Among locals, the former Georgian Ministry of Highways in Tbilisi is apparently known as ‘Whose Cock is in Whose Ass?’ When I visited last year, however, it was difficult to work out what exactly inspired this fetching nickname. Was it the disorientating design, a Tetris stack of cantilevered concrete slabs, or was it the stench of nepotism? After all, one of its two architects, George Chakhava, was also Georgia’s Deputy Minister of Highways: the very man who commissioned the building.
Completed in 1975, the 18-storey building is a few kilometres north of central Tbilisi, where it juts out from a steep bank of the Kura River, one of those unlikely megastructures that flourished from Vilnius to Yalta in the dying years of the Soviet Union. Chakhava liked to talk about the Ministry as a forest, its branch-like blocks taking up a minimum of floor space, ushering nature up and around its supporting columns. A decade ago, the building was all but ruined, but has been spruced up since the Bank of Georgia acquired it eight years ago. Now, sadly denuded of the dangling vines that once made it seem more Tropicália than Eastern bloc, its intended lushness has been brought into check. An El Lissitzky-inspired paean to the unbuilt works of the 1920s, from Kazimir Malevich’s ‘architektons’ to Georgy Krutikov’s flying cities, it remains faintly dreamlike and out of time.
In 2007, the Ministry was conferred with ‘Immovable Monument’ status status – a designation that is both reassuring and alarming – under the National Monuments Act. A few years later came a kind of riposte: one evening, perched on one of the building’s buttresses, the artist Agnieszka Kurant launched a delicate maquette of Chakhava’s monument, suspended by helium balloons. Floating away, over Tbilisi, it grew smaller, a castle disappearing into the sky.