Architectural highlight in Tbilisi

The Tbilisi Skybridge residential complex in the Georgian capital Tbilisi is known worldwide for its breathtaking connecting bridges at dizzying heights. Locals appreciate them above all as the fastest footpath between the districts of Saburtalo and Nutsubidze.

Brücken in schwindelerregender Höhe sind das Markenzeichen der Tbilisi Skybridge / © Foto: Georg Berg
Bridges at dizzying heights are the trademark of the Tbilisi Skybridge / © Photo: Georg Berg

On hot summer days, the climb up the public serpentine roads can be very strenuous. Those who know their way around therefore use the first building in Saburtalo, travel to the 14th floor for 20 Tetris (7 euro cents) and reach the exit in Nutsubidze via open bridges between the three buildings. This saves you 20 minutes! The bridges are located on the 14th floor of the lowest building and on the 12th and 10th floors of the others.

Die Stadtteile Saburtalo und Nutsubidze von Tbilisi liegen am Hang und sind durch den Gebäudekomplex der Skybridges bestens miteinander verbunden / © Foto: Georg Berg
The Saburtalo and Nutsubidze districts of Tbilisi are located on a slope and are perfectly connected by the Skybridges building complex / © Photo: Georg Berg
Der obere Zugang vom Stadtteil Nutsubidze aus zu den Tbilisi Skybridges. Unter der letzten Brücke befinden sich die Überreste eines terrassenförmig angelegten Gemüsegartens  / © Foto: Georg Berg
The upper access to the Tbilisi Skybridges from the Nutsubidze district. Under the last bridge are the remains of a terraced vegetable garden / © Photo: Georg Berg

Popular architecture for 50 years

The architecture of the residential complex was groundbreaking 50 years ago. It combines housing estate and thoroughfare and represents a fusion of private and public space – a motif that is repeated everywhere in Tbilisi. Despite the distance of 11 kilometers to the historic city center, the bridges of the building complex continue to attract visitors.

Die meisten Appartments in den ursprünglich zu Sowjetzeiten gebauten Wohnblocks sind jetzt beliebte Eigentumswohnungen der langjährigen Besitzer / © Foto: Georg Berg
Most of the apartments in the residential blocks originally built during the Soviet era are now popular condominiums for their long-time owners / © Photo: Georg Berg

The building, originally designed as the “Shatili” residential complex by architects Otar ‘Toni’ Kalandarishvili and Gaioz ‘Gizo’ Potskhishvili in 1974, was considered ultra-modern at the time. It differed from the usual Soviet brutalism and used Georgian design elements. The mahogany wood and horseshoe-shaped façade elements are a nod to the carved balconies and shushabandi glass galleries in the old town of Tbilisi. Originally, it was even planned to use the hot water supply from the natural hot sulphur springs after which Tbilisi is named (Georgian tbili = warm).

Viele der als Glückssymbol geplanten hufeisenförmigen Fenster wurden teilweise mit Beton gefüllt und durch rechteckige Kunststofffenster ersetzt / © Foto: Georg Berg
Many of the horseshoe-shaped windows planned as a symbol of happiness were partially filled with concrete and replaced by rectangular plastic windows / © Photo: Georg Berg

Over time, most residents have remodeled their homes by adding semi-legal extensions and filling balconies with bricks to create extra space. The result is a colorful jumble, with the facade of each apartment revealing something about the family that lives there.

Unusual elevator arrangement for harmonious coexistence

The residents of the residential complex can coexist peacefully with tourists and passers-by, as the public elevator is only started with one coin per person and only has two stops: on the first floor and on the 14th floor, where the connecting bridges between the buildings are located. Although the stairwell is not locked, it is not an alternative because the door to the bridges on the 14th floor can only be opened with a chip card for residents.

