Discussions of a traditional house-type that reveal more than structure
Through 3D scans and detailed field work, the architecture program at Free University of Tbilisi has been surveying the darbazi, a subterranean dwelling with a corbeled wooden roof found in regions of southern Georgia. The head of the department, Jesse Vogler, explains the intent of the project, the use of new technologies to analyze and better understand these structures, and the ways in which the darbazi can be viewed as a living tradition. Following his introduction, Vogler engages in conversation with two of the other project members, Giorgi Margishvili and Ramaz Kiknadze, as they discuss the project from a wide-variety of perspectives, their mixture of historical, material, pedagogical, and philosophical approaches illustrating the sheer architectural potential of the darbazi.
In the Georgian language, savele (საველე) denotes a move to the field: sa—toward, vele—field. In our context, it expresses an impulse toward fieldwork, toward taking the study of architecture and cultural landscapes out of the classroom and into the spaces where these landscapes and buildings are themselves made and remade. In the development of a new school of architecture at the Free University of Tbilisi, we have put a variety of fieldwork at the center of our mission. Organized around everyday landscapes and prototypical building types around Georgia, we have piloted a number of field schools bringing together students, researchers, and local experts. One line of this fieldwork has at its center the study of the architecture and lifeways of so-called vernacular buildings and their inhabitants. But as with all fieldwork, it is also, and even primarily, organized around a wider ethic of attention, dialogue, and exchange. Our work then, is oriented on the one hand toward the study and research of important historical building types, but always within the framework of a lived present. Not the elaboration of fixed, historical typological categories but an immersion in the living and working landscapes of the regions where we are lucky enough to work.
The project and discussion shared here emerges from our field school in a high, cold, and arid region of Georgia—Samtskhe-Javakheti. Here, we have organized our fieldwork around the darbazi (დარბაზი)—one of the three or four most prototypical house-types of Georgia. Architecturally, the darbazi is a partially underground dwelling, characterized by a more or less elaborate wooden roof structure constructed by the stacked corbeling of large timbers to form a partial-domed roof. This corbeled roof is itself covered in a carefully layered set of materials—thin slate, rot-resistant wooden boughs, topped by a thick layer of earth—producing a dwelling that is less a building on the landscape than one that is a constituent element of that landscape. And while the central, corbelled chamber is indeed the ceremonial and architectural center of the house, a single dwelling complex is generally composed of an aggregation of other rooms for sleeping, storage, cooking, and animal husbandry. Our interest in the darbazi, then, spans from its architectural and structural articulation through an expanded cohabitation of human and non-human animals to the reworking of geology and landscape itself.
Our work then, is oriented on the one hand toward the study and research of important historical building types, but always within the framework of a lived present
We bring to this study a distinctive technology for the recording of the buildings and landscapes of Meskheti—the laser scanner. This technology is particularly well suited to the eccentricities of the darbazi structure as well as to the deformations in the landscape and building over time. The scans record in detail all surface information—size, shape, facets, irregularities, textures, and even spider-webs—producing an unparalleled record of these buildings at a specific moment in time. But equally significant for us are the absences present in the scans—depths, materiality, wall thicknesses, and gaps between the roof and landscape above—that produce opacities within the system of visualization. The result, for us, is far from an exhaustive recording; rather it’s an acknowledgment of the inaccessibility and irretrievability that lies at the heart of these buildings.
As with all good fieldwork, the repeat visits it takes to locate darbazi, as well as the time to conduct the scans themselves, is in some ways the point of the project itself. It includes conversations with local inhabitants that quickly expand beyond the topic of this building type to include patterns of work and life in the present. Time and waiting seem to be where micro-trusts are made and built over return visits, to form something of a friendship with individuals and even places. In that sense, we do not claim or even desire the clarity of ethnographic distance. Nor is this an exercise in pure architectural documentation or conservation. Rather, our orientation remains in the present and toward the time ahead, where ways of knowing and ways of being reconverge in new typologies of living and working.
Jesse Vogler:We've come together because of a shared interest and passion for this house type, the darbazi, but we all also carry our own specific lines of interest. Ramaz, I think of your passions as aligning with questions of tectonics, construction, and materiality. Giorgi, you bring a deep historical and even cosmic line of understanding to the conversation. And I have particular interest in the pedagogical and historiographic component. So today we are trying to understand the darbazi , not only as a historical house type but also as a part of the geologic landscape and living fabric of village life in certain regions of Georgia.
