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In Memory of Victor Djorbenadze

A visit to his Wedding Cathedral

Rolf Gross

Victor Djorbenadze was one of the remarkable architects of the end of the 20th century. A native of the Republic of Georgia he lived and worked in Tbilisi. Because of the isolation of Georgia during the Soviet era, he has remained virtually unknown in the West, yet even a cursory examination of his last major building, the Wedding Cathedral in Tbilisi, shows him to be one of the great architects of Europe. The complexity of this building is remarkable. Specific Georgian elements harmonize with a sophisticated architecture brut, which orients itself on Le Corbusier, Hans Scharoun, and Frank Gehry. But it is Djorbenadze's courage to have built a modern sacred architecture under the restrictions of the Soviet era, that distinguishes the man and his buildings.

Djorbenadze was born 1924 in Tbilisi into a well-established, bourgeois family. His mother, Lyuba Svanadze, was a gynecologist, his father Nikolai died early. This background was undoubtedly the source of Djorbenadze's initiative and imagination. He was never a member of the Communist party, however during Brezhnev's era Djorbenadze clearly belonged to the nomenklatura of Tbilisi. Protected by Eduard Shevardnadze, then the chairman of the Georgian Communist Party and president of the Georgian Socialist Republic, Djorbenadze was named City Architect of Tbilisi. He died in September 1999 ridiculed and forgotten. These circumstances and Djorbenadze's homosexuality, explain why he was and has remained long after his death ostracized by the Georgian intelligentsia. But his connection to Shevardnadze permitted him to build what others would have feared to think.

I met Victor Djorbenadze by accident on the street in front of his office in 1980. He addressed me in fluent German. From the pockets of his heavy, threadbare jacket, he produced a set of photographs of his buildings. Chain-smoking Bulgarian cigarettes, he rowed with his arms happy to have found a foreigner who was immediately fascinated by his architecture. Every time he lit a new cigarette his head almost disappeared deep between his raised shoulders. With his tousled black hair and the cigarette dangling between his lips he looked like a strange bird making ready to fly off.

He persuaded me to a take ride with him to a cemetery chapel in the hills northeast of Tbilisi. The small, cubist building of raw concrete recalled Le Corbusier, a novelty in Brezhnev's slovenly Soviet Union. Two full-height windows opened onto a view of the 12th-century royal cathedral of Mtskheta. Djorbenadze smiled. "My customers—many are VIP party officials—may have long broken with their Christian heritage, but they will all pass through my hands!" He crossed himself from right to left and mumbled a pater noster. When I stared at him with in surprise, he sighed. "I have to ask my enemies' forgiveness. My profession sometimes forces me to walk over corpses."

This first encounter resulted in a friendship which survived the political and ideological upheavals of the following ten years. In Orwell's year 1984 during the reign of the secretive, senile Andropov, I again visited Tbilisi and discovered on my way into town a huge, modern cathedral under construction on a promontory on the left bank of the Kura. It could only be a building by Victor Djorbenadze. The taxi driver knew nothing about an architect by this name. – "A church?" said Merab. "Oh, you mean that ugly thing! These Soviet buildings are ruining our city." But a few days later he arrange a meeting with Djorbenadze at the construction site, which turned into an unforgettable encounter with Victor.

"What is this?" I asked, shaking Victor's hand, and he, without hesitation stealing my opening move, replied, "A Church!" I raised my eyebrows. "A modern church high above Tbilisi in Soviet Georgia? Visible to anyone? How is that possible?" Djorbenadze raised his shoulders and spread his arms palms up. "As you see, here it stands. It is cast in concrete and will outlive the Soviet Union. The Party will have to arrange itself with the Church, if they don't want to lose the younger generation. It is the future 'wedding palace' – you know the registrar's office where the young komsomol marries his girl friend. They now take their vows in a dusty office before a city clerk. Many follow this uninspiring event with an unofficial ceremony before a priest in a church. This building will provide a meaningful place to combine the two ceremonies under one roof."

Still incredulous—what a revolutionary idea!—I shook my head. "Who paid for this building?" With a smile Djorbenadze said. "The ZK! – the Central Committee of the Georgian Communist Party. Seven Million Rubles as of this month!" (about $10 Million US at the time). Djorbenadze chucked his cigarette butt, hunched into his jacket and lit another one. "The ZK asked me to build a new Wedding Palace, the old office building has been inadequate for years. I drew up the plans and presented it to Shevardnadze before the assembled ZK. They looked at the drawings and asked, like you did, 'What is this?' and I told them, 'A Church'. There was tense silence, and then tumultuous shouting broke out." He smiled at the memory. "After Shevardnadze had quieted the agitated parliamentarians, he said, 'We live far from the Center (Moscow). Build it Victor!'" Djorbenadze savored my surprise. "Shevardnadze is a thoughtful man who understands the dilemma facing the young generation. He agrees with my reading of the future, and besides he is a close friend of mine."

