The Hidden Architecture of Tbilisi, Georgia
Located in a deep valley, Tbilisi is a city of contrasts built along the riverbank of the Kura and it boasts a skyscape that includes twenty first century architecture. Situated in the Republic of Georgia, Tbilisi is the capital and has no relation to the Georgia, USA.
The architecture here marks a journey through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with balconies on the homes to unique Soviet structures, right up to the ultra-modern skyscrapers and bridges. The old is not overly polished either to be honest, unlike in many other cities that renovate to the point where buildings lose any sense of authenticity and while that has happened to a limited extent, especially in the section of the Old Town around the slopes of Narikala Fortress, huge portions of the city remain untouched by restoration projects.
There are acres of tired, graceful, old buildings with cracked walls and decades of layers of fading and peeling paint. Small and large homes with leaning balconies and ancient wooden doors leading to courtyards with family biographies dating back centuries. Right up my street!
My love affair with Tbilisi started in early 2018 and I returned in the October of the same year. Now based in the city for 6 months this has only grown my inner passion for the city, I love exploring it and I love finding those hidden coffee shops and for interior, architecture and street photography it is a little gem.
Over the last two years I have found myself drawn more and more to “hidden” architecture rather than abandoned or disused places, but they do come with a unique set of challenges. For example, what if that stunning staircase is hidden behind a door that has entry via a key fob only? Or what if the owner won’t allow you access despite your offer of being “quick” or offering cash in return. Despite these difficulties, I like the challenge and every place is unique. However, in a city like Tbilisi the environment and with it, the goal posts shift in a matter of weeks.
Some of the buildings that I have photographed here include entrance ways, cinemas, courtyards and old churches. I thought the best way is to break down my images into districts and talk about my photography challenges with each subject. I have noticed with Tbilisi, these spots can be hidden around any corner as you see below, this is a shot I captured in a new Hostel, hidden on G.Kikodze Street called Solo Lucky Hostel - who’s owner was kind enough to let us in to see it.
The old town was always a likely candidate for finding decay and interesting architecture, I started finding places around this area in March 2018. However, as each day passes the renovations are expanding. But there are still a few I like, starting with the Surb Nshan Church. Here there is nothing to shoot inside, but the external is superb - with lovely tones and details and my, that cool door!
I had more trouble here, sometimes the light is shining directly on the building and on other occasions cars, waste skips and the locals have prevented me from grabbing a shot, which I am still not 100% happy with. My Tilt-Shift dropped from my photography bag during a trip in April, and I need to get it repaired as the focus seems super soft on the top frame each and every time, but despite this I worked with the panoramic image and simply cropped it to show the area of interest below.
As you walk around Tbilisi you will always see old soviet classic cars as well as the unusual. A few weeks back, I spotted a courtyard with an old Cadillac in the perimeter on Instagram, so I went in search of it while leading the last of my Spring workshops - and it was a success.
The image is hard to shoot as you have to press your camera tight up against the wall that is behind the frame - best bet is placing it on a tripod and leaning around to catch a view of your composition. Either way it is a cool spot!
The Tbilisi development fund is being used to renovate large sections of the old town, an area that UNESCO itself once wanted to list as a World Heritage Site (2000). As far as I know, the Old Town remains on the tentative list, but is looking more and more unlikely to fulfil UNESCO’s ambition, given that since 2000, the City Hall planning department has granted permission to demolish numerous listed buildings in this historic area, and even since my first visit in early 2018 it has changed face numerous times.
For example, the first of my photographed locations from this area is the house on 18 Galaktion Tabidze Street- it received some of the renovation money and during my visit in October 2018 it was being re-painted. Since returning in April 2019, it is open to the public to see the results for themselves - be warned though, it is popular among the Instagrammers! Shooting here was relatively straight forward, this is a three-shot panoramic:
The next two I cannot provide the location to on an open blog post as they are residential homes. The first is unusual as it is in a residential building (that I was given the code for by a local), and although not large it contains an interesting set of murals in the entrance (ad a lot of dust). It is difficult to shoot as the hallway is narrow, so I opted for this “open door” shot to help frame the image - I had to be quick though, to stop tourists walking in behind me - finding “hidden” spots seems popular now indeed.
Situated in the heart of the old town the next is an example that is hard to believe, subsidence, decay and a collapsing staircase try to entice you into believing that this building is abandoned, however upon further inspection you will notice brand new front doors on the three flats or apartments that are contained within.
It is difficult to believe that people live in this residential building, as even from the outside you can see it leaning left (the hill leans left as well) which makes it awkward viewing. The owner of the bottom flat came and spoke to me during my second visit here, a kind gentleman indeed - I wished him luck in the future, I hope his home gets repaired (somehow).