Giorgi Margishvili:Yes and not only in Georgia, but also across the wider South Caucasus and West Asian geographies—from central Anatolia all the way to Pamir. It’s a five-thousand-year-old building type that was constructed up until the early part of the 20th century.
Ramaz Kiknadze:Right, it has counterparts and various iterations across the high, dry, and cold landscapes of this whole region. With significant differences in some respects, but still we can find core shared approaches to typology and to construction, especially when it comes to the roofs.
JV: Can we begin with the word itself: darbazi? I think of it as designating more generally a large room . . .
GM: A hall. It is often translated in its most basic sense as some sort of ceremonial hall. But it is important that it is more than just this room type—it is also a more general term. It can also mean something like a parliament, a political gathering. During King Tamar’s time, in Georgia there were attempts to create a kind of darbazi, a parliament. The word itself comes from Persian, darbas, which means the noble court of a king or ruler.
JV:Incredible, so this idea quickly begins to triangulate where the darbazi expands from its purely architectural definition to include and imply a sort of social and political space. And even when it is discussed in terms of a dwelling type, the room itself can be understood a bit more as the ceremonial center of the house.
RK:Exactly. And we can read this ceremonial quality or significance in how these spaces are used as well as in the architecture itself.
It’s not mathematics, but poetry. Architectural poetry
JV: Maybe now we can discuss the structure, materiality, and geography of the darbazi a bit more. With their earthen roofs and partially subterranean situation, I have always thought of them as somehow active elements in composing the landscape. Not buildings on the landscape but something that is geological itself.
RK:Right. One of the defining qualities of the darbazi is how it is partly cut into the ground, usually on a slope. And then with the earth roofs and earthen floor they really become part of the landscape. The perimeter walls retain the earth behind it and are usually over a meter thick. In Meskhet-Javakheti they did not have a tradition of using lime mortar, so the walls were just really thick and heavy and used a mud mortar. But in other regions, like in Kartli, they had use of lime. But these massive walls are always found around the perimeter.
And inside, you could say almost independently, was the wooden structure that supported the roof. At least in Meskheti this is the tectonic diagram—two independent systems. But in Kartli and Anatolia the roof was often supported by the perimeter walls themselves. The separation of retaining the earth and holding the roof allowed them to perform independently during earthquakes, which are common in this region.
GM:And by cutting into the ground the whole house moved with the earth rather than separately from it. Building it below grade reduced the effects.
RK: The main architectural quality or expression of the darbazi is a corbeled wooden roof. Hewn logs of various levels of finish are stacked up one on top of the next to form a kind of dome. It is known in everyday language as a sort of crown or swallows nest—gvirgvini (გვირგვინი). As the logs taper toward the center, there is an opening left in the center of the roof, leaving a hole for smoke and ventilation. We call this an erdo (ერდო). This is open to the elements and the sky.
GM:Historically, this was also often used as an entry. In fact, the story of the “first-step” originates here, the person who first visits on an outstanding or important day like new years or Easter. In Georgian, this person is called the mekvle. This “first-step” person would show up in the erdo, silhouetted as if from heaven, bringing some symbolic gifts or message. We still have this tradition where the first person to visit is seen as determining the year’s fortune, so now we often “arrange” for a specific person to be our mekvle to ensure a good year ahead.
RK:So, this corbeled wooden roof basically has two main variations in Georgia. One is made up of larger timbers that are stacked at 45 degree angles to each other in a kind of rotated square plan. This method is mainly used in Meskheti where we have been working and results in a more shallow dome. The second usually uses smaller wooden elements that are more finely hewn and basically just begins by making a small diagonal in each corner—then moving up in this way between each successive level so that the square is gradually rounded or faceted. This results in a much taller, intricate, and dramatic roof structure. In the first case there might be four to six lifts of wooden logs, in the second there are often over twenty.
GM:Our two main laser scans show these differences. The Porakishvili darbazi is much more like the second case, while the Khizabavra darbazi is obviously like the first. I would also add that these differences are somewhat based on geography, but also based on economics and whether the family had access to high quality wood and tools. The more intricate types were often found in Kartli but as we have seen in Ude, they can be found in Meskhetian villages as well. So it’s not purely a geographic distinction.
RK:Right. But there are strong geographical distinctions in how these roof structures are held up. For example, in Meskheti, the first layer of roof beams is generally held by twelve columns—four in the corners and two on each side. Here each column is basically equal to all other columns. But in other regions we find the presence of the dedabodzi (დედაბოძი)—the mother pillar. Here, instead of the columns being pushed to the perimeter of the room, the dedabodzi is free-standing in the space along the central axis in plan. And with the dedabodzi, we usually also have a “T” shaped capital, with elaborate carvings, that looks like it reaches out to support the entire roof above it.
