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Architecture as the mirror of an age. Part I: destroyed and forgotten

Alex Ulko, NewEurasia’s special blogger, begins a series of publications on the architecture of Central Asia. The reasons for the mass destructions in region, cultural analysis and exclusive photos – in the first article

That architecture is one of the most visible, tangible and decisive symbols of its time is part of commonplace wisdom shared by Egypt’s pharaohs, European monarchs, Chinese emperors and 20th century’s dictators alike. A lot has been written about titanic efforts of various rulers to immortalise   their human power in stone (and more recently, in steel, glass and concrete) and Central Asia is not an exception. The revolving golden statues of the Turkmenbashi in Asgabad, the grand Khan Shatyr designed by Sir Norman Foster in Astana, the strikingly expensive Palace of Forums in Tashkent and many other architectural wonders of the recent years found their critics and admirers and yet I would like to discuss two aspects of local construction which usually attract less attention. The first is the kind of architecture that appears in passim, not commissioned by presidents or local authorities, and the second is what Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian literary critic, called ‘a minus-shape’, in other words, the architecture denounced as unnecessary and subsequently destroyed. Let me begin with the latter category and say a couple of words about the buildings that have been destroyed in Uzbekistan in recent years.

The unique Monument of Freedom in Samarkand’s Central Park built in 1919 by an Austrian POW and a local Russian architect was destroyed in 2009

The Monument was destroyed at night and by the next morning the site was empty

As cities develop and grow, it is inevitable that some buildings and even areas get demolished and one has to get over it, despite the strong feelings one or another building may evoke. However, it is important to examine what particular edifices are sacrificed and the lessons learnt from this exercise, in my opinion, may be as telling as the analysis of the above mentioned grand structures symbolising the conscious power of the ruling class. Talking about Uzbekistan, one of the most apparent motives for the destruction of certain buildings, identified by many is the desire of the current regime to eradicate the memories of the Soviet (and by extension- of the Russian) rule. While it is certainly true in many respects, a quick glance at the list of the demolished buildings and residential areas does not support the theory of a conscious anti-Soviet and anti-Russian conspiracy.

In 2010, a large part of the century-old Central Park in Samarkand was destroyed and huge healthy plane trees taken down

Systematically wiped out quarters of colonial Tashkent, Samarkand and Ferghana are not alone in their losses; they are matched by equally arbitrary and off-handed treatment of ‘old towns’ where the ancient monuments undergo some heavy-handed ‘restoration’ and living quarters are simply taken down. In fact, such historic cities as Samarkand and Bukhara have suffered the most. I remember all too well the scenes of destruction at Shakhi-Zindah, arguably the most interesting architectural complex in Samarkand, the gem of the Temurid architecture. In 2004 UNESCO sanctioned the restoration of the ensemble on the condition that it would be carefully done using the authentic construction materials of the time scattered around the surviving mausoleums. The ‘restoration’ however, involved the destruction of some brickwork with crowbars and the use of reinforced concrete. Soon a similar fate befell the ancient monuments and old neighbourhoods around Guri-Amir and the Registan in Samarkand, the Hasti-Imom complex in Tashkent and many other old quarters in other cities of Uzbekistan. The vibrant and crowded Tashkent street in Samarkand connecting the Registan and the Siab bazaar was cleaned and brushed up in the 1980s and 90s until it was finally transformed into a lifeless line of ‘boutiques’ all designed to one standard, involving polished flagstones, shining metal railings and large windows, which will be discussed later along with other examples of modern (hardly contemporary) architecture.

Such cottages in the centre of Tashkent are increasingly rare

The same can be said about much lamented and mysterious in its purpose and motive massacre of plane trees in all cities of Uzbekistan in 2009-2012. Again, the internet is full of hypotheses linking this programme of extermination to the apparent colonial status of the plane tree, urus-darakht (Russian tree) and the anti-Soviet stance of the government. In fact, this programme merely put the gradual annihilation of public green spaces that has been underway for many years, on a different scale. Almost any person living in the private sector in any city in Uzbekistan could recall that the first step that makes a typical new owner of property would be to demolish the nearly century-old house and to chop all the trees around it to free place for a concrete courtyard.

Large parts of the colonial architecture of Samarkand were demolished in 2010

A snapshot from the film ‘The Mirror of the World’ showing how the 14th century brickwork of Shahi-Zindah was smashed with crowbars and spades in 2004

The problem is that these people simply see beauty in a different way: an old shabby colonial cottage with a crooked apricot tree outside and rickety 19th century wardrobes inside is ugly, and large, barrack-like concrete palaces painted in sugary hues are beautiful. The medieval civilisation that could maintain such plane tree groves as the famous Chor-Chinor in Urgut with its huge 500 to 1000 years old planes, is long gone. On the other hand, Ruslan Muradov, an architect and art historian from Asgabad, maintains that the cultural value of the old and the authentic is a fairly new development, linked with the liberation and secualrisation of the 18th-century Europe. In his opinion, the late Soviet-Russian-European protective and positivist approach to the material cultural values of the past is simply fading away in the newly independent Central Asian states. In other words, the off-handed demolition of historical urban areas in Uzbekistan and other Central Asian states is not the result of a carefully planned nationalistic campaign with rationally selected targets but is a mere consequence of a general lack of culture.

Dozens of houses in the historical Penjikent Street in the centre of Samarkand’s old town was devastated in 2010

Photos: Alex Ulko

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