Rocket: Tbilisi television tower
© Fabian Weiss

Dancing into the future

  • TEXT ADRIAN PICKSHAUS
  • PHOTOS FABIAN WEISS

In the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, revelers rock at the best techno clubs of our time. The nightlife scene pulls in creative minds from all over the world, who are now changing the face of the country. A trip to the pounding heart of the Caucasus.

The Dinamo Tbilisi Stadium rises out of the night like a gray fortress. The stadium of Georgia’s most successful soccer club holds 54,540 people, but only rarely do that many still come here. On a sports level, the old club has been struggling for years. More important these days are the up to 3000 weekend clubbers who dance the night away in the arena’s catacombs, who come to party and drink, to lose themselves and find themselves, to forget their worries and find new courage – and do it all on a carpet of techno music.

Bassiani is the name of the club that opened here in the fall of 2015. Its dance floor is in the belly of the former Lenin Stadium, at the bottom of the old indoor swimming pool. Long before you reach it, your ears home in on the entrance to this dark realm. The throbbing in the air acts on the revelers like signals from a tracking device. The night is still young for Tbilisi, just ten to three, and no lines outside the door just yet. The bouncers, musclemen in shorts spread out across a maze of gates, stare right through me, but in the middle, a face full of piercings relieves me of 20 lari (roughly seven euros – cheap at the price for such a legendary nightspot.

Steel stairs lead down from the neon lights into darkness. I grope my way along a tunnel while my eyes become accustomed to the gloom. When I come to a crossroads in the concrete pipe, I choose left – and find myself in the old swimming pool. A wall of sound knocks the breath from my lungs, bass beats stomp up my legs. Lightning flashes momentarily reveal metal walkways clinging to the walls above the rippling crowd. The people here are young and queer, fat and thin, dressed in black, with hair dyed blue or maybe white-blond. Many of the men are wearing makeup; many of the women have stark undercuts. The music paints ecstasy onto their faces.

Clouds of vapor waft from the Cafe Gallery dance temple

Clouds of vapor waft from the Cafe Gallery dance temple

© Fabian Weiss
Cool chic: the bar at the Stamba design hotel

Cool chic: the bar at the Stamba design hotel

© Fabian Weiss
Soviet housing blocks dominate the landscape below as the plane comes into land in Tbilisi

Soviet housing blocks dominate the landscape below as the plane comes into land in Tbilisi

© Fabian Weiss

 People in the know, like Michail Stangl, the German boss of the global DJ platform Boiler Room, regard the Bassiani as the best club in the world, as the new Berghain or the Studio 54 of this era. And anyways, Tbilisi is the new Berlin – and not just on the strength of its nightlife. For young people in search of meaning, it’s the ideal place with lots in its favor: low rents, amazing nightlife, plenty of scope to do their thing. Here, you get a sense of being in the right place at the right time. But why now? And why here, in the middle of the Caucasus region, at this mountainous crossroads between Europe and Asia; in a city that was once an important stop along the Silk Road and over which foreign rulers cast their shadow time and time again? Maybe such questions are already part of the answer.

The afternoon before, as we were coming in to land, the flight attendant asked me if I was a well-known techno DJ. Electronic music was mainstream in Georgia, she said, much bigger than hip-hop or jazz, say, and she’d constantly had famous DJs on board in recent years. Outside my window, the mountains began to level off and Tbilisi emerged from a summer haze. Soviet-era apartment blocks surround the old center of the city – the city’s million or so inhabitants have to sleep somewhere, after all. High above it all, the rocket-shaped television tower stands 274.5 meters tall, serving the people of Tbilisi as a compass needle. At night, it changes color like a traffic signal.

Enough memory? DJ at the hip Drama Bar nightclub

Enough memory? DJ at the hip Drama Bar nightclub

© Fabian Weiss

 Traveling into town from the airport, you pass along George W. Bush Street. Back in 2005, Georgia’s then state president, Mikheil Saakashvili, named the expressway for the U.S. president from Texas as a mark of appreciation for a state visit – and a sign of his country’s ties with the West. It was also Saakashvili who radically changed the face of Tbilisi during his time in office. Crumbling buildings made way for bold steel-and-glass structures designed mostly by architects from the West. The German architect Jürgen Mayer H. left behind wondrous border posts and filling stations, while Michele De Lucchi from Italy built a “Bridge of Peace” over the Kura River that has earned itself the nickname “Always Ultra” for its, well, product-suggestive, curved contours. You have to give it to them; the Georgians certainly have a sense of humor. But the most conspicuous building from Saakashvili’s days is the concert hall in Rike Park, which has stood empty to this day, except on December 31, 2013, when a New Year’s party was held here among its metal tubes resembling props from a sci-fi movie. The organizers of that event later founded the Bassiani.

