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Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, is over 1500 years old. Tbilisi, and Georgia as a whole, although surrounded mainly by Muslim countries, has always leaned towards its Christian neighbours. This is why Georgia preferred being enslaved by Russia to being incorporated into the Muslim world. Tbilisi's rich architectural heritage has traces of the most powerful empires: Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Turkish and Persian, yet it retains its own peculiarity and originality, its own independent place in the world’s cultural heritage. Whilst this aspect of its architecture is well known to international scholars, the architecture of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries has not yet been as extensively studied as earlier periods.
Despite Georgia being a colony of Russia, thanks to its favourable geographical location and proximity to the Black Sea, Georgia also established close contacts with other parts of Europe. Georgians travelled to Europe, mutually beneficial relationships developed, and young Georgians began to attend European universities. As a result, Art Nouveau, which had conquered European architecture by the end of the 19th century, appeared in Georgia at the beginning of the 20th century. As in Russia, it became known as "Modern". The slow development of capitalism, economic backwardness and a nearly non-existent construction industry contributed to a thriving Georgian craftsmanship that persisted for a longer period than in the rest of Europe, and reflected the popular character and taste as well as local customs, traditions and lifestyle. Georgian craftsmen and artisans formed a corporate body in Amkari, which even existed in the medieval period.
Owing to Georgia's unhampered contacts with Europe, the new style spread rapidly, not merely to the capital, Tbilisi, but also to other towns in Georgia: Batumi, Poti, Sokhumi, Gagra, Kutaisi, Kobuleti and Dusheti. The style of Art Nouveau became very popular at this time. Even a superficial overview of the impact of Art Nouveau in Georgia reveals that it was a style that became equally popular amongst the rich and poor, architects and constructors alike. Although the houses of wealthy citizens naturally differ from those of ordinary people in terms of the use of expensive building materials and their prestigious locations, they are all equally beautiful.
There are numerous examples of Art Nouveau style buildings in Tbilisi. Although most surviving works are residential dwellings, other types of buildings can still be found: for example the “Apollo” cinema (1909), a school (1910), a shopping complex (1903), and a bank (1902). Amongst the residential dwellings are: 1, Al. Chavchavadze St. (1913); 12, Chonkadze St. (1905); 4, Chonkadze St. (the beginning of the 20th century.); as well as a technical college (1913). Further examples include residential dwellings and other buildings: 3/5, Galaktioni St. (the beginning of the 20th century); 6, Javaxishvili St. (the beginning of the 20th century); 4, Kikodze St. (the beginning of the 20th century); 3, Kodjori St. (1905); as well as a conservatory (1904); and a maternity ward (1912); a house 10, Krilovi St. (the beginning of the 20th century); a theatre (1907); 37, Rustaveli St. (the beginning of the 20th century); 28, Ninoshvili St. (1904); a tobacco factory (1909); a house 39, Tcinamdgvrishvili St. (the beginning of the 20th century); and a children’s hospital (1906).
According to documents and photos from the historical archives, the first example of Art Nouveau was a pavilion commissioned by the oil-rich Nobel brothers for the Jubilee Exhibition of Agricultural and Industrial Products in Tbilisi in 1901. It was designed by famed artist and sculptor Jacob Nicoladze. Unfortunately, this pavilion no longer exists.
The traditional wooden balconies of Tbilisi's 19th century houses were originally located on the main façades; however, as Art Nouveau spread, these balconies moved to the back of the houses and adopted some non-traditional decorative elements of the new style. The existence of these rear balconies illustrates both local influences on the predominantly international style of Art Nouveau as well as the harmonious coexistence of European and traditional styles.
Art Nouveau was so popular in Georgia that the reconstruction of the facade of Tbilisi's oldest caravanserai (built in 1650, but subsequently destroyed and rebuilt several times) was carried out in Art Nouveau style. Some of Tbilisi's traditional 19th century houses were also reconstructed in this style during the beginning of the 20th century
Unfortunately, many buildings were damaged during the Soviet period or fell victim to major repairs or natural calamities. We have lost doors, gates, mosaics as well as stained glass from many houses. Sometimes there are clear traces of alteration. The difficult political and economic conditions in Georgia make it difficult to preserve and save these buildings. Neither the poor tenants nor owners can take proper care of them. Many wonderful works have already been lost without trace, and many continue to be lost.
Art Nouveau architecture in Georgia is part of Europe's cultural heritage; however, due to a lack of care and attention this heritage may disappear before the European public even learns of its existence.