With Italy’s famed lagoon city of Venice opening its doors for the 17th Architecture Biennale, New Europe had the pleasure to speak, in an exclusive interview, with H.E. Aziz Abdukhakimov, the Deputy Prime Minister of Uzbekistan and his country’s Minister of Tourism and Sports, about the key concepts that have factored into the Central Asian nation taking part in such an important international cultural event for the first time.
Uzbekistan participated in the International Architecture Exhibition, or La Biennale di Venezia in Italian, with an exhibition titles Mahalla: Urban Rural Living, which was curated by Emanuel Christ and Christoph Gantenbein, both of whom are professors of architecture and design at ETH Zurich, and the founding partners of Christ & Gantenbein. Their firm has featured works by Spanish filmmaker Carlos Casas, Dutch photographer Bas Princen, and the CCA Lab Tashkent. The exhibition addresses the theme of this year’s exhibition “How will we live together?” by researching an important aspect of cultural heritage that will be reproduced inside Venice’s Arsenale.
A mahalla is an ancient and contemporary form of “living together” that is deeply rooted in the culture of Uzbekistan. An Arabic word, mahalla has various meanings in Uzbekistan, including a traditional neighborhood and a form of community life; as well as a Soviet and a modern institution of power and a place where the state and society meet at the local level.
The project was commissioned by the Art and Culture Development Foundation under the Uzbek Ministry of Culture and its Executive Director Gayane Umerova, with special support from Saida Mirziyoyeva, Uzbekistan’s Deputy Chair of the Council of the Art and Culture Development Foundation under the Ministry of Culture.
The exhibition provides three different types of appropriation, all of them expressed in a 1:1 scale: a model of a mahalla house occupying the whole venue; an invisible appropriation of the space with sounds from the mahallas transmitted through ambisonic technology recorded by Carlos Casas; and extracts of mahalla houses as fragments of spaces represented in photographs by Bas Princen.
In the garden stands an emblematic item of Uzbek culture so vital to companionable gatherings in the courtyard of any Uzbek home – a tapchan, the large outdoor bedframe-like furniture that is capable of holding 4-8 adults with a table at which meals can be eaten. The beautifully crafted design was provided by the CCA Lab Tashkent. In addition, CCA Lab participant Munis Juraeva, created a contemporary interpretation of traditional embroideries, which was executed by designer Madina Kasimabeva. As a whole, this installation was an open-ended, three-dimensional collage that invites viewers to consider new possibilities of living together.
New Europe (NE): What does it mean for Uzbekistan to be taking part and presenting a project at such an important international architecture event?
Aziz Abdukhakimov (AA): We wanted to present our native culture here – a mahalla, which is a really unique phenomenon. Today we can see that a lot of experts, scientists and professionals from different cultural backgrounds and societies are really interested to learn more about what it is. In the future, we hope that the mahalla concept will become the new brand for Uzbekistan. This is our first participation at the Venice Architecture Biennale and we worked a lot to make it very successful. Even Audrey Azoulay, the Director-General of UNESCO, visited our pavilion and she gave a very high evaluation of the approach that we are using to present the meaning of ‘mahalla’. This is not only a place where people with different languages, cultures and religions live together in peace, the mahalla represents our culture and national identity because we care a lot about keeping our traditions. I think for foreigners, this is interesting and important when understanding how modern Uzbeks live in this space. They are interested in the behavior of the people and the connections between different generations. They can live the unique experience of living with an ordinary Uzbek family and learn more about our customs. Here, in Venice, we presented our architecture form of the mahalla, but we also try to explain the meaning of the concept from the point of view of ordinary people in our country, Thanks to that, foreigners can now understand Uzbek people and our nation.
NE: How important it is to promote the mahalla concept abroad?
AA: For the Uzbek government, it is very important to promote the mahalla, but also to help people join the concept. It is a really unique style of life and all these positive elements are very important in our modern world. I hope that after the visit of UNESCO’s Director-General that it will pay more attention to the mahalla and that in the future we can jointly promote it at the international level. I hope, together, we will be able to launch new projects that involve more researchers to the mahalla. As I said before, many people from different backgrounds live together in a mahalla. This is without a doubt a good example of how different people can live in harmony together. We are very proud to show it to the world while we are here in Venice.
NE: How important it is for you to cooperate with other institutions in this regard?
AA: We have collaborated with many countries and institutions. There is huge interest in it at the international level. We have many think tanks from Japan, China, Korea and many European countries that study and research the specific and unique features of the mahalla. Every country can find something very useful about it. We are very happy to invite foreign visitors and tourists to our country. So, welcome to Uzbekistan!
NE: Is the mahalla important as an element for the tourism industry for you?
AA: Yes, the mahalla can be an excellent feature to promote Uzbekistan as a tourists destination. Travelers are always searching for special experiences. Today, in Uzbekistan, we have a lot of very special family houses in mahallas. Foreigners can stay there for several days and learn a lot about the ordinary life of Uzbek families and how different generations live and communicate. Tourists will be also able to learn more about our culinary traditions and our language. It’s our tradition when we cook plov, our national dish, to prepare larger quantities and share it with the neighbors in the mahalla.