Djorbenadze led us through a side door into the massive structure. My physicist friend, who did not understand German, followed patiently. A long curved corridor, unfinished offices on its outer side. While the limestone-tile facing on the outside had been mounted, the inside was as still in the raw. Deep in thought Victor said. "You see, the Eastern Church has always had a different relationship with the secular powers than in the West. Constantine the Great had the Aghia Sophia built to glorify his imperial power, only then did he invite the Church to sprinkle Holy Water on the building." Victor straightened himself out and searched for my eyes. "When you come back in five years, this regime will have vanished!" I stopped shocked. This prediction was not only a dangerous statement at a time when extreme caution and distrust paralyzed the Soviet Union, it appeared gratuitous. Disregarding my uneasiness, Victor continued. "This revolution has kept us captive long enough. It has demanded blood and blood again. Let there be humanism among us, or we will drown. This building is my contribution to this renewal."

It was the 25th of May, 1984. Today, I don't have to describe what happened—or do I? Almost exactly five years later the Soviet Union disintegrated, shaken to its foundations by the death of twenty young Georgian women, whom the Soviet Ministry of Interior—with Gorbachev's consent—had most barbarically slaughtered in Tbilisi.

A broad spiral staircase led us into the main nave, an oval space visually stretched upwards by two soaring, elegantly curved columns. Between the columns a few steps led up into the apse. Djorbenadze pointed at the eight-sided, oblong ceiling, a "false dome" composed of overlapping beams. "I took this ceiling structure from the earliest Georgian houses." He did not know that this construction also roofed the fourth-century Buddhist temples of Central Asia. An oval bridge connected the columns half-way up, it would serve the choir. "The service of the Orthodox Church does not permit an organ or instruments, only the human voice may praise God." He told me to wait, climbed up to the bridge, and began to sing the beginning of the Orthodox liturgy. The acoustics was fabulous.

Meanwhile I inspected an octagonal fountain-like structure at the center of the nave. Its shaft reached down three stories to the very foundations of the building. "This is the Well of Djvari." Djorbenadze shouted from the bridge. Djvari, the 6th-century Church of the Cross above Mtskheta is Georgia's National Sanctuary, it is dedicated to Saint Nino, the Cappadocian woman missionary who brought Christianity to the Georgians in the 4th century. With a few strokes on a cement sack Djorbenadze sketched the metal sculpture that would crown this "Fountain of Life": two globes—or were they pomegranates?—one on top the other on which sat two peacocks and two pigeons, symbols of love and peace. The sculpture would be cast by Irakli and Gogi Otchiauri.

In the apse he touched the unfinished wall. "I love these raw walls. One can see the architecture. But I have contracted with Surab Nisharadze, one of the best artists in Tbilisi to cover the walls with murals. He will also install stained-glass into the eight windows above the altar." Two years later Djorbenadze sent me photographs of the murals and the interior decoration of the church. The pastel colors of the altar mural were a favorable change from the ubiquitous socialist kitsch of those years. But Djorbenadze had decided to leave the rear walls unpainted to please his sense for their sculptural purity.

In 1984 the ceiling above the altar was already finished. An open grid of heavy, curved, gilded I-beams that recalled the Gothic, carried a deep blue ceiling. Very beautiful as the cover of the high space! Djorbenadze, smiling about my delight, said. "To have these beams bent to my specification was one of the most difficult tasks of the entire project." He led us up a steep, spiral staircase, which ended abruptly in an open door. "The access for the Almighty." Djorbenadze laughed. "But from here you can see the triumph of the architect over the limitations of his resources. My greatest pride!" He pointed at the improvised seams between the sheet metal roofs of the main nave and the apse. "I don't have a computer to design intersections of complex three-dimensional surfaces. The roofers had to patch the gaps at their own discretion."

Returned to the nave he described his vision of the future use of the building. "I imagine that this church will be open to all religions. One day of the week an Orthodox priest will perform weddings, on another a Moslem Mullah, and on the third a Jewish Rabbi. Unfortunately this idea has not found many friends."

We descended into the two vast sublevels, large halls, galleries, one room was filled with destroyed kitchen equipment, tables, a number of gas stoves, all heavily damaged. Victor lit another cigarette and pointed with his head at the jumble of furnishings. "This was to be the kitchen for a large restaurant that the ZK insisted on. They want to have a tangible return from their investment. Wedding ceremonies do not bring in much money. My principal engineer and I one night went into the building and destroyed the kitchen equipment with sledge hammers." I raised my brows. He nodded. "This is the house of God, I will not tolerate to have it desecrated by money changers and commercial interests." – As it were, the kitchen was never rebuilt, but in 1989 a tacky discotheque squatted in the rooms of the restaurant. Today they too have vanished. "On the lowest level we already have a spontaneous art gallery," laughed Victor, "graffiti, religious drawings next to pornographic ones on the raw walls."