Taking photographs here is difficult as the leading lines are all over the place. The building leans over as I mentioned earlier and the stairs and tripod position are subsequently uneven but also the door in the entrance is left of centre and worst of all, if you are not careful in camera and in post processing you will have horrendous lens flare in this, the entrance hall shot:
It is not much easier up the stairs, the decay is unreal, and you want to capture it. But you will need to show patience to do this. The walls lean, the light pours in from above (again attracting lens flare) and the steps are uneven.
I recommend a lower tripod position and using something not so wide. Maybe a 16mm as it will show up less distortion than something like an 11 or 12mmm lens.
Lens flare tip:
Place your hand off to the side of the lens where the lens flare shows up. So, in this instance, I placed my hand above the lens (but not showing in frame) and it reduces the flare down significantly. You can then complete the job much easier in post processing, in the image below I was left with a little green tinge - which was a quick and easy fix.
Another option that I have seen people do is to shoot a second frame covering the flare with a finger, however I think this works better for direct light or sun.
The most popular spot “unknown” spot in the old town is the town house at 9 Geronti Kikodze St, the hardest thing here is picking a time to shoot as many people come to see this set of staircases and it is popular with the walking tours throughout town as currently the door is left open and some businesses are based here.
This is a three-shot panoramic top to bottom, again difficult because of the light and shadows that were thrown around the frame. That ceiling though!
My final image in this section comes in the form of the entrance hall at Asatiani 58. It photographs well but is perhaps not the finest example. And there are always parked cars outside the door, but I love the colour combination and the decay here.
West of the river Mtkvari:
The disused cable car station in the centre of Tbilisi is just off the famous Shota Rustaveli Avenue. The architect K.Chkheidze designed it and it was constructed in 1958-1960.
I visited, luckily twice in 2018 as now this spot is covered in graffiti, trash and sits looking very depressed. There has been many murmurs about the future of this unique building, with promised renovations etc and it is now in desperate need of this.
I hope it is pulled back to life very soon, as it is a beauty and in a very central position that is an eyesore if not repaired. This photo was taken by my friend Daniel Lister and edited by myself - I have a similar version as well as I revisited the site in October 2018, however the graffiti would have taken hours of photoshop work.
Next up, with have the jewel in the crown, the Former Hotel London turned residential apartment block and it is now one of the famous vintage entrance halls in Tbilisi.
The memorial plaque by the entrance states that the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun stayed here during his visit in 1899, but there were many other famous visitors as this was the first hotel of its kind in the city. A place where the rich and famous stayed if they visited the city.
It is amazing to see this building in pretty good shape, despite more than century of history including the Soviet times and various revolutions. Full of beautiful paintings and all of the stairs were made from the luxury Italian marble, the railings were made in Germany and originally there was a huge chandelier in the center of the main hall. I do wonder how this stunning building survived a new face lift (from a bucket of floor paint) in the Soviet times.
Photography here is simple, attend early or later in the day - the light is beautiful and produces a stunning photo if framed correctly and shot using a tripod (but please be respectful of the residents!).
These next four images are mine, taken over a few visits in both 2018 and 2019. Again, to respect the residents and not “hog” the stairwells with my tripod.
This was a place I came across whilst walking around the steets a couple of months back, a difficult to access entrance hall. I loved the colours and tones - however, I do wish to return at some time to photograph when the sun is not setting and my shutter speed is not 30 seconds and my ISO not 400.
Finding a gem in Tbilisi that few people knew about or had photographed seemed difficult however, in October 2018 after seeing an article on a blog from an American living in Tbilisi I came across one that I had only seen 1 image of before and I thought it was long gone. However, after much discussion with the blogger/locals and finding out the location it was near - it appeared on our trip map for October 2018.
Getting in was the bigger challenge, it turns out it is locked inside another building and getting inside would be difficult. We wrote out a few lines on Google Translate and asked the caretaker to read it - he replied “no, it is across the street”. We kept trying, talking, asking and eventually he calls someone and puts the phone in my hand. A better English speaker was on the line, and after asking what I wanted he kindly agreed to let us in for 90 minutes.
It turned out to be a contact that would grow and that I would need to speak to many times again as in November 2019 I released my photography tours to Georgia, and this was to be a location that I would use as a key spot in 2019 - however, there was to be six months before I was to return.
I didn’t anticipate that other people may attend the site, finding places and architecture like this is super popular now and someone apparently went in the December of 2018 and marked the floor of the amazing room next door with a rubber tripod foot, and the caretakers were fuming upon my return in the April of 2019.
