The Mysterious Tbilisi Courtyards
Published by The Cultural Spotter
By Alyona Kustovska
It will never stop embarrassing me in Tbilisi: few garishly renovated streets are always full of tourists but when you turn to any side street from restaurants, hotels, souvenir shops, various tradesmen gazing on you, you might be alone and only cats jumping and staring on you. However the most interesting sights of the city are used to be outside from the main touristic routes. And one of them is mysterious Tbilisian courtyards.
People often name this type of courtyards ‘Italian’, but it were rather Persian caravanserais which influenced to Georgian tradition structure of houses. Unlike the both of them mostly square shaped and surrounded by solid stone arcades, the Georgian ones will impress you by unpredictable shapes, light and elegant wooden arcades richly decorated by carving with unique combination of Classicist and Oriental motifs; crazy combination of numerous superstructures, overhanging bridges connecting houses , spiral staircases, glazed loggias, patches of various materials used during renovations, picturesque bunches of pipes and wires, riot of greenery ( thanks to the wet Georgian climate) – the effect is breathtaking.
Typical Georgian houses have huge balconies on facades. The balconies were used to be the place of gathering and entertainment. People had tea, breakfast, dinner and sometimes even slept on the balconies. On Sundays Tbilisi inhabitants would keep an eye on the city life from their balconies. During the 19th century the Russian imperial politics provided the construction of houses with mostly neoclassicist facades without traditional giant balconies, but these official faces of the houses successfully coexisted with the traditional courtyards inside. Next years the Art Nouveau style has left it’s impact in the architecture of courtyards themselves. The crossroad of cultures shaped the unique face of Tbilisi and made it’s people tolerant.
Inhabitants of the courtyards often tell that their neighbors are almost families for them; they are always ready to help each other, or just to spend time around the table in the middle of courtyard or on someone’s balcony eating, talking, singing songs and playing board games. Yards are always full of children running and playing here.
By the way, it was not their own choice to live so close to each other. In the beginning of 1920th when the Soviet regime established here, the living space of wealthy citizens used to be reduced by so called ‘uplotnenie’ (compression): private apartments were forcibly settled by additional residents in them. Several families often were forced to use one shower and one tap with water out-of-doors. And now the conditions of life of most of them don’t getting better in the new century. These houses are decaying, their inhabitants don’t have enough money to renovate 19th century structures, and Georgian officials don’t care.
When somebody notices me standing and sketching, almost every time he or she goes out and proposes to bring a chair for me, a cup of coffee, a glass of wine or a bottle of lemonade. One man gifted me a drawing of his child. People are used to know well the history of houses they live in, proud of it and gladly tell it to me and make a small excursion around their home. Nobody asked me to go away from the private property even when I come up on their balconies. Entrance doors of the houses are always open.
This beauty and this way of life are going to die one day. People are leaving their decrepit homes. Dirt-encrusted, decrepit and wasted by years of neglect, buildings of Tbilisi have long been desperately in need of serious renovation, but the usual technique is to knock down the original building then to reconstruct it around a reinforced concrete shell re-faced by old bricks, in a rough approximation of its former self. The structures usually carry an extra floor, often topped mansard-style by uniform roofs made from cheap Turkish tiles. According to customers’ or builder’s tastes, without any proper laboratory researches the plastered facades have been renovated with cement lining and new paint; the metal details have been coated. A lot of authentic details were lost. Tbilisi is losing its face.
A couple years ago, when Georgia was more economically successful, you could leave the city for the couple of months, then return and see – johnny I hardly knew ye – a construction site instead of several houses you’d fallen in love with. Building normatives are simplified for the purpose of preservation from corruption, but now customers can legally and paying no bribes destroy 100-years old house. But all these sad things are the real life of the city, not the streets with souvenirs. Enjoy it, deepen in it, while it is still alive.