywhere you look, but they’re either falling down or restored beyond recognition.
The architectural history behind art nouveau has no academic backing, and at the moment there is a lack of detailed research and knowledge, and as an art form there are only a select few who are aware of the importance of these monuments.
Art nouveau came to Georgia at the beginning of the 20th century through Russia, but it is also possible style came from Europe via the Black Sea to the coastal towns of Batumi, Poti and Sokhumi.
The arrival of art nouveau and the popularity of the movement are natural when you consider the architectural progression of a city like Tbilisi. Under the Russian Empire, which began in Georgia in 1801, artistic and architectural styles trickled down the Caucasus from Moscow and St. Petersburg.
During this time, the Russians began to rebuild the ruined Georgian capital, incorporating a variety of artistic trends that were in vogue over time, from neo-classicism to constructivism, and not to mention Stil Modern. The buildings in Tbilisi were initially designed in a style close to the buildings you’d find in St. Petersburg, but once the modernist movements from France and Germany penetrated Russia, it was only natural it would pass down to Georgia.
At the time, Tbilisi was stylistically following any European city, and art nouveau became incorporated into the style. There was a great disposition and interest towards modernist forms from local craftsmen and professionals, leading to the rise of many residential buildings that carry complex examples of the style.
The earliest documented art nouveau building in Tbilisi is a residential house on Vartsikhe Street (renamed Rome Street). This residential house was built in 1902 by Georgian architect Simon Klidiashvili and marks a classic example of early Stil Modern in the city with the omega-shaped balconies decorating the flaking, yet elaborate façade.
The neighborhood surrounding Vartsikhe Street is full of beautiful examples of Georgian art nouveau, and round the corner is number 36 Aghmashenebeli Street, whose façade is another classic example of Tbilisi’s modernism. This house was constructed a little later than its neighbor in Vartsikhe Street, in 1903, and was designed by an unknown architect. The painted entrance shows scenes from Georgia’s iconic medieval poem, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, by Shota Rustaveli (left). While the art itself isn’t classical art nouveau, per se, you can still appreciate its artistic merit, even though the interior is in an extremely poor state. The wrought iron staircase yields a beautiful example of art nouveau detail that could be found in the houses at the time.
One final stunning example of Georgian art nouveau is a neglected house nearby, 3b Ia Karagereteli Street (1903), with colour tile detail and subtle motifs on the tip of the curved roof. This is reminiscent of the Jugendstil (for “youth style“, since the new design motifs were likely to appeal to younger, more progressive tastes), buildings you can find around Darmstadt, Germany, rather than the classic, soft French style. Despite the aesthetic qualities of this residential building – the plaster is coming off the front to reveal the brickwork behind. As it stands now, the house has a lot of its original detail.
Such was the popularity of art nouveau in Tbilisi that not only new residential buildings erupted round the city, but also more commercial centres were being constructed in the Stil Modern, like the Apollo Theatre (1909) or the former “People’s House” of K. Zubalashvili (1907) which now houses the Marjanishvili Theatre, and was originally built by S. Krichinsky.
Tbilisi also became the administrative, cultural and economic centre of the Transcaucasia region, so new banks were constructed in the style, like the former house of Caucasian Officers’ Economical Society (1912), by A. Rogoisky, now housing the TBC bank, opposite the Marjanishvili Theatre, and the National Bank of Georgia at 3 G. Leonidze Street (1913), by M. Ohajanov.
Art nouveau details and renovations can be found all over the city. The former Tbilisi City Credit Society on 3 Pushkin Street was originally built in the 1870s and designed by German architect A. Saltzmann, but its interior was reconstructed in 1903 to follow the art nouveau aesthetic.
Even residential houses that aren’t strict to the art nouveau style have incorporated the design into their features, such as the wrought iron staircase in 17 Machabeli Street, by Armenian architect G. Sarkesian. The house may follow an oriental form rather than modernist contours, but there are small features to be found in the residence.
Despite Tbilisi’s modernist renaissance, these exquisite monuments are in severe danger of being lost to the world forever – and the worst thing is the general public knows nothing of them!
The decline of Tbilisi’s art nouveau heritage can be attributed to a variety of factors, but one key player was the Soviet Union. The decadent curves and elaborate details that distinguish Stil Modern were considered bourgeois and “a crime of ornamentation.” It is for this very reason that such little academic knowledge exists for the architectural movement, since under the duration of the Soviet Union, which ended in the `90s, it was considered “unimportant art” and received no scholarly attention.
Also, during the Soviet era, the once private residences became nationalised, which resulted in a change of function from houses to offices that altered their looks. Even in the post-Soviet era, the privatisation of these buildings still cause problems since either their owners cannot afford the correct maintenance or they prefer to demolish them in favor of modern structures for profit.
In the case of the private residences, many have been damaged due to neglect, pollution and inadequate maintenance. Of the buildings that still stand many plaster, mosaic and decorative elements are coming off due to precipitation, leakage and poor drainage. In many cases the façades are experiencing serious damage and some modernist buildings have been demolished around the city.
Art nouveau monuments are also victims of vandalism, both by residents and owners; not to mention the problem with theft, where features such as door handles, gates or details from metal stairs go missing.
While renovation is desperately needed for these monuments, in the case of Tbilisi there are also examples of poor restoration work that has damaged the buildings themselves or their unique features. The intricate details that come with art nouveau architecture require specialist attention, but current restoration projects on these buildings throughout the city are unable to maintain the original details of the façades.
Examples of magnificent art nouveau structures that have suffered inappropriate reshaping are the National Bank in 3 G. Leonidze Street; the TBC Bank on K. Marjanishvili Street and the Georgian Bank, on 3 Pushkin Street. These buildings may look brand new, but they have been rendered inauthentically and now project just a pale shade of their former grandeur.
Left: TBC Bank, 7 Marjanishvili Street. Architect, A. Rogoisky (1912). Former House of Caucasian Officers’ Economic Society.
The Apollo Theatre was one of Tbilisi’s most endangered monuments and the only movie theatre from the early 20th century preserved in its original form. But over the past few years, the building’s disrepair became critical. While there is “good” end to the Apollo’s story – in that it was restored recently – many of the original features have been lost, and the unique character of the building has disappeared under layers of plaster and paint.
In recent years, there have been efforts made to save Tbilisi’s modernist heritage. The “Art Nouveau Preservation Group” was set up in Tbilisi in 1997, with the aim to popularise and restore the art nouveau monuments, as well as solicit protection and to draw attention to the grave mistakes being made by improper restoration. As well as fighting for their preservation and protection, the group also aims to make further academic investigations into the topic of art nouveau buildings in Tbilisi after years of being ignored by art and architecture historians.
Recently, Georgian art nouveau has started to gain recognition internationally. The World Monuments Fund has included Georgian art nouveau on the list of the most important and endangered monuments in the world and since 2006 Tbilisi’s Stil Modern heritage has been included in the Brussels “Reseau Art Nouveau Network.” As of 2007, Tbilisi’s art nouveau has become a member of the Barcelona “Art Nouveau European Route.”
While both the world and Georgia are starting to take note of the importance of these endangered monuments, very few people are even aware of Tbilisi’s existence on the modernist map. Let’s hope that it won’t be too late before people start to take notice.
By Jennifer Walker, Contributing Writer-at-Large
I would like to thank Maia Mania for her help and knowledge in preparing this article on Georgian art nouveau, and I would like to credit the book by Nestan Tatarashvili, Art Nouveau in Tbilisi: Guidebook, map and routes (2008) for providing detailed information about these buildings.