11 December 2023Georgia

A Step Towards Sunny, Beautiful and Cheerful Architecture

The history of Georgian post-constructivism

by Tamara Amashukeli
View of Tbilisi© National Archives of Georgia

The perception of the Soviet past stands out as one of the most pressing and controversial issues in today’s Georgia. Within this perception is a conflicting sentiment that unfolds across various realms, notably impacting architecture and urban planning. The desire to become liberated from the weight of the Soviet legacy sometimes takes on “iconoclastic” shapes, while Soviet-era architectural monuments may become sacrifices to this aspiration. In her article on Georgian post-constructivism, Tamara Amashukeli, a professor at Tbilisi’s Ilia State University, demonstrates that the architects in 1930s Soviet Georgia retained a certain level of artistic liberty within an increasingly constricting framework of officially approved forms. They accomplished this by drawing inspiration from a broadly interpreted classical heritage – both Western and Eastern – and by upholding the tradition of Georgian architecture, which emphasizes the harmonious integration of buildings with the surrounding landscape.

Buildings from that period, which contributed significantly in shaping the appearance of Tbilisi and other cities in Georgia, now fall victim to the thoughtless urban planning policies of the post-Soviet era.

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The first decades of the 20th century play a unique role in the history of architecture. On the one hand, this period is marked with a multitude of architectural styles and the exploration of innovative directions. The introduction of new materials and technological advancements expanded the possibilities of architecture, leaving a profound impact on its development. On the other hand, in countries governed by totalitarian regimes, architecture, much like art, was co-opted into the service of the ruling authorities. As a result, the creative autonomy of architects and artists experienced severe limitations.

Undoubtedly, modernism emerged as the hallmark of the new architectural era, although in the 1930s, classicism regained popularity and not exclusively in totalitarian countries. It was perceived as an old style, familiar and intelligible to the masses, with the capability to create comprehensible metaphors through stately monumental buildings. Classical architecture became a source of certainty and stability, which was crucial for a world undergoing large-scale transformations. There is a widespread belief associating this style solely with the architecture of totalitarian regimes, seeking to assert themselves with full expression and confidence, to spread their ideology, confirm their legitimacy, and captivate the masses with their power. Still, it would be more accurate to consider this a characteristic style of the era, which can be seen not only in Rome, Moscow, and Berlin, but also in Washington, London, and Paris.

Stylistically, neoclassicism in the 20th century can be divided into two major movements: progressivism and historicism. These, in turn, can be conventionally termed conservative and modernist neoclassicism.

“Conservative neoclassicism” traces its origins to the architecture of Ancient Greece and Rome, incorporating the proportions, compositions, and overall structure of classical architecture. This branch of neoclassicism does not shy away from new materials and technologies. Instead, it embraces them enthusiastically, although it predominantly emphasizes similarities with classical architecture. Architects aligned with this movement, therefore, frequently draw inspiration from imitations and replicas. Simultaneously, in Russia during the same period, the school of Ivan Zholtovsky gained strength and became enormously influential. Its founder had a special passion for Neo-Renaissance and neoclassicism. Similar projects appeared in Georgia, for instance, the building of the Tbilisi balneological resort (designed by architects Y.  Zhitkovsky and M. Kalashnikov, 1937), the Tbilisi Circus (designed by architect M. Neprintsev, 1940), the building of the Armenian Drama Theater in Tbilisi (designed by M. Kalashnikov, 1936), and others.

“Modernist classicism” opts for transformation and integration of the old into the new, particularly considering factors such as new technologies, materials, and the economic efficiency of construction. Accordingly, a number of architects were striving to find a balanced solution between history and modernity. A tendency towards simplification can be qualified as one of the main trends of the neoclassical wave of the 1930s. Architects of modernist classicism (also known as “naked” or “simplified classicism”) endeavored to blend the large-scale, monumental, pompous, symmetrical compositions characteristic of classicism, with the general schematic and simplified architectural details associated with avant-garde architecture. The goal was to ensure that the details of both movements remained recognizable. At the same time, their synthesis was intended to be neither artificial nor arbitrary and, most importantly, it was meant to convey a meaningful message.

Another attempt to reconcile classical and modern architecture occurred within the framework of the Art Deco style, which emerged in the 1920s and gained particular popularity in the United States, although Soviet architecture, exemplified by the Moscow high-rise buildings, is sometimes classified as Soviet Art Deco. In general, Art Deco is marked by an unrestricted amalgamation of different architectural styles, including Mexican, Indian, African, and Egyptian influences. Soviet architecture, constrained by strict definitions of classical heritage, could not fully embrace the movement, as these constraints undermined the main principles of Art Deco: freedom and diversity. Nevertheless, some traces of this style are also found in Soviet architecture from the 1930s over the post-constructivist period. During that time, the concept of classical heritage was understood quite broadly. Not only were elements of modern architecture incorporated but also archaic forms (such as Egyptian and Mesopotamian) along with the national classical heritage of the Soviet Union republics. As the style of “socialist classicism” developed, however, this broader scope progressively narrowed and what could be considered classical heritage became more strictly defined. Priority was given to the heritage of Ancient Greece and Rome, although the guidelines set “from above” were not always clearly defined, allowing for some deviation in certain cases.

