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by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Apr 28, 2023
Giorgi Khmaladze (b. 1982, Tbilisi, Georgia) remembers going on vacations as a child with his parents—an architect and painter father and English language teacher mother—building sand castles on a beach and pretending to have out loud conversations with famous architects and artists from the Renaissance times. People around him were impressed and puzzled but to him, it was nothing extraordinary because his father, who worked often from home, always talked about them as if they were his buddies. So, architecture and art were always on his mind, working on his art projects, typically made of construction paper, from an early age. Khmaladze also helped his father at his small private practice, which he started after a large state-owned design institute he used to work at was dissolved, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Naturally, when the time came to apply to university there was no question about what profession he wanted to master.
Khmaladze studied architecture at Tbilisi State Academy of Art, graduating in 2004. The same year he was accepted to the prestigious Architectural Association School of Architecture. But the cost of living in London, unattainable for him at that time, prevented him from going. Staying in Tbilisi, Khmaladze resisted getting employment at local development or architectural companies, as the large residential complexes they worked on lacked any creativity. He preferred to compete in international design competitions. To pay for his time and efforts he started a small design studio focusing on designing websites.
The architect’s first breakthrough came with the winning proposal for the Georgian Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, an interior space of about 250 square metres with steel structural elements. Coordinating the construction was exciting. This high-profile project attracted attention to his talent and opened many doors for the first time. By then he rekindled his dream of studying abroad and the following two years were spent at Harvard, graduating from the Graduate School of Design in 2012. The architect’s first freestanding building was the Gas Station/McDonald’s in Batumi, Georgia. It won the 2014 ArchDaily Building of the Year Award in the Commercial Architecture category and the 2014 Architizer A+ Awards in the Commercial Retail category. His other highlights include Coffee Factory and Headquarters (2019) and the mixed-use complex Alliance Highline (under construction); current projects range from private houses, restaurants, wineries, and retreat hotels to residential and commercial complexes, all in Georgia, and a retreat hotel with a winery in Armenia.
In the following conversation with Giorgi Khmaladze over a video call, between New York and his 15-person office, occupying a full-floor space at a building of his own design in Tbilisi, we discussed his experience of working at the Milan office of Michele De Lucchi, how to convince clients to invest in public infrastructure, and how to push architecture forward; he also observed that his buildings tend to disappear.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: Did you ever work for other architects before opening your own practice?
Giorgi Khmaladze: Not really. I apprenticed for three months at the Milan studio of Michele De Lucchi. I went there in the early 2000s when Georgia started coming out of the economic crisis and wanted to put itself on the map. A number of foreign architects, including Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas, Jürgen Mayer H., and Michele De Lucchi were invited to build. There was an ambition to modernise and integrate with Europe. There was also a program to train local architects by sending them to those offices that received projects in Georgia. I took advantage of that. There was a competition and I won an internship at Michele’s office. It was in 2008-09. His office did the Peace Bridge, Presidential Palace, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, all here in Tbilisi. I was there only for three months because I could not obtain my working visa. While there I worked on the bridge design. He was very involved and there was a lot to learn from him. He started his career as a product designer, so he is very much detail-oriented. That’s what I learned from him the most. I also learned about office organisation which I was never exposed to.
VB: In the past, you told me that you don’t bring your preconceived notions to your clients. You said, your clients start the conversation and you then respond. Could you elaborate?
GK: I discovered that every time I went ahead and developed ideas before really understanding the project I would go in the wrong direction. [Laughs.] So, now I avoid working on any design before fully understanding the actual requirements. Even when a client brings me to a site and asks: “What do you think? What can be done here?” I am very careful with those projects. Here in Georgia, it happens a lot. In fact, this is very typical. Of course, we do have ideas that we could develop. As an architect, you can’t help but start thinking about various possibilities on a particular lot. But I try to avoid these situations because such clients tend to delay critical decisions about the program. They prefer to think along the way, which could be disastrous. You really need to know what you are building ahead of time.
Of course, there are outside forces that are beyond our control. For example, our three-tower Alliance Highline project changed its program twice, both times already during the construction phase. First, we designed three residential buildings with regular apartments for sale. Then the client decided to change them to small rentals. And later one of the towers was changed into a hotel. Now, because another hotel is being planned nearby, the client is contemplating changing the hotel tower back to rentals. These things happen and they are beyond our control but the more we can extract from our clients in the very beginning the better. Of course, even clients often don’t have control over the final product, as the real estate market is quite dynamic.
VB: What is the reason behind these towers’ changing profiles?