At the end of his tour Djorbenadze took us into his design office. He pulled out a floor plan of the nave. I looked at it from a distance. The interleaved elliptical shells, which surround the nave, first appeared to form an abstract mask with the two high-columns as eyes. On a second glance I had another vision. Staring embarrassed beyond his crouched figure I cautiously put it into words. "Victor, this floor plan looks like a cross-section through a female abdomen, the two spiral towers representing the ovaries and the nave the womb." Djorbenadze straightened up in amazement, then a broad smile crossed his face. "How did you ever guess that? You are the first and only person who has noticed this. You are absolutely right. A drawing in one of the gynecological books of my mother inspired this floor plan." – I shrugged, where did I know this from?

Victor, still shaking his head, explained the finer details of his design. "You see, the groom's party enters through the 'male' tower, which I gave an arcade taken from a palace of the Georgian kings. The bride's train ascends by way of the other spiral tower marked by six asymmetrical round windows." He smiled. "They meet before the altar. After the wedding ceremony, the young pair passes the 'Fountain of Life' and exits through the central door between the legs of the bell tower." With a spontaneous gesture Djorbenadze presented me with the floor plan. "Take this as my acknowledgment of your superior insight!" I later discovered that inside the "female" spiral tower Djorbenadze had written the Russian comment "Zal' Imyanaretseniya," a Soviet era circumlocution for "Baptistery"!

The main entrance was still boarded up. We walked around the building to the great semicircular entry staircase from where one enjoys a wide view of the Kura, the town, and the hills beyond. Here the two shells that embrace the elliptical core roll into the asymmetrical spiral towers. Between them rise the two high slabs that support the bell-cage. The stairs end on an access ramp. Djorbenadze stamped his foot on the ground and explained that the hollow sound we heard was a cistern which would feed a waterfall next to the female tower. – The waterfall was not to be. During the heated arguments about the financing of the building, the ZK canceled the funds for the required pumps. Half-way up the stairs Victor had placed a lonely column. In the medieval cathedrals of Europe the name saint of the town often stands on such a pillar. "I will place a copy of the Hermes by Praxiteles on this column. You know, the classical Greek sculpture of Hermes with the child in Olympia." I knew the Olympia museum well, but could not recall a Hermes with a child. What child anyway? – Months later I discovered the solution to this puzzle: the child of Hermes and Aphrodite is, of course—Hermaphrodite!

Apparently the casting of the Praxiteles sculpture was not successful. Djorbenadze later replaced it with a Georgian-Hellenistic sculpture of an Hermaphrodite, which was excavated in the old Colchis. Prettily gilded, he now greets the newlyweds of Tbilisi—who, quite naturally, don't have any idea of the significance of the naked saint nor of the intricacies of the building.

Victor invited us to his mother's apartment on ul. Ingurskaya for lunch, which he prepared himself. The immaculately orderly room was furnished with a Spartan, classical brass bed, a table surrounded by four Empire chairs, two crowded bookcases, and his drawing board piled with sketches of the details of the wedding palace. A frieze by Lado Gudiashvili, which he had rescued from a condemned building, circled the room's dark-red walls at half-height. Over lunch he described the raging debate about the financing of the building among the members of the ZK and in the community. With a sad smile he concluded. "Without Shevardnadze's protection I would not be sitting here with you." I asked him whether it would be helpful, if I were to publish an illustrated review of the wedding palace in an architectural journal in the West. He shook his head. "That time has not come yet." And then he smiled. "The cathedral has first to be exposed to our climate for a few years. I don't like new architecture."

Victor Djorbenadze died forgotten and disparaged in 1999. The neglected Wedding Cathedral is slowly crumbling. The time has come to rehabilitate the man and the extraordinary building he left behind as his legacy to Georgia's indestructible spirit of independence and courage. There is nothing like it in the former Soviet Union. Its models and counterparts are Le Corbusier's Chapel in Ronchamp and Hans Scharoun's Philharmonic in Berlin. And if one considers the history of the Wedding Cathedral, it may not have an equal anywhere.  

This essay appeared in June, 2002 as issue 6 of GEORGICA, the Journal of the Bagratoni Foundation, The Hague, NL The Journal is edited by Alexandra Gabrielli. A German version was published by Brigitta Schrade in the "Mitteilungsblatt der Berliner Georgischen Gesellschaft," Berlin, 2001.