Ministry of Highways

Opened in 1975 as the Ministry of Highway Construction, this icon of Soviet architecture stood abandoned after the collapse of the USSR until it was acquired by the Bank of Georgia in 2007. After a complete interior and exterior renovation in 2010-2011, the 18-story building currently serves as the bank’s headquarters.

Architect Giorgi Chakhava was Minister of highway construction in the 1970s, so he was both the client and the lead architect of the project. His idea for the design is rumored to have been inspired by an unrealized building by Czech architect Karel Prager.

The structure consists of a monumental grid of interlocking concrete forms. Five horizontal units contain office space and are supported by three cores, which house vertical circulation elements like stairs and elevators. Three units are oriented at an east-west axis, at a right angle to the slope; two are north-south oriented, along the slope. The design is based on a patented concept named the “Space City method” (Georgian patent certificate # 1538). The primary idea is to provide more space for nature by reducing the building’s footprint. Chakhava likened his utopian Space City to a forest, with the vertical cores serving as trunks and the horizontal elements the canopy. The concept that the landscape or nature “flows” through under the building was used by other architects, too. Le Corbusier worked theoretically on the “house on pilotis” and realized this idea for example from 1947 on the Unité d’Habitation. Frank Lloyd Wright used a similar idea at Fallingwater in 1935. Glenn Murcutt used the proverb Touch This Earth Lightly literally in some of his designs. A current example is the Musée du quai Branly by Jean Nouvel in Paris, where a garden lays beneath a building.

The unusual design reflects a rediscovery of avant-garde architectural ideas, particularly Russian constructivism of the 1920s (El Lissitzky’s “horizontal skyscrapers”), while also incorporating elements of Brutalism – evident in the use of modular units, exposed concrete (now controversially painted over), and visually apparent segregation of functions. Montreal’s Habitat 67 housing complex exhibits a similar design pedigree. Space City can perhaps be categorized as “post-constructivist,” with the Ministry of Highways one of its most successful examples.

Udo Kultermann, a German author, also sees a formal connection to the user of the building: the external structure represents its internal use by referring to streets and bridges, the business of the Ministry of Highways. Nikolai Ouroussoff, the New York Times architecture critic, described the building as: “Rising on an incline between two highways, [its] heavy cantilevered forms reflect the Soviet-era penchant for heroic scale. Yet they also relate sensitively to their context, celebrating the natural landscape that flows directly underneath the building. The composition of interlocking forms, conceived as a series of bridges, brings to mind the work of the Japanese Metabolists of the late ’60s and early ’70s, proof that Soviet architects weren’t working in an intellectual vacuum.”

In 2007 the building was conferred National Monument status under Georgia’s National Monuments Act.

Unless otherwise noted, photos are scanned from “Ministry of Highways: A Guide to Performative Architecture of Tbilisi” (Sternberg Press 2013), edited by Joanna Warsza.

 

Ministry of Highways: a guide to the performative architecture of Tbilisi (Columbia University Avery Library)

Ministry of Highways: a guide to the performative architecture of Tbilisi (Columbia University Avery Library)

 

under construction, 1974

under construction, 1974

1973 rendering of the building with parking along the Mtkvari (unrealized due to changes in the city's plan)

1973 rendering of the building with parking along the Mtkvari (unrealized due to changes in the city’s plan)

section, 1975

section, 1975

waterfall set into the hill, completed 1976

waterfall set into the hill, completed 1976

postcard of the ministry shortly after its completion (courtesy Making Up Postcards)

1980s postcard featuring the ministry (courtesy Making Up Postcards)

"Decorative Art of the CCCP" magazine, 1987. Although acclaimed in the design community, many locals still refer to the building as "ვისი ვისაშია" ("whose [cock] is in whose [ass]")

“Decorative Art of the CCCP” magazine, 1987. Although acclaimed in the design community, many locals still refer to the building as “ვისი ვისაშია” (“whose [cock] is in whose [ass]”)

The abandoned ministry prior to renovation (copyright Simona Rota)

the abandoned ministry prior to renovation (copyright Simona Rota)

following renovation, 2010-2011 (courtesy Bank of Georgia)

following renovation and painting, 2010-2011 (courtesy Bank of Georgia)

an unrealized seaside hotel  designed for Yalta, 1967

an unrealized seaside hotel designed for Yalta, 1967

Proposal for extension, 2006

Proposal for extension, 2006

Unrealized proposal for another Space City on the outskirts of Tbilisi, 2006

Unrealized proposal for another Space City on the outskirts of Tbilisi, 2006

the upper entrance of the Bank of Georgia (courtesy mimoa.eu)

the upper entrance of the Bank of Georgia (courtesy mimoa.eu)

 

Sources

Ministry of Transportation in Georgia,” Architectuul.com.

Warsza, Joanna. (2013) “Ministry of Highways: A Guide to Performative Architecture of Tbilisi.” Sternberg Press.

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