GK: We wanted to provide a variety of options for terraces of different depths—from very compact to as large as the apartments themselves to take advantage of our warm climate. These large terraces surround the apartments, the buildings bulge out. Of course, I was also thinking about this complex’s overall silhouette because it is very prominently situated and is visible from many parts of the city.
VB: You once said, “You can’t make anything distinctive if you simply follow your client’s brief. You must go beyond what you are asked.” Could you touch on your design process?
GK: Of course, clients provide very dry briefs and every architect wants to turn them into something exciting and meaningful. So, we are always looking at finding space for creative solutions. Often, we question briefs and we negotiate with our clients. And they do adjust. Here in Tbilisi, we have a lack of public space. In recent years a lot of it was lost to new private developments that were often chaotically planned. Sometimes even sidewalks are compromised. So, we try to convince our clients to invest in public infrastructure. Because in the end, it will benefit their projects as well. Sometimes they get intimidated and they are resistant to losing any of their areas such as the most lucrative first-floor commercial potential. But then they realise that meaningful public spaces attract and have the potential of becoming social magnets. And that brings value to the projects. So, our greatest ambition is about giving something back to the city and benefitting the client at the same time. It would be a mistake to just follow the client’s brief. The more you educate clients the more they understand how their projects can benefit the city and the city will likely provide incentives to encourage clients to improve the public realm.
VB: Your Coffee Production Plant in Tbilisi is half building half landscape. Where did this idea come from?
GK: From the site. The idea was not to disturb that beautiful pristine park-like place. In fact, the client asked us to create such indoor working spaces where you would forget that you are in Tbilisi. It is the landscape that enabled us to fulfil this goal. That’s why the building is not designed as an abstract bulky object. It is about creating interesting spaces with views toward the sky and greenery, both within and immediately outside.
VB: This idea of preserving the site and integrating architecture with landscape has become quite fundamental.
GK: I agree. What I noticed is that with every new commission, our buildings tend to disappear. [Laughs.] They go underground. They set back. They hide under a landscaped roof.
GK: Yes, I think so. Ever since I was a child, I was very close to nature. We lived next to a large park. And now, as an architect, I try to use whatever tools are in my hands to either preserve or recreate nature as much as possible. And here in Tbilisi we don’t have enough greenery.
VB: Did you think of any architectural precedents?
GK: Of course, I am aware of landscape-oriented projects elsewhere. But I can’t name a particular project that guided me. I was driven by ideas and visions that I accumulated over time, subconsciously. So, often I design something that I think comes out of my own imagination but later I may realise that I have seen something similar elsewhere. I think this is quite typical for architects. In a way, everything we design is a result of what we have seen before. And we don’t always refer to specific references. I think that’s good because it allows us to be creative and use ideas only like springboards to go further.
VB: What would you say your work is about? What kind of architecture do you try to achieve?
GK: You are trying to pinpoint ideas behind my projects and thinking. But look at my work, it is vastly different from one project to the next. I try to avoid defining my work. I think the key point for me is to try to change people’s minds about architecture and what it can do for them. For so many years, here in Tbilisi, at least since the collapse of the Soviet Union, little attention was given to the quality of urban space. For years there was quite a bit of chaos and neglect of public space. Before that, at least, there were clear regulations. Now there is no general understanding and no demand for good quality public space. I want to change this mindset by setting up an example with our own projects. To show how our built environment can impact our way of life quite literally. Spaces could be more welcoming and more inspiring. This is my main objective. And then architecturally, of course, we want to be innovative, bold, and spatially challenging. I want to use every one of our projects as an opportunity to create something unknown and to keep experimenting.
VB: This is what you say to your potential clients to get work, right?
GK: Actually, we don’t have to hunt projects. Clients come to us based on what they have seen built in the country or the city. So, I did not have a chance to develop any good marketing skills. [Laughs.] People usually come to us because they have either visited our projects or seen them published. My ideal client is someone who has no expectations of how the project will look like. That’s important and the clients we have had so far all want to be a part of an experimental approach with an interesting but undetermined result. I am not interested in developing a recognisable signature style and they are not interested in commissioning me something they have seen elsewhere.
VB: What your clients recognise as your architecture is a degree of freedom in your work processes. Right?
GK: Perhaps. There is also a tendency to challenge structural conventions. By now we earned a certain trust. Our clients know that we will overcome challenges. We have the experience and the level of expertise necessary to complete very complex projects. Georgia is a very small country and people know our work. What I like about Georgia is that we are evolving. The economy is growing. Our developers are in competition with each other and they want to experiment with different ideas.
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