31 December 2011

The Traditional Balconies of Tbilisi

On our first night in Georgia, literally minutes after disembarking our flight into Tbilisi, we were taken on a whirlwind tour of the city. Our energetic taxi driver, keen on practicing his English and his steering in the right-side seat of his newly acquired British car, took us around to all the main sights. Saint George atop his horse in the square, Mother Georgia with her sword atop the city on her hill. He circled back, “I will show you my favorite house in Tbilisi!” and brought us to a spotlit row of buildings. I can’t say I know exactly which one he pointed to, but they all made an impression on me. “Typical Georgia architecture,” he noted. Each house was sweetly elegant, with multiple balconies supported by diagonally beams beneath. They reminded me of the underside of a paper parasol. The simple beauty of the houses endeared me to the city and to Irakli.
When we revisited the row in the daytime, I could see just how weathered some were. “I would like to renovate it,” he had said. “Renovate” seemed too light of a term. In fact, all through the city, we came across balconied houses that had crossed the line between diamond in the rough and crushed diamond dust. The most amazing part was that so many of them showed signs of life inside. We’d walk beneath a balcony, marvel at the age and deterioration of the wood beams and then hear laughter emanate from inside. Apparently, many people refrain from making any renovations on their houses if they are considered historic monuments, preferring to hold out for an investor who’d like to come in and fix it all at once. Unfortunately, these investors rarely set their eye on these buildings for restoration purposes.
For the past few years, there’s been a fight to protect traditional balconied houses that are at risk of being demolished. An article written in 2008 by BBC, which cited facts that I would wager are little changed today, spoke about the fight for “Tbilisi’s soul.” A deputy mayor at the time (still in office now) said that he wanted to reduce the number of protected ‘historical monuments’ from 1,700 to 500. Too many of them were simply beyond repair, he explained. I have to say - in my opinion – there’s some validity to this. Poverty, two hundred plus years of life and the earthquake off 2002 have all taken their toll on these 19th century houses. It’s difficult to blame anyone living in almost unlivable conditions to turn down an offer from the city or a private company. Even if it is easy to hate the soulless apartment block put up in its place.
At least in the Old Town, restoration seems to be taking place. Tourist brochures map out a “Traditional Balconied Houses of Tbilisi” walking tour and quote poets who have written about the multigalleried city. New buildings at the base of Narikala fortress, nearby the historic sulfur baths, have been built in a similar style. New, fresh wood balconies have replaced crumbling ones or have been added a little anachronistically to modern buildings.
When I googled “Tbilisi balconies,” I found a press release issued by an energy credit company that cited all the benefits of putting more traditional balconies on buildings. Complete with graphs and charts, they explained how they were designed with precise relation to the sun, in order to cool a room in the summer and facilitate heating in the winter. Even the decorative fretwork hanging down had a noted benefit. Hey, there’s gotta be a reason so many were built this way.
The balconies of Tbilisi, wooden, glass, wraparound, open, closed, old, new, are truly unique and absolutely beautiful. As the city moves into its new phase of high-gloss modernity, I honestly feel that they will try to keep this charm intact. Call me naïve, but I think that conservationists' fears that Tbilisi will lose all its character through demolition is unfounded. You walk around this city and feel like they know what they have going for it – even if they don’t have the time or money to really get around to polishing it all.
Not everything can be saved, but the beauty of these balconies is simply too obvious to overlook. I mean, they’ve gotta know that this stuff is a tourism gold mine, right? Irakli’s favorite house may or may not make the final cut. I’m not sure if he’d rather see it fall further and further into ruin or simply torn down. This is a city in transition and it will be interesting to see where all the chips fall in ten years or so.


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