Post-constructivism is an intermediate style that emerged and spread between 1932 and 1937 at the intersection of constructivism (1917–1932) and “socialist classicism” (1937–1954). Historians and architects generally give little attention to it, considering it a transitional stage. Its most characteristic feature is considered to be an attempt to enrich constructivist architecture to some extent. The architecture of post-constructivism retains the volumetric and spatial structure typical of constructivism, along with its laconic forms, its linearity, the ribbon glazing of stair landings, the playfulness of spatial arrangements, and the simplicity of walls. At the same time, this style is “enriched” with elements of classical architecture: a simple profile cornice, framing of open spaces and an “order.” The result is a rather voluminous, articulated, experimental, dynamic architecture that aims to break down stylistic boundaries and seek greater freedom.

Georgian post-constructivism aligned with the general Soviet trends; however, unlike in Russian post-constructivism, there was less experimentation in Georgia. In the executed projects, the key features of post-constructivism were manifested with relative subtlety. Expressiveness and the emphasized contrast between horizontal and vertical planes (solid and glazed, heavy and light, rectilinear and rounded) – the primary modes of expression in both constructivism and post-constructivism – are softened to some extent in Georgian architecture. Among the noteworthy examples of Georgian constructivism is IMEL, a branch of the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute. Here, the main facade, typical of the “Stalinist Empire style,” is juxtaposed with the prominently accented round portico facing the courtyard (Tbilisi, Rustaveli Avenue, designed by architect A. Shchusev, 1938).

The Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin Institute, Tbilisi (designed by Alexey Shchusev, 1938)The Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin Institute, Tbilisi (designed by Alexey Shchusev, 1938)© National Archives of Georgia

Another interesting example is the upper section of the Government House of Georgia (now the Parliament building) with hypertrophied elements borrowed from Georgian architecture embellishing the facade of the building (Government House/Parliament, designed by architects V. Kokorin, G. Lezhava, upper section, 1933–1938).

The House of Government, now Georgian Parliament Building, Tbilisi (designed by Viktor Kokorin and Giorgi Lezhava, 1933–1938)The House of Government, now Georgian Parliament Building, Tbilisi (designed by Viktor Kokorin and Giorgi Lezhava, 1933–1938)© National Archives of Georgia

Another remarkable structure is The Fashion House, which is adorned with a gigantic order featuring capitals shaped like lotus flowers (Tbilisi, Saarbrücken Square, designed by architect G. Khimshiashvili, 1936).

The Fashion House on Saarbrücken Square, Tbilisi (designed by G. Khimshiashvili, 1936)The Fashion House on Saarbrücken Square, Tbilisi (designed by G. Khimshiashvili, 1936)© National Archives of Georgia

Since the early 1930s, there has been active development along Merab Kostava Street in Tbilisi, linked to the improvement of Heroes Square and the construction of highways leading from Heroes Square to the district of Vake, Station Square, and Saburtalo. Several sequentially erected buildings can be classified as Georgian post-constructivism. They include the notable “Eleven-Storied building,”

The “Eleven-Storied building” apartment block, Tbilisi (designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov, 1939)The “Eleven-Storied building” apartment block, Tbilisi (designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov, 1939)© National Archives of Georgia

the first building of the Technical University of Georgia (formerly known as the Institute of Railway Transport Engineers and later as the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin State Polytechnic Institute),

The First Building of the State Technical University, Tbilisi (designed by Мikhail Neprintsev, 1941)The First Building of the State Technical University, Tbilisi (designed by Мikhail Neprintsev, 1941)© National Archives of Georgia

and the administrative office on Kostava Street, the so-called “Georgia Tea.”

The administrative building of the “Georgia Tea” trust, Tbilisi (designed by Mikhail Neprintsev, 1936–1941)The administrative building of the “Georgia Tea” trust, Tbilisi (designed by Mikhail Neprintsev, 1936–1941)© National Archives of Georgia

The project for the administrative building of the “Georgia Tea” trust at 41 Kostava Street (formerly Lenin Street) was designed in 1936 by architect Mikhail Neprintsev. Construction took place from 1937 to 1941. The architectural appearance of the “Georgia Tea” administrative office’s facade is shaped by the combination of various spaces. The compositional center of the main facade is a tower accentuated on the first and second floors by a giant portico with paired Corinthian columns and topped with an attic carrying an open vaulted gallery. The building’s architecture features an interplay of different spaces, asymmetries, and geometrical shapes. Plasterwork and painting in most of the building are quite modest. The first floor and the columns are finished with stone. The capitals of the columns and the ornamentation of the balcony railings draw inspiration from national architecture. In this building, the clear, laconic forms characteristic of constructivism are no longer evident. However, the symmetry, excessive decorativeness, and stereotyped elements reminiscent of the “Stalinist Empire style” are not yet present either. Similar design solutions can be observed in the “Moscow Hotel” building (designed by architects A. Shchusev, L. Savelyev, O. Stapran, 1932–1935) and the residential building of the Academy of Sciences in Kyiv (designed by architect A. Nedopaka, 1936).

