Tbilisi, Georgia is hallowed ground for those initiated into the cult of Soviet Modernist architecture. One building in particular, the former Ministry of Highways, has a solid spot within the Soviet architecture zeitgeist, especially since being so heavily featured in Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, the recent seminal work on the style. Yet, somehow, on our first trip to the city, in December of 2014, we neglected to really take the time to explore it (and the multitude of other buildings) in depth. Maybe we were still giddy after just getting engaged, sick of getting hassled for taking pictures in Yerevan, or more excited about the Post-Soviet realness that is Chiatura. Whatever the reason, on our first trip to Tbilisi, we barely cast eyes upon its brutal wonders, from passing cars or in the distance.
I made it a point to see as many of the sites as possible this time around. I was stumbling around the Google in a random trip-related rabbit hole a week or two before we departed, and came across Brutal Tours, a company specializing in walking and photography tours around Tbilisi and other parts of Georgia. It was a remarkable serendipity to find them, and I immediately emailed them about what they could show us in the city.
Meanwhile, I had found this map, helpfully presenting locations and pictures of many of the sites we’d be interested in visiting (including many I hadn’t heard of previously!). Soviet architecture is really having a moment among more intrepid/off the beaten path types of travelers, and I was super happy to reap the benefits of it through this map. And I’ve mentioned the following website before, but this website is a great resource for finding Soviet modernist structures throughout the former USSR. The database is searchable and sortable by attributes like original building function and former Soviet state.
Helene and Maurice, the co-owners of the Brutal Tours operation, were extremely helpful and communicative during the reservation process, and were happy to put together a tour based on the places I was most interested in seeing. We met in Liberty/Pushkin Square during a break in the rain on what was possibly the wettest day in my travel career (later to be eclipsed by our Soviet architecture day in Kyiv, but that’s another story…) and started off on our packed itinerary for the day. We weren’t bothered a bit by the rain – in fact, we welcomed it. Gray, looming, Bond villain-types of buildings always look better shrouded in and surrounded by bleak skies anyway, right?
Former Technical Library (completed 1985)
Tbilisi University’s former Technical/Science Library was the first stop on our tour. Armed with complex marshrutka routes to get us from place to place, we rode a short distance from Freedom square to arrive at the moribund structure. Lacking the life it must have once had when students still occupied it, the building sat silent on one of Tbilisi’s long descents toward the river. It is long and narrow, featuring two large port holes in prefabricated concrete slabs book ending the structure. Between the two ends, the building resembles an accordion or a keyboard, with a line of closely spaced and totally exposed vertical support columns shaped like oars. And while there isn’t a great vantage point for taking pictures, the building itself is worth a quick visit (especially as it’s on the way from the center of the tourist part of town toward the bigger Soviet architecture draws located more on the outskirts of the city).
Former Ministry of Highways, current Bank of Georgia Headquarters (completed 1974)
Probably the best known building in Tbilisi (Soviet or otherwise), the former Ministry of Highways has long been a poster child for Soviet Modernist architecture and design. Impossibly towering over the Mtkvari River in a criss-cross of office corridors stacked on top of each other, the building is a geometric fantasy. It also happens to be one of the only buildings on this list that is still being used today – many others were abandoned after Georgian independence due to lack of funds for proper maintenance. This is where I would usually say I’d prefer to see the building in its original state, too much polish, yatta yatta pretentious nonsense, but the Bank of Georgia did a fantastic job refurbishing the building to suit their needs. I’ll take a remodeled old building over yet another Chinese investor-built, soulless monstrosity currently in vogue throughout the former USSR any day of the week.
There’s something about Soviet/Modernist auditorium/cinema design that just gets me going. We have noticed the style in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and Yerevan, Armenia, and this building further reinforced the fact that these architects knew how to combine fashion and function in their designs. Build with a natural downward slope for seating, and with a large interior wall for projection, auditoriums in the modernist style frequently resemble spaceships. This particular auditorium, with its extremely ornate exterior decorations, toed the line between modernist and futurist, though to be fair there is a significant overlap in the Venn diagram of those two styles. The Industrial Technical college is long gone, but its legacy remains – the attached buildings (former dormitories and classrooms) are occupied by IDPs (internationally displaced persons, or refugees) from nearby conflicts: Chechens, Abkhazians, and Ossetians are the most common. The area underneath the auditorium is vacant and open for exploring for the urbex-inclined, but do take note that people do live there, and they deserve the same respect you’d give anyone else.