Techno dancer at the alternative Ezo Festival

Techno dancer at the alternative Ezo Festival

© Fabian Weiss
Street art in Tbilisi

Street art in Tbilisi

© Fabian Weiss

 If the musical heart of Tbilisi beats in the Bassiani, then the Fabrika, a converted industrial site, is home to the city’s creative soul. Many things come together here: a designer hostel with 380 beds frequented by hipsters from around the world and a 1000-square-meter inner courtyard where locals sip the latest aperitif. Also here are Vodkast Records, the best record store in town, and Impact Hub, a co-working space where 100 graphic artists, designers and start-up developers work on their next big thing. Now and again, someone will step outside in search of new inspiration and watch the graffiti artists with their spray cans.

The creators of this wonder world are architects Gogi Sakhvarelidze, 38, and Devi Kituashvili, 40. The two are sitting sprawled a wooden table outside the Tone restaurant, drinking sparkling wine with pineapple juice. “Like one?” No, thanks, mine’s a craft beer. “During the Soviet era, the Fabrika was a sewing factory that produced work uniforms,” says Sakhvarelidze, laid back in T-shirt and jeans. “It all stood empty for 25 years. We took a look at the factory buildings in late 2015 and knew right away that this was it.” Kituashvili had worked in London for eight years and Sakhvarelidze is a big fan of Berlin. “We wanted to create a place that would have elements of what we knew from those cities, a little piece of Berlin’s Kreuzberg in Tbilisi.” They found an investor and bought the site from the state for 2.5 million U.S. dollars – a massive sum. The authorities thought the pair were crazy. What, pray, was an “alternative creative center” supposed to be? Aghast, one official asked how money could be made with these “rasta types”? But, both men insist, no one ever put any obstacles in their path.

Architect duo with a nose for business: Gogi Sakhavarelidze and Devi Kituashvili

Architect duo with a nose for business: Gogi Sakhavarelidze and Devi Kituashvili planned and now run the Fabrika creative center

© Fabian Weiss
Tourists, local artists and start-up developers come together on the Fabrika

Fabrika from the inside ...

© Fabian Weiss
Tourists, local artists and start-up developers come together on the Fabrika

... and from the outside: Tourists, local artists and start-up developers come together on the Fabrika

© Fabian Weiss

 Multiverse Architectur, the firm of architects jointly run by Sakhvarelidze and Kituashvili, has 21 employees. Its offices are housed in a converted loft on the Fabrika site. Next year, they plan to expand and have bought a neighboring site for the purpose. The intention is to build mostly offices there – not so many parties, more business. Do the two creators see themselves as engines of gentrification? Will the new coolness soon drive the old residents out of the neighborhood? Kituashvili scratches at the label of my beer bottle and sighs. “Gentrification always has a good side, too. In the early 90s, this place was a no-go area,” he points out. “The kids had nothing back then. Today, they have a perspective on life. What would you say is better?” Tbilisi is still cheap – you can rent a 60-square-meter apartment for a mere 200 dollars a month here – but yes, obviously, the nightlife and creative scenes are also economic factors, with all the attendant side effects.

Concrete bunker: The legendary Bassiani club resides in the belly of the former Lenin Stadium

Concrete bunker: The legendary Bassiani club resides in the belly of the former Lenin Stadium

© Fabian Weiss

 Proud old Tbilisi is still alive and well on Rustaveli Avenue. The city is like a blend of Vienna, Paris and Budapest here, with its Baroque, Art Nouveau and Classical architecture. Most of the facades have been restored, but not the one that conceals one of the quirkiest nightspots. To reach it, you have to climb up a naked stairwell to the third level, where the word “Drama” is spelled out in neon colors over the entrance. Behind the door, a 150-square-meter mix of nightclub and private apartment is crammed with modern art. Women in skimpy shorts and white sneakers loll in lounge chairs, sipping gin and tonic. Arid beats pulse from the speakers – plenty of kick, plenty of snare, a smattering of samples. The DJ’s from Paris. It’s all very ahead of the curve.

Temo Machavariani, 35, runs the place. Thin arms protruding from a dark shirt and hair standing out every which way from his head, he smiles an impish smile. The building had been unoccupied for a long time, he says. Right here on the Avenue – crazy, right? It belongs to an investor who can’t decide what he wants to do with the property. When big money hesitates, the avant-garde slips into ever niche. I ask Machavariani whether he has a license for his Drama Bar. “Oh, we don’t really need anything like that here. It’s just a regular apartment with a few people having a party,” he says with a grin. Then he heads off to the bar. A cool breeze wafts in through the open windows.

