Uzbekistan’s first Venice Biennale pavilion celebrates a dwindling form of community living

A full-scale replica of a house in an Uzbek mahalla aims to highlight a historic and endangered form of community living in the Republic of Uzbekistan’s first contribution to the Venice Architecture Biennale.

Called Mahalla: Rural Urban Living and curated by Emmanuel Christ and Christoph Gantenbein of Swiss practice Christ & Gantenbein with Victoria Easton, the pavilion grew out of a project led by the team at ETH Zurich researching and documenting mahalla.

The installation was built within an exposed brick room
Top: the Republic of Uzbekistan’s Pavilion was curated by Christoph Gantenbein and Emmanuel Christ. Above: murals are suspended from a yellow structure

Broadly describing a particular type of neighbourhood, community or district, mahalla are areas centred on communal or family ties with their own distinctive forms of low-rise, high-density housing, domestic spaces and urban streets, with many regional variations existing across Central Asia and the Arab world.

These neighbourhoods are a vital part of Uzbekistan’s cultural heritage, originally built around Islamic rituals before becoming self-governing areas that were then placed under state control by the Soviet Union. Today they are run by government-regulated committees.

Lights were attached to the Uzbekistan Pavilion's yellow frame
The installation depicts a replica of a home

There are currently over 9,000 mahalla in Uzbekistan, each with between 150 and 6,000 inhabitants. Due to their lack of modern infrastructure and economic pressures, the existence of many is threatened by new housing developments.

Responding to Venice Architecture Biennale curator Hashim Sarkis‘ theme of How Will We Live Together?, the curators see the mahalla as having the potential to “offer urban society a sustainable and ecological model.”

“Mahalla is a social, cultural and urban phenomenon,” explains Emmanuel Christ. “It could be a very rich and interesting hint and indication to where a global contemporary society could find a vision, information and inspiration.”

This project draws on the extensive research and documentation of mahalla created during a trip to the Uzbekistan capital Tashkent by ETH Zurich, where the team collaborated with local researchers and students from the CCA Lab at the city’s Centre for Contemporary Art.

The Uzbekistan Pavilion sits atop a concrete floor
The yellow structure forms doorways and rooms

Located in the Arsenale, the full-scale model of a mahalla house is made from yellow steel tubes and enlivened by a soundscape recorded by Spanish filmmaker Carlos Casas and images by Dutch photographer Bas Princen.

Also included are works by the CCA Lab, including a tapchan – a traditional item of outdoor seating often found in the courtyards of mahalla – and contemporary interpretations of traditional embroideries.

An accompanying phone app using point-cloud models of mahalla is intended to further immerse visitors in the areas evoked by Casas’ soundscapes, and a catalogue published by Humbolt books draws together the research of ETH Zurich and the CCA Lab.

Poles join together at corners
A soundscape accompanies the installation

In 2018, Emmanuel Christ’s and Christoph Gantenbein’s architecture studio Christ & Gantenbein were named Architect of the Year by Dezeen Awards.

The studio’s work includes this museum for swiss chocolate-makers Lindt and this pavilion with a corrugated metal roof and retractable walls.

The 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale takes place from 22 May to 21 November in various locations across the city. See Dezeen Events Guide for an up-to-date list of architecture and design events.

Photography is by Giorgio De Vecchi and Giulia Di Lenarda.

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