Vor Mzias Büro ist ein Spielplatz für Katzen. Die Frau betreut seit Jahrzehnten den öffentlichen Aufzug der Tbilisi Skybridge / © Foto: Georg Berg
In front of Mzia’s office is a playground for cats. The woman has been looking after the public elevator of the Tbilisi Skybridge for decades / © Photo: Georg Berg

We set off on our own by metro and changed to the Saburtalo line at Station Square. It’s not far from the State University metro station and you can soon make out our destination among the normal prefabricated buildings. Luckily, Demetre, a student who spoke fluent English, came up to us when we reached the Skybridge houses and explained everything to us. For 10 lari (3.50 euros), he even offered to give us an exclusive tour of the building and provide all the coins we needed. He went to Mzia, a woman who lives next to the elevator and has been taking care of its smooth operation for a long time. He exchanged the 20 tetri coins for the outward and return journey with her. The elevator only works with these coins, which have become rare. As a tourist, you hardly ever have to deal with the small tetri coins, as you already have to contend with the Georgian lari bills.

Die Funktionsweise des Aufzugs erschließt sich aus den Anleitungen in Georgischer und Kyrillischer Schrift nicht wirklich. Nur gut, wenn man ortskundige Führer hat / © Foto: Georg Berg
The instructions in Georgian and Cyrillic do not really explain how the elevator works. Only good if you have a local guide / © Photo: Georg Berg
Die glaslosen Fenster im Aufzugschacht wurden einfach aus dem Beton ausgeschnitten / © Foto: Georg Berg
The glassless windows in the elevator shaft were simply cut out of the concrete / © Photo: Georg Berg

Particularly safe in an earthquake zone

The bridges are old and a little shaky. Tbilisi is also located in an area with frequent earthquakes. Despite a few holes in the concrete under our feet and a slight movement on a windy day, they are safe. Hundreds of people cross them every day and because they are connected to steel girders, they even have an advantage over stand-alone buildings.

Die Gitterträger sind zwar schon in die Jahre gekommen und rostig, aber stabile Zäune sichern immerhin gegen die oft scharfen Seitenwinde / © Foto: Georg Berg
The lattice girders may be old and rusty, but sturdy fences protect against the often sharp side winds / © Photo: Georg Berg

How do you find the Skybridge?

If you don’t want to take a guided tour, you can try it on your own like we did and take the elevator in the first house (with the mahogany façade). You should have enough small change with you for the way back, as no money is exchanged in the house.

In Begleitung eines Bewohners hat man aus einem leerstehenden Appartment einen guten Blick auf die Himmelsbrücken / © Foto: Georg Berg
Accompanied by a resident, you have a good view of the sky bridges from a vacant apartment / © Photo: Georg Berg
Very instagramable: Schattenspiel der rostigen Gitterträger in zugiger Höhe / © Foto: Georg Berg
Very instagramable: Shadow play of the rusty lattice girders at draughty heights / © Photo: Georg Berg

Bridges in Georgia

On our trip through Georgia, we discovered that bridges play an important role in Georgian architecture – both as a functional design element for connecting buildings and as architectural landmarks. The Tbilisi Architecture Archive still lists the skybridge under its original name, Residential Complex “Shatili”.

Of the many fortified villages we saw on our hike through Tusheti and Khevsureti, only one was never conquered. The defenders were constantly able to regroup via roofs and bridges between the houses. You can find out more about Georgia’s turbulent history in another article.

Die Stadt Schatili liegt in einer strategisch wichtigen Lage in der historischen georgischen Provinz Chewsuretien. Sie ist oft belagert aber nie besiegt worden. Ein Geheimnis dieser Wehrhaftigkeit soll gewesen sein, dass alle Häuser zusätzlich  über Brücken miteinander verbunden waren / © Foto: Georg Berg
The city of Shatili lies in a strategically important location in the historic Georgian province of Khevsureti. It has often been besieged but never defeated. One secret of its defensive strength is said to have been that all the houses were also connected to each other by bridges / © Photo: Georg Berg
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