“This is what I want to do,” says Niko Japaridze of Georgian practice Architects of Invention, whipping out his phone to show me. “A building between the earth and the moon – a vertical city.”
For an architect who’s just completed his first new building, Japaridze certainly thinks big. But while the space project – a competition proposal – is surely fantasy, his clutch of new Georgian office buildings, all for the country’s Ministry of Justice, are very much a reality. The first, the Prosecutor’s Office in Tbilisi, was finished in February, followed in April by the House of Justice in Ozurgeti; the House of Justice in Lazika – Georgia’s new city on the Black Sea – is due to be finished in September.
With its massive steel frame and a distinctive composition of suspended and projecting box-like forms, the £5.2 million Tbilisi building is a remarkable debut. Japaridze, who lives in England but works in Georgia, was immersed in architecture from an early age courtesy of his architect father. He studied in Tbilisi and Moscow before working for KPF and EPR in London, then OMA in Rotterdam, a firm he had long admired and which better suited his inquiring approach. “I always try to deny I’m an architect. Only then can I do something interesting,” he explains.
All three justice projects were won in separate design competitions. The 1,500sq m Prosecutor’s Office was designed and built to a punishing ten-month schedule, made harder by the lack of precedents for structurally innovative steel buildings in Georgia. This issue led to the young practice collaborating with UK engineers Engenuiti for the project.
“It was a great challenge for the team. We didn’t have a facade engineer and no one had any experience in steel structures,” says Japaridze.
The brief was to provide office accommodation for 60 justice staff in the building, along with interrogation rooms, an archive, the chancellery, and an office for the chief prosecutor. The site, although located one kilometre from the city centre near the Tbilisi Court, was empty, with no immediate built context, although the building was designed with blank sides in the expectation that the surrounding areas will be developed.
Architects of Invention’s approach was to arrange all the accommodation as staggered components, suspended off a huge black steel frame with no visible supporting columns, a form that creates a public space beneath the suspended offices on one side. The top floor houses the prosecutor’s office – the largest of the boxes – and includes an enclosed roof garden for events plus a canteen, staff veranda and meeting room.
The accessibility of the ground floor was essential to the architects’ concept for the building. “It’s an object itself and an urban body at the same time,” explains Japaridze. “We’ve taken the exterior inside, so that it has an interior that’s also public.”
The main staircase is the focus of the interior, rising the full 22m height of the building in a continuous flight to create a dramatic narrow space, top lit by a ventilating skylight and clad in semi-translucent Pilkington glass. (Architects of Invention has a knack for dramatic staircases: another project, for Georgia’s National Olympic Committee, features one in snaking steel and maple veneer.) This allows those climbing the stairs or crossing the space on the third and fifth level bridges to see glimpses of movement behind the glass.
This has become a busy sociable space for staff, accessed from landings that lead off on either side on each floor. “It’s an internal street,” says Japaridze. “Everyone uses it and they all meet people there. It’s a very transparent, permeable space.” At the same time, the stairs – which ultimately lead to the prosecutor’s office on the top floor – convey a sense of hierarchy to those moving through the building as well as delineating the transitional point between civilians and law-makers.
Externally, while the front is demonstrative, the back – Japaridze’s favourite view – is more closed, with far fewer windows, among them the narrow verticals of the interrogation rooms. Japaridze likes to think of it as a reference to the prosecutor’s capacity to say yes or no – with the front representing “yes”, and the rear, “no”. Continuing the analogy with the building’s function, the starkness of the steel frame can be seen to represent the uncompromising nature of the legal system. Inside, the many reflections created by the mirrored volumes suggest, says the architect, an endless reflection and ordering of the world outside. It also combines privacy and transparency at the same time, conveying the necessary dignity of law and justice, says Japaridze.
The architects had to work hard to convince the client to approve of the exposed steel structure (“they’d have preferred it to be hidden,” says Japaridze) but were unable to get their way with their choice of red carpet, which the client vetoed.
According to Japaridze, there is no critical discourse in contemporary Georgian architecture, which is hampered by the ongoing conflict between Western and Soviet ideologies. The prosecutor’s office, and the two other justice buildings that Architects of Invention has created, should help raise the debate, as well as showing what can be achieved with creative use of steel. At the House of Justice in Ozurgeti, the two functions of public services and wedding hall are housed in distinct square and oval volumes, with a public thoroughfare through the building. At Lazika, accommodation is suspended beneath a striking canopy in a nod to the work of Will Alsop – who Japaridze once worked for in Moscow – and also Viennese architect Wolfgang Tschapeller.
Japaridze would dearly love to work in the UK – if he can find a way of fulfilling the stringent qualification requirements for public work. Until then, he has plenty of other projects on the go in Georgia, many of which are hugely ambitious, such as a soaring tower in Tbilisi that looks like a tornado, plus further plans for the new city of Lazika, albeit rather more likely to be realised than Japaridze’s dream project of a moon-earth link.