“The kids have this whole area as their playground,” photographer Ryan Koopmans said. He’s referring to the now abandoned sanatoriums of Tskaltubo, a small town 30 kilometers inland from the Georgian coast, and now peopled by victims of war.
The Dutch-Canadian photographer has spent the last five years photographing the strange interiors of these ruins, capturing the relationship between man-made architectural grandiosity, the incremental forces of nature and the improvisational ingenuity of its settlers.
Throughout the Soviet Era, the USSR built 186 comparable sanatoriums across the state, designed specifically for comrades in need of a rest.
The most desirable spas were along the Russian Riviera, the warm stretch of coastline off the Black Sea in the southernmost tip of Russia and the western reaches of Georgia, where it nears the Turkish border.
Tskaltubo was one of the best. According to the European Historic Thermal Towns Association, its so-called “waters of immortality” were known as early as the seventh century. The natural springs emanate from limestone massifs deep beneath the ground, releasing radon-carbonated and mineral-enriched water that many believed to have healing properties.
In 1991, when the Soviet Union crumbled, the sanatoriums were decommissioned and nature claimed the spa complex for its own. Vines, weeds and moss climb and wind through the ornate interiors; roots and branches push through pillared hallways and arched bathing rooms.
But even as the buildings were left to decay, life remained in Tskaltubo. In 1992, a year after the fall of the Soviet Union, a bloody conflict broke out between government forces and separatists who fought for the independence of Abkhazia, a disputed autonomous republic in northwestern Georgia. Refugees from the war fled their homes in Abkhazia and discovered the deserted corridors of Tskaltubo.
The refugees never moved on. Koopmans’ series, therefore, mixes austere architectural studies with portraits of the people who, to this day, call the gutted sanatoriums their home. The original settlers have had children, and now grandchildren. Koopmans photographs the play of kids who have never known anywhere else.
Without light, heating or running water, the spa’s new residents “have had to adapt and create their own makeshift means of survival,” Koopmans said.
They’ve tapped into decades-old water lines and spliced into electricity mainlines; tended animals and grown vegetables on the grounds of the spa complexes. He captures the vestiges of metal-works that have been ripped from the building’s interiors and sold for scrap, or the wooden floors that have been chopped up for firewood.
“Everything about their lives is makeshift and improvised,” Koopmans said.
At its height, the Tskaltubo spa complex provided more than 5,000 bedrooms across 19 separate hotel-like buildings situated in a ring around the thermal springs.
The sanatoriums were designed as a model of progressive Soviet architecture – a fusion of what is now known as classical Stalinist design and ethnic Georgian decor, as well as Gothic and Roman features.
When he first discovered the sanitoriums, Koopmans was “struck by how beautifully designed they were.”
“They were frozen in time and objects were just sitting there, as if someone had just got up and left,” he said. “It was as if the buildings were still used by the Soviet citizenship. But the objects had now become artifacts.”
The spas are in the process of being rediscovered again. Investors have started to buy the land back and regenerate the dilapidated buildings. After years of stasis, the Georgian government has begun to re-home the refugees. Developers are making plans to relaunch the spa as a luxury tourist destination.
“There’s been a huge change in the town over the last two years,” Koopmans said. “The buildings are being taken apart, piece by piece. The neoclassical buildings are up for sale and are being quickly bought by private buyers. They’re now gated off, with hired guards to protect them. Hopefully, certain buildings will be revitalized with the original architecture protected, but many are just being torn down.”
And in that sense, these photographs of Tskaltubo hold a greater power. The spa complex is about to enter another chapter in its existence, and this era will soon be a memory.
“Time can be a difficult thing to quantify. But there’s a physical manifestation of time passing in these photographs,” Koopmans said. “These photographs deconstruct something that is true for all of us – time passing so quickly by.”