One might also classify the first building of the Technical University of Georgia (designed by architects M. Neprintsev and N. Glazkov, 1937–1956) as post-constructivism, considering its architectural rhythm, expressiveness, and its attempt at a non-traditional combination of classical and modern architecture.

The building occupies an entire block, with the facade facing the intersection of Merab Kostava and Simon Chikovani streets being of particularly careful design. The main compositional accent of the façade facing the square is a cylindrical space, adorned with paired round pilasters and divided by vaulted windows. The rounded, streamlined shapes of this part of the building contrast with the angled geometric shapes of the corner facade. The corner facade, situated around a semicircular platform framed by two staircases, takes the shape of a truncated triangle and consists of three planes accentuated by the central portico. Not only do the facades exhibit different shapes (geometric, angled, rounded, and streamlined), but they also differ in processing. The upper part, added later, is more ornate. It is more decorative overall and clearly steps beyond the typical post-constructivist tendency of the 1930s to moderately decorate facades. The lower corner façade is different. Its architectural composition is modest, simple, and laconic. It is obviously defined by features characteristic of constructivism, such as geometricity and architectural dynamics created through horizontal and vertical lines. In alignment with new requirements, the facade becomes richer with rustications, pilasters, orders, cornices, although these details of a simple profile serve as “moderate decoration of the building.” Similar architectural solutions can be found in the building of the Regional Police in Kiev (designed by architect P. Savich, 1934), in the NKVD residential building in Kiev (designed by architect G. Lyubchenko, 1934–1935), or in the building of the Regional Communications Department in Khabarovsk (designed by architect M. Belevantsev).

A long sleeve of the building stretches between these two distinct facades along Kostava Street, naturally following its curve. The first floor of the concave facade is finished with massive granite rustication, supporting a flat central part decorated with pilasters. This central part is marked by rectangular windows and connects the three floors.

The building as a whole perfectly integrates into the landscape. The shape of the construction and its relationship to the terrain substantially determined the development of this territory. The curve of the Technical University building is mirrored not only in the shape of the university’s second building located opposite on Kostava Street, 69, but also in the contours of residential buildings (Kostava street, 71, Beijing (Pekin) Avenue, 2) and the “Eleven-Storied building.”

In 1939, the construction of an apartment building commenced at the intersection of Chelyuskintsy street and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin street (now Queen Tamar avenue) and Merab Kostava Street). Designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov, the project stood out for its substantial volume and scale of construction. In 1930s Tbilisi, the 11-story tower was the city's tallest structure and so, to this day, it is still commonly referred to as the “Eleven-Storied building.” The principal facade of the extensive arched building (165 m long), facing Heroes Square and Kostava Street, is segmented into three parts. Each section possesses an independent composition, including its own compositional center and facade ornamentation, which at the same time seamlessly blends into one overarching composition and introduces diversity to the building's lengthy facade.

Similar to the Technical University building, the Eleven-Storied construction exhibits geometric precision, laconicism and moderate ornamentation. This building, along with the administrative office of the “Georgia Tea” trust, showcases an interplay of planes and a contrast between vertical and horizontal lines, set against modestly plastered walls and decorative elements. Comparable projects with similar features can be observed in other cities across the USSR.

Today, the building of the “Georgia Tea” trust is nearly in ruins, with only the façade remaining intact. The elements that define the architectural appearance and character of the building – an interplay between different spaces and planes – have been completely compromised. The additional structure added atop the “Eleven-Storied building” has stripped away its compositional clarity and succinctness. The redevelopment of Heroes Square and the chaotic growth of the block behind the building have dramatically altered the overall perception of the building and its surroundings.

The proper assessment of the historical, urban and cultural significance of the architectural heritage and its accurate interpretation constitutes a challenging mission, which unfortunately proves impossible in today’s circumstances. In fact, before our eyes, not only individual objects but entire architectural ensembles are being demolished. As an example, we can cite the buildings described above. The IMELI building was preserved only through the immense efforts of the city’s residents. However, the radical, thoughtless and unmotivated intervention of the city authorities significantly transformed its appearance – a glass tower was added to the building, the rear façade was changed and the interior was completely modified.

In contemporary Georgia, the Soviet legacy elicits mixed reactions. Undoubtedly, Soviet architecture, even under censorship constraints, managed to produce compelling works that significantly influenced the aesthetics of Georgian cities. By the late 1930s, the creative experimentation and individual solutions associated with constructivism were no longer permitted. Instead, a rigid framework of the Stalinist Empire style took hold, imposing a unified approach that banished creativity and individual expression from Soviet architecture. Even though Georgian post-constructivism was comparatively less articulated and experimental than its Russian counterpart, the works from that era are notable for their unconventional and intriguing solutions.

In the Soviet Union, buildings were erected to glorify the grandeur, power and invincibility of the USSR. Although the Soviet Union is no longer around, its architecture endures, serving as the poignant chronicle of a state where not only people but also architectural styles were subjected to repression. This transcontinental country, founded on a false unity of its parts along with its architecture, remains an inalienable, albeit unenviable, element of our past. Destroying buildings will not help us change history.

Translated from Russian by Kun

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