When wandering around the older neighbourhoods of Tbilisi, one easily stumbles on hidden corners. These mysterious passages often lead to leafy and wooden-rich courtyards. The origin of these architectural gems can be found, once again, at the crossroads of cultures that is Georgia. When the country in the 19th century became part of the Russian Empire, imperial neighbourhoods with neo-classicist and cosmopolitan arose next to the older quarters. Sololaki, south of Liberty Square and bordering Mount Mtatsminda, might be the clearest example of this style. These facades often came with the trendy in style French balconies, ready to house Tbilisi’s bourgeoisie. Yet, these did not accord with the wishes and traditions of most Georgians. This is when Georgia found itself at a junction of crossroads again. These ‘modern European’ facades were clearly made to impress and aligned with the streetscape of other cities within the empire, while the courtyards were to meet with the colloquial and informal lifestyle of the Georgians.
Those courtyards were (and are) typically a gathering of wooden structures around a small plaza, sometimes just portrayed in a small tangle of alleys, but in other cases with a leafy retreat, accompanied by a small garden or a fountain. This ‘traditional’ Georgian housing structure, replaced by modern European facades on the front side, is primarily influenced by the Persian caravanserais, with the developed need of interaction, negotiation, and spending time together. While caravanserais almost always were square shaped, this is not the case for the Georgian backyards. As stated, they might carry out some unpredictable pattern, more looking like a vector of small alleys, with overhanging bridges, arches, staircases, exterior galleries, and other wooden, glazed and stony structures. It provided Tbilisi with a certain tolerance, from a static and luxurious outside, to more relaxed, informal, and intimate inside, at the same time creating a unique atmosphere. The facades on the streets were rivalling with the architecture in other big European cities, while the backyards provided an intrinsic oriental character.
During the Soviet times, the Georgians were eating up the romantic Italian movies that seeped into their live-worlds. The movies provided an idea of Mediterranean European life, complete with the informal Italian lifestyle of balconies, courtyards, and open-air retreats. It was in that period that Georgians began to name their courtyards ‘Italian’, as they recognised their own way of living and culture with the one portrayed in those Italian movies. Perhaps, it could also be a way of clinging on to something intrinsically European, despite the fact the structures itself are more Persian than anything. In today’s modern times, those courtyards first and fore mostly perform a symbolical function of the past. While they may still provide a place for interaction, they do not always match well the current fast life on Tbilisi’s big avenues, including the infamous traffic congestions. Some may be found in an ever-more decaying state, waiting to collapse or to make a place for modern structures. Tbilisi would definitely lose one of its unique faces if the courtyards disappear, as they form part of its unique cultural heritage.
(Special thanks to Edisher Baghaturia)