The entertainment hall is situated inside the training centre of a famous dance group in Tbilisi and the building is used every day and guarded. Ideal conditions to run photography workshops - you always need permission places in these tours.
It took some convincing though to change the owners mind, some translating through my contact here in Georgia and his original offer was 1600 Gel per visit for my groups was insane. So, we went back and forth and eventually came up with a more sensible figure per person and one that I could happily allow in my workshop budgets.
I have since returned a further five times to take each of my workshop groups and each photographer loves the location and the shooting opportunities here, it is unique. A couple of the group have even managed to capture unique images of the dancers practicing as my relationship with the owner and caretaker improves. I have now included this location as part of my one-day walking tours in Tbilisi.
It is hard to photograph; the room is huge and the ceiling high. For this a tilt shift lens clearly helps, allowing for less “dead” floor space and maintaining the architecture of that ceiling in the frame.
East of the river Mtkvari:
I mentioned the increased tourism, the increase of people/photographers and traveling Instagram users wanting to find unique places to take imagery. My theory is that people are simple a little bored of the norm. The next location is the prime example of locals fighting back.
This staircase is situated inside a residential apartment and when I first visited in October 2018 it was simply a locked door to get through, the lovely residents would open it for you and one (whilst I had my tripod set up outside her door) even offered me a coffee.
Roll forward again to April 2019, and the door had been replaced with a new fob in AND fob out system, which makes things tough. But the residents have had enough, one lady simply wants her home and hallway back. And who can blame her? Huge tour groups try to turn up and get inside this building every weekend and the address was listed on Instagram, something I strongly disagree with - it is someone’s home.
Photographing spiral staircases is never easy as you battle with your tripod legs, so they are not in the frame and fight with camera angles and composition. I opted for one in October that was off-centre, leading your eye around the image and to the middle of the frame.
Just as I was leaving the building I spotted an angle that I could shoot using my tilt-shift lens (I like these ones) and I squeezed myself into the corner to shoot a panoramic in vertical format of the beautiful staircase. I love the finished result and feel it really sweeps round the frame.
Next is this stunning abandoned cinema built in the early 1900s. This is another that is surprising to still exist post-USSR. When the Soviet Union expanded its territory, this architectural style was considered a crime. Most buildings pre-dating the Soviet Union were simply destroyed & flattened, erased from the public view and from our memories. This one miraculously still stands, just.
Taking photos here is incredibly difficult, the cinema hall is dark and stripped and not so photogenic in my eyes. But the entrance is stunning as is the floor directly above. However, the entrance is incredibly difficult to shoot as all day light enters the building and looks nasty due to being “sprayed” around by the stained-glass windows as well as making patterns on the floor.
I have been here four times already and the buildings caretakers know me, so once I have fixed my lens and we hit the overcast days of autumn here in Georgia, I shall be returning again to make a “proper” shot, a photograph that I can print.
Other architecture of interest:
Below I have listed a few other architectural gems that I have either photographed or that I have visited. First up we have The Chronicle of Georgia - situated on the shore of Tbilisi Reservoir.
Over in Saburtulo district (where I currently rent an apartment until November) there is a housing block that is unique by style and it contains a sky bridge. Worth photographing as it always looks varied under differing lighting conditions.
My final photograph comes from the North of the city and it is the former Archaeological Museum - The museum housed monuments, discovered by the archaeology excavations around Tbilisi. Unfortunately, it is no longer possible to get inside as someone now lives here.
Tbilisi - Hidden Architecture Walking Tours
Are you heading to Tbilisi this year? Looking for a weekend break?
Well, as I am based in the city until November (and now planning on a March 2020 return), I have decided to launch 1-day walking tours of the city, on which we discover some of these hidden gems and take to photographing them. During these tours you have my guidance and help, and we discuss post processing over a spot of lunch. You can find out more about my these 1-day tours by visiting my EXPERIENCES PAGE or head direct to the walking tour page by clicking here:
In addition, you can now find me over on Tripadvisor, where you can read some of my reviews and also book to join me as we photograph the hidden gems of Tbilisi.
As I am based here for a few months, I shall be doing a part 2 to this blog containing my Summer finds and also a creatively named part 3 which will have modern architecture shots within - one of which I am planning as we speak.
Thanks for reading, see you soon.
I shot these images with the following gear: (please be aware that these are affiliate links , by using them, if you purchase equipment or goods it costs you nothing more but I do receive a little kick back which supports me and my work).
Two Lenses used for these images:
Don’t forget I used a drone:
And my NEW gimbal: