Bishkek in ruins: humanization / naturalization
Culture and History, Kyrgyzstan, Photoblog10 Comments
Editor’s note: Bishkek is known for two things: blight and tragedy. But is there another way of viewing the city? neweurasia’s Schwartz explores the interaction between aging Soviet architecture, Kyrgyz urbanization and invading nature in a new photo-essay. [All photos by Schwartz, CC-usage.]
It may sound crazy, but Bishkek is one of the most aesthetically beautiful and anthropologically-philosophically interesting cities I’ve yet encountered. Make no mistake, this city has some hardcore urban blight, with slum conditions literally right around the corner of a downtown that is itself slowly rotting and crumbling (that is, when nationalists and ideologues aren’t constantly reconfiguring its shape in their endless pursuit for symbolic coherence). There’s a distinctive Philly or Detroit verve, right down to the homeless who live in the network of underground tunnels beneath the city and crawl out, mole-like, when night falls, to rummage through the stinking trash bins.
However, what really catches my eye is the aging Soviet ideological-utilitarian architecture, slowly becoming entangled in tree branches and creeping vines —
– or the gradual whittling down of the sharp angles of the avenues, the square sidewalk corners chipped away by the onslaught of pedestrians into curves, the pavement locked in a battle to the death with the invading tendrils of tree trunks and roots.
What I find fascinating in this is how an experiment in rigid urban planning — you can’t get much more “rational” than slapping a grid down onto the earth! — that was, as I understand it, pretty much a sleepy ghost town during the Soviet era, has since independence slowly been reclaimed and adapted by human beings and nature and turned into something rather bustling, organic, alive.
In fact, humanization and naturalization seem somehow twin processes, if not the same process with two aspects, both empirically and metaphysically. That’s because at one level there is the well-known phenomenon of urbanization, driven by poverty and social mismanagement, as Kyrgyz from “the regions” have been pouring into the city looking for work, converting it over the last 20 years from a Russian outpost into a multi-layered, indeed, multi-reality metropol.
Underlying this, however — indeed, what poverty and social mismanagement have enabled, and which to some extent the Soviet city planners had prepared for when they attempted to think through a way to regulate melting ice water from the nearby Ala-Too Mountains — is the fungal growth of nature, sneaking into cracks, undermining or even bursting out from under asphalt:
These days, we often hear about the many slowly-unfolding tragedies of Kyrgyzstan. However, Bishkek shows that there’s another, more positive story to tell, of a people really engaging their environment, and an environment engaging a people, claiming architectural ruins together and converting it.
For instance, while wandering around, I stumbled upon this small urban farm next to Jibek Jolo:
Graffiti is a signature feature of the process, as tagging becomes a way to give voice to a city in transformation, sometimes as a way to humorously engage change, sometimes as a way to resist transience, sometimes as a way to remember, even if it doesn’t matter that to the majority of people, the words are just obscure or meaningless symbols:
Just like a geological structure, one finds sedimentation, as archaic architectural forms from the Tsarist and early Communist period subsist and persist alongside their successors from Soviet modernity and post-Soviet post-modernity (note the wooden structure behind the casino):
Once in a while, ruination can be so thorough, that nature totally consumes the city:
Other times, the old architectural forms are strong enough to render nature into mere decoration:
There is often a mysterious air to the process, as ruination and reformation leaves behind relics, inscrutable, grotesque, bizarre –
– or this odd, railcar-seeming construction, rotting in the shadow of one of the new, hastily-built condos sprouting up sporadically in the downtown:
Human beings not only live in the ruins, but keep them going, renovating and reinventing them. Sometimes it’s not at all obvious that one has stumbled into a slum, as the space has been so effectively humanized — indeed, it calls into question what precisely is a “slum”:
In sum, for me, there is a Schellingian feeling pervading Bishkek, surprisingly lush, wet, breathing –
— and at every turn, a doorway into deep, subterranean processes…
Author’s Note: For an interesting personal discovery that took place in the background to these photos, check out this entry on my personal blog.