Futuristic concert hall in Rike Park, Tbilisi, with the presidential palace beyond

Futuristic concert hall in Rike Park, Tbilisi, with the presidential palace beyond

© Fabian Weiss
Backed by art: apricot seller on Rustaveli Avenue

Backed by art: apricot seller on Rustaveli Avenue

© Fabian Weiss

 In 2002, the U.S. economist Richard Florida published The Rise of the Creative Class. It became a bestseller and the bible of urban developers and mayors. In the international competition for the “creative class,” as Florida puts it, those cities with clubs and bars and an exciting art and music scene to offer had a clear advantage. They would attract coveted talent and the next step would be the advent of global corporations, companies like Google and Facebook, Apple and Amazon, he explained. Even if Florida is more concerned with the crisis big American cities are experiencing these days, Tbilisi is currently in the middle of the process he described back then.

Tourists were the first to come, now the number of expats is rising, but it’s the Georgians returning from the diaspora who are the most influential. They are women like Irena Popiashvili, who after decades on the culture scene in New York now directs the Kunsthalle Tbilisi exhibition space, and Manana Arabuli, who as art director of various women’s magazines in Moscow once shaped Russian women’s take on style. Back home in Georgia, she has created a mix of gallery and performance space, bookshop and concept store with her Black Dog Shop. Then there’s Tekuna Gachechiladze, the country’s best-known cook; she too, learned her trade in New York, but now runs three restaurants in Tbilisi. Her special brand of cooking deconstructs traditional Georgian fare and puts it back together a new way and recently earned her an invitation to a food festival from Italian star chef Massimo Bottura. Bit by bit, all of these people are giving Tbilisi a cosmopolitan face. This does not please everyone. Beyond the city’s limits, Georgia is a very conservative country, where the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church is a strong as ever. Every movement generates a counter-movement. This, too, is something the new movers and shakers had to discover for themselves.

Part of a movement: Tato Getia, spokesman for the Bassiani collective

Part of a movement: Tato Getia, spokesman for the Bassiani collective

© Fabian Weiss

 Tato Getia, 28, spokesman and cofounder of the Bassiani, sits in the club’s unadorned office, talking over the hum of the air conditioning. “It was never our intention to create a club for certain people only, but a place for everyone. But to make that possible, the aggressive people had to stay outside.” The Bassiani has been a safe space since the very first night it opened, a place without fear for gays and lesbians, for ethnic minorities, and for Georgians with western values. Word soon reached the neighboring countries. First, people came over from Iran, Turkey and Chechnya, and only then did the first techno fans start traveling in from Berlin, London and Barcelona. Peering through his architect glasses, Getia, dressed in black and with black tattoos, simply says: “You could say our dance here was political.”

The young man who studied marketing and economics in Warsaw only really became aware of this on May 12 of this year, when the authorities closed down the Bassiani, apparently right out of the blue. The Cafe Gallery, another famous nightlife institution in Tbilisi, was also forced to close its doors. “That was a huge shock for us,” says Getia, his voice dropping. Up to then, the crazy goings-on of the Georgian capital’s club scene had been largely tolerated – and no wonder, given that foreign dance tourists spend a lot of money in the city. The boost the flourishing party scene gives the city’s international image is also very welcome.

Skin speak: 
In Tbilisi, techno comes with a powerful message

Skin speak: 
In Tbilisi, techno comes with a powerful message

© Fabian Weiss
Hands in the air, cell at the ready: a dancer at the Cafe Gallery

Hands in the air, cell at the ready: a dancer at the Cafe Gallery

© Fabian Weiss

 The day after the closures, 15 000 people took to the streets. Huge towers of speakers were pushed to Parliament’s front door, where a special motto party started up. In the end, the Minister of the Interior came out to face the crowd and apologized, saying the clubs could reopen. News channels from around the world reported on Tbilisi’s party demonstrators. “That was when I first realized the potential the techno scene holds for our country,” says Getia.

Today, the techno crowd is heading out of the city, up to the top of Mtazminda Hill and the Ezo Festival. Way beyond the cable-car station and the amusement park, there’s a village of cabins that look like a giant hand scattered them across the slopes and a handful of beer stalls and stages festooned with garlands and strings of lights. The Ezo Festival reveals the gentler side of Tbilisi’s club culture. The electronic beats here have their roots in funk and soul; the music has little in common with the Bassiani’s barrage of sound. Over 5000 guests come together this weekend. They dance on and on, some barefoot, even when the rain sets in, and gaze down at their city, their rapidly changing home.