Former Archaeology Museum (completed 1988)
This is another building that’s featured in the book I linked above. I had seen this building in 2014, from the window of our marshrutka running us from Tbilisi to Kazbegi, but it seemed inaccessible then. This, however, is not the case. The building is easily accessible from the main road via a dirt path. Before you reach the former museum, you’ll encounter the monument to Saint Nino, the patron saint of Christianity in Georgia. Saint Nino is so famous in Georgia that there is a saying that goes, “If you’re standing on Rustaveli Avenue (Tbilisi’s main thoroughfare) and shout ‘Nino!’, 75% of the women around you will respond.” Long story short, Christianity is a big deal in Georgia, and Saint Nino is attributed as being responsible for its introduction to the country. For better or worse, I should add.
The museum building itself is perfectly symmetrical (other than the odd bits crumbling off its edges), and rises out of the ground gracefully. It actually reminds me of the cave at the beginning of “Aladdin” with the lion that opens its mouth for Aladdin to walk in…anyone remember that? OK, I’ll move on. There is a great square sculpture at the building’s apex featuring some abstract soviet bas relief of god knows what, and underneath some fantastical Georgian typography that I believe reads “Archaeology.” The real treat of the building was in the rear (har har), where one is able to enter one of the museum’s old exhibition halls. Whenever the building closed it must have been in a hurry, and all of the museum’s shelves, tables, and even some old exhibit descriptions sit here in various stages of rot.
Saburtalo Housing District (completed 1976)
Not originally on our list of sights to see, but added gratis by our generous hosts, were the apartment blocks of the Saburtalo district – most well known for their mid air sky bridges connecting different blocks at heights as high as fourteen stories. The buildings were lived in, but not necessarily well maintained. Once we figured out the elevator in the building only ran after inserting coin fare for all passengers (the elevator toll attendant took his job very seriously from his hidden panopticon) the machine lurched up and shook from side to side before depositing us on the upper floors. Window openings had no windows, and residents strung their laundry precariously on lines strung from one building to the next. And while I don’t consider myself as particularly susceptible to acrophobia, I did feel queasy walking across a sky bridge over 100 feet in the air, swaying rather aggressively in the wind.
The sad state of the building has stayed with me. It seems clear that residents and authorities are aware of their dilapidated state, but no one is willing to do anything to make the buildings safer. They’re essentially a disaster waiting to happen – improvements can’t be made because of lack of money, residents can’t move for the same reason, so are resigned to stay there until the inevitable occurs.
We wanted to badly to enter the remains of Laguna Vere, what was once the most extravagant swimming center in Soviet Georgia. The structure is best known for the colorful mosaics lining its exterior, but the interior (from what we could see) is equally impressive, with modernist diving towers and brutal bleachers reaching as far as the eye can see. But where there was once chlorinated water, now is only rogue weeds growing as high as the pool’s edge. Our guide Maurice tried to bargain with some gentlemen working at an adjacent auto lot to let us in, but they couldn’t be torn away from their Mercedes G Class or chain smoking. We contented ourselves with walking the perimeter, vowing to make it inside on our next visit to Tbilisi.
One of the only remaining functional buildings on this list, this one’s a real stunner. I’ve always been attracted to shiny, colorful things (who isn’t?!), and this building’s facade is a Georgian rainbow acid trip. It would fit in well next to Seattle’s own architectural monstrosity, the Experience Music Project, built by Frank Gehry (of Guggenheim fame) in the 1990’s. The mosaic on the front of the building is the draw, as its architectural features are rather plain, but boy does the mosaic deliver. It’s located just north of the pedestrian only part of Aghmashenebeli Avenue, and just south of Marjanishvili Metro Station. Or, if you happen to be walking from the Dry Bridge to Station Square (about 3km, or 30 minutes walking), you’ll pass right by it.
We’re two guys on the go who have little patience for excessive logistics, so we booked our tour with Brutal Tours to maximize concrete viewing efficiency. Our tour lasted about four hours and visited six of the seven sites detailed above. Maurice and Helene arranged everything ahead of time, even our bus and marshrutka fares, so all we had to do was follow along. Our two person solo tour was $100 – a steal in our books, as we could have never seen everything we got to see on our own in that time frame. Maurice and Helene are also photographers, and happy to share photos from your tour. If you’re pressed for time and interested in Tbilisi’s best Soviet architecture gems, I would heartily recommend booking a tour with them. And if you happen to have more time, you can also join one of their tours to other parts of the region including Pankisi Gorge, Chiatura, and Rustavi. For more information on Brutal Tours, you can visit their site here, or visit Helene’s or Maurice’s photography pages here and here. On your tour, make sure to wear shoes that you don’t mind getting dirty, as mud is ubiquitous in the post-Soviet world, especially around abandoned places without direct road access.