GM:In Georgia we call it dedabodzi. In Daghestan or other places they might call it “Family Pole.” In every place this element has a very distinctive name and meaning. For example, we sometimes call the column capital bandushi (ბანდუში) or sometimes datvi (დათჳი). Nowadays, datvi is the Georgian word for “bear”, but in the past, according to Sulkhan Saba Orbeliani, it was the word for a star or a planet on which the dome of the sky rests. So, this sky is the analog to the corbelled roof where the darbazi’s dedabodzi and capital are holding up the entire structure.
It’s not mathematics, but poetry. Architectural poetry. But anyways, the words have their meanings.
JV:And what about the carvings on the dedabodzi?
GM:On the dedabodzi and the capital you will often find carvings depicting the sun or planets or whatever sky is there. But also, if we look through the opening in the corbeled roof, we can follow the movement of the sun in the sky, which forms a figure eight. So you can often see something like the Arabic number 8 or ∞ carved between two suns, something representing the sun or eternity in the sky. Because if we go to the function of the opening, if it is the only source for light and ventilation, it obviously has an outstanding functional role. But at the same time, it also played the role of forecasting the weather. There were different ways of reading the sky to envisage what kind of weather there would be in the future.
JV:So as you describe this I begin to understand the house as a kind of domestic observatory where the movement of the sun, changes in weather, etc., are not only observed in daily life, but somehow recorded in the carvings themselves.
RK:The carvings also recorded family histories. Like in Gia’s darbazi we visited in Khizabavra, where his son described the four notches in the column as representing the four generations who have lived in the darbazi itself. They read like ornaments or decorative elements but really they are recording a story of the family.
GM:And the carvings usually faced the center of the space, toward the light. So when you enter you see the silhouette of the dedabodzi and its kind of tapered or trapezoidal shape, but as you move into the center and turn around, the detail of the carving is there. The dedabodzi would also organize the basic zoning in the house as well—it was very specific and distinct. In Georgia and the many parts of the Caucasus, the roles of women and men were historically quite different, and the dedabodzi would separate the women’s spheres and men’s spheres, both of which were quite distinct and organized.
When a family had to move, for whatever reason, they often dismantled the structure of the central fireplace and brought it with them. More specifically, they would most always bring the dedabozi with them. It was a symbolic transfer of the family.
JV:What a potent detail, where again everyday material life and practice somehow exceeds the purely technical. But maybe at this moment we can pivot a little from the historical description to focus a bit on our excursions. I remember when we first initiated this darbazi project we weren’t sure if we would find five or five-hundred “in the wild.” I think we were pretty quickly surprised by how many still existed.
When a family had to move . . . they would most always bring the dedabozi with them. It was a symbolic transfer of the family
RK:Not only the number but also the extent of each house. Most of them are not lived in anymore, so there are sometimes changes to the structure of the building. Some are now used for storage of potatoes or for keeping animals like cows or chickens. And some are locked up or just abandoned. I guess that’s why you don’t notice them immediately when you arrive. But once you talk with locals and do a bit of research, and you start to look around and know how to identify these houses, they are all over the place. So from the outside you might just see green relief, but then you begin to see these holes everywhere and you realize you are seeing the openings in the roofs and below they are all darbazi.
JV:It's an entire village structure. I’ve been to these places we have visited numerous times and I didn’t realize that half the time I was essentially walking around on darbazi roofs. Even in our multiple visits since, the extent of the darbazi village fabric is surprising.
RK:It's an amazing moment when you're kind of looking for something and you realize it's standing right there. But you don’t know it because it's camouflaged into the landscape.
GM:One of the most fascinating things is this village settlement pattern. Where you realize the entire village, the entire landscape, is made up of these underground houses.
JV:I have come to think of this as a kind of darbazi urbanism—a well-defined village structure completely formed by the spaces of the darbazi. We have been talking so much about this crowned hall room that someone might have a picture of these as isolated, standalone rooms. But really they are a deeply interconnected, interwoven network of subterranean spaces.
