What can we learn from Georgia’s forgotten master architect?
Rising from the banks of the Mtkvari River, the structure dominates the landscape like an enormous abstract sculpture. Its ritual function is unmistakable: it is the size of a cathedral and clad in the same warm stone used in Georgia’s medieval churches. It also happens to be exuberantly phallic — a giant cock and balls against Tbilisi’s ancient skyline.The Palace of Rituals, or Wedding Palace as it is universally known, is the wrong building in the wrong place at the wrong time: a cathedral built in the atheist USSR, a Soviet celebration of Georgian national heritage, a cultural innovation in an era remembered largely for conformity. It is the work of Viktor Jorbenadze — nicknamed Jorbusier for his love of the French-Swiss master — an architect of genius whose daring and provocative buildings defy categorisation. Just like the now-forgotten moment that produced them.
Jorbenadze’s peculiar masterpiece shows the USSR and its modern architecture in a new light. Despite the chasm that separates the Brezhnev years from the modern West in terms of aesthetics, mores, and economics, Soviet architects in the seventies were as concerned with the problem of “placeless” architecture as any globalised city today. Behind the Iron Curtain, a parade of drab, mass-produced towers marched relentlessly from Vilnius to Vladivostok. It took someone like Jorbenadze to subvert this. His work is neither Old City quaint nor tower-and-slab modern. That it is neither of those things is what makes him special. He built big, but with an eye to what surrounded him — a kind of contextual monumentalism. His designs evoked local traditions without fetishising them, creating an alternate route between too precious and too placeless.
In the late seventies Georgia was by far the best place to live in the Soviet Union
What makes the bold experimentation of the Wedding Palace surprising is not only its design but its dates: commissioned in 1979 and finished in 1984. Across the Soviet Union this was the Era of Stagnation. The time of the gerontocracy, of ageing politburo members catching their deaths watching military parades, of tumbling living standards, drab fashions and stifling censorship. Except, that is, in Georgia. In the late seventies Georgia was rich — as rich as the capitalist countries of southern Europe. Flush with Moscow subsidies, a booming tourism sector and a massive black market, Georgia was by far the best place to live in the Soviet Union.