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Architecture as the mirror of an age. Part II: new shapes and tastes

Second article written by Alex Ulko from the series about the architecture of Central Asia. In the new part the author analyzes the “frozen music,” which was born in modern society

Editor’s note: The first part can be found here

Earlier I wrote about the buildings that have been destroyed in Uzbekistan in recent years, trying to figure out some of cultural patterns responsible for these demolition campaigns.  Now I would like to discuss the kind of architecture that appears in passim, not commissioned by presidents or local authorities, but designed and constructed either by its owners and users or by their close associates.

What strikes me as an evident but largely overlooked fact is that this authentic, grassroots architecture, rich or poor, is in fact, quite different to the one supported by the government. They are based on entirely different visions and principles. The Uzbek authorities want to rule unified, modern, orderly and clean, almost sterile cities, preferably with large open spaces and minimum passers-by. There should be no small architectural forms, such as small shops, garages, warehouses, cottages or any other odd constructions: just large shopping malls, residential houses, hotels and different civic buildings.

On the other hand, ordinary people want something quite different. To start with a simple village house, its design is very close to a barrack or a barn, and even in cities like Tashkent the traditional residential areas are still made up of chaotically and disorderly located, simple, often quite long houses.

Simple adobe huts near Gallaorol, scarcely supplied with electricity, gas or water

An aerial view of one of Tashkent’s more traditional residential areas

Little attention is paid to the external looks of such houses and the space between them is often neglected despite the huge role that community plays in the traditional social life in Uzbekistan – the communal connections are simply expresses in a different way (i.e. with the help of functional connections between people). The tendency to reproduce the simplest of architectural shapes, the parallelepiped, in different variations without any need for any visually more attractive and diverse shapes, is evident even in more hi-end architecture, for example, toi-khona (restaurant that caters only for holiday or festival gatherings).

While such lack of attention to style and architectural forms can be justifiably attributed to low living standards, poor education and insufficient resources available to the rural population, the current developments in the upmarket architecture beg more questions. Restaurants and private residential houses belonging to the opulent classes demonstrate another dissonance with the uniformed, sterile and almost austere style promoted by the authorities. These would have been the examples of most distastefully excessive and garish architectural forms, had they been not preceded and inspired by the villas of the ‘new Russians’ and some architectural wonders that can be found galore in the oil-rich Middle East countries.

Summer villas to let on the road to the Charvak reservoir near Tashkent

A fragment of the architectural décor in one of Samarkand’s newer restaurants. Note a rubber shoe and a bundle of herbs hanging from the roof to ward off evil spirits

With its concoction of Neo-baroque and Stalinist decor, pulled atop simplistic concrete frames, these buildings are not mere imitations – they are imitations of imitations that lack any originality of design, but more than compensate for this shortage with some interesting architectural solutions related to the interaction between construction and décor. 

An almost finished restaurant in Samarkand shows remarkable indifference to the incompleteness of its décor

The back view of an opulent toi-khona in Tashkent is an even more straightforward statement

These buildings, therefore not only represent the concept of beauty of the new rich with their kitsch ornaments and sugary colours, but they also demonstrate a purely functionalist approach to architecture – but not the one envisaged by Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. They perfectly suit the local phatic, conventional and positive public culture, where make-believe is not viewed as something insincere or deceptive. These excesses are not to be taken at their face value, they only represent this value, they signify something important for the owners, visitors and passers-by: they are first and foremost status-ascribing, and, conventionally, can be also lived in,  dined and even worked at.

A Soviet-era industrial building near Yangiyul re-decorated circa 2010. It has its windows completely covered with wallpaper ‘reflecting’ blue sky with clouds

All photos by Alex Ulko

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