RK:Yes. Each family house is of course more than just this corbelled roof room. There are almost always separate rooms for animals, others for sleeping, and others for storage. But they are always interconnected in some way through underground passages. The animal barns in Meskheti are known as akhori (ახორი) and often have more simple corbelling, but usually do have some sort of opening for heat and humidity to escape. And in larger houses there is a separate room for sleeping. Our friend in Khizabavra called this the takarebiani oda (თაკარებიანი ოდა). It still has a stacked roof structure but more of a stepped triangular shape and less of a dome.
JV:Entering the cattle sheds is always so intense—you can completely imagine how the heat from the animals would work to keep the house warm in the winter months, this space where everyone, humans and animals, are sharing the same air and warmth.
GM:And we can’t forget the roofs themselves. A lot of life was spent on the roof. It was like a separate street or an additional layer to the village where people would socialize, while the ground level was more for tending to animals.
JV:And we’ve been finding cases where newer houses have been built right up next to the older darbazi, just adjacent to them and kind of jammed into each other. You might enter into a typical Soviet village house from the 50s but find your way into a darbazi for dinner, where there is also a TV and a dresser and posters hung on the walls. It’s an incredible collision.
GM: Right, this work is about ways of thinking of the darbazi that can also be about our contemporary time.
JV:Totally. It does not feel purely historical at all. On the one hand we have this new technology we are traveling with in order to document the darbazi. And I think the laser scan is particularly well-suited or well matched to the eccentricities of the darbazi. But on the other hand the project is ultimately about something more than the scans. I believe strongly that the effort of our work in the field is really reciprocal and not only about documentation but about recovering lessons that have meaning today.
RK: And the field school we are planning also includes young students, which I think is crucial.
JV:Absolutely. Georgia can be so centralized, and our study and life so Tbilisi focused, that there is a quiet political position in reorienting our learning outside of the capital. This centralization has perhaps always been there, but I feel it accelerating to the point that our students may not be aware of other ways of living that are still alive and practiced.
GM:Additionally, I think that by coming to the villages and studying the darbazi, many local people are also invited to see their own surroundings in a new way. Even there, so much can be taken for granted and is just no longer noticed. Like with some of our collaborators, I think this has sparked a new interest in something that has been overlooked for quite some time.
JV:If I am honest, for me the darbazi is a kind of an alibi, an excuse to get out into the world, meet people whose work is grounded in certain places, and learn about practices that I would never have access to otherwise. Now to be sure, the darbazi is a particularly spectacular, specific, and important alibi. It almost doesn’t require any explanation about why it is significant, and so can jumpstart student engagement. But it is in some ways not the absolute center for me. As I see it, the field school is much more about the method than the topic—the how rather than the what. And the how is based on basic ideas of attention, time, and concern. Learning to read a landscape alongside people who live there and continue to remake that place is what it is all about.
Additional Project Credits
3D Scan Studio
The Knowledge Fund / Free University of Tbilisi
With Special Thanks
Giorgi Maghradze, Giorgi Quqchishvili, Rezo Andghuladze, Jemal Datashvili, Merab Beridze, Aluda Jvaridze, Dorus Daneels
For Additional Reading, Please See:
Longinoz Sumbadze. The Architecture of the Georgian Folk Dwelling: Darbazi. Tbilisi: Metsniereba, 1984.
Guillaume Othenin-Girard. “From Hearths to Volcanoes: the Armenian glkhatun.” Drawing Matter Journal 1: The Geological Imagination. 2023.
Architect and educator. His writing and projects address the entanglements between landscape and law, and take on themes of work, property, expertise, and memory. Jesse is a MacDowell Fellow, Fulbright Scholar, and in addition to his art and research practice, is a land surveyor, co-directs the Institute of Marking and Measuring, and teaches across landscape, architecture, art, and urbanism. He is based out of Tbilisi, Georgia, where he is Professor and Head of the Architecture Program at the Free University of Tbilisi.
Architect. He studied architecture in the Georgian Technical Institute, Faculty of Architecture, from 1977-1981. He has practiced in numerous design bureaus and independent offices, where he has authored over 40 design projects and participated in several exhibitions. In addition, Giorgi writes and teaches about Georgian architecture history, and is Lecturer in the Architecture and Engineering faculties at Free University since 2020.
Architect and designer engaged in the research of vernacular building traditions of the Caucasus. He is the co-founder of Onis Skola—an educational exchange between the Royal Danish Academy, VA[A]DS FreeUni, and the Oni Carpentry School—which focuses on the wooden building traditions in the rural Racha region. He graduated from the Tbilisi State Academy of Arts and is a lecturer in the faculty of Architecture at VA[A]DS Free University of Tbilisi.