Mahalla: Urban-Rural Living is the Republic of Uzbekistan’s first national participation at the Venice Biennale. In response to the theme of the 17th International Architecture Exhibition “How Will We Live Together?”, the pavilion explores the mahalla—a traditional urban neighborhood typology and a form of organization of community life.
The exhibit was curated by ETH Zurich professors and the founding partners of Swiss architecture firm Christ & Gantenbein, Emanuel Christ and Christoph Gantenbein.
The Arabic word mahalla has multiple meanings. Mahalla is both a traditional neighborhood typical of Central Asia—a form of organization of community life—and an institution where state and society intersect at loci of power and place. The traditional layout of the mahalla, a low-rise and high-density environment, is based on an open courtyard. There are currently 9,000 mahallas in Uzbekistan. Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, has 524 official mahallas of various types and sizes, and they remain popular among people searching for a rural-urban lifestyle. However, due to economic pressure and their lack of infrastructure, mahallas are being replaced.
The curatorial team traveled to Uzbekistan and collaborated with local architects, artists, students, and researchers to meticulously survey twenty-one buildings and gather historical and contemporary documents to explore the innovative potential of this traditional Uzbek way of communal urban-rural life. Ten mahallas in Tashkent were closely documented in a combination of drone imagery, street photography, floor plans, 3D scanning, point-cloud images, and in situ interviews. Ultimately, the exhibit explores these questions: Can mahallas offer a sustainable model for urban living? How can cultural history and heritage be reconciled with innovation?
The public exhibit at the Quarta Tesa in the Arsenale explores the mahalla through three types of experiences: a life-size model of a Tashkent mahalla house, an “invisible” audio environment recorded by Carlos Cases transmitted with ambisonic tech recorded sounds from visited mahallas, and photographs of fragments of mahallas by Bas Princen.
The Tashkent house’s built structure—a tubular steel silhouette—operates as an abstract approximation of space. Princen’s 1:1 scaled photographs of “real” spaces complement this abstraction and Cases’ soundscapes lead the spectator to new atmospheres and environments as they move through the pavilion, both making “real” the abstracted space.
The exhibit is supplemented by a free catalog that provides in-depth insights into the prior-mentioned research and a smartphone app designed by Giga Design Studio in Milan. The app allows users to “enter” into six different houses in the mahallas in a VR exploration. It provides specifications of each of the houses such as floor plans, maps, facts, and archive images.
In addition to the app and catalog, Mahalla - The Survey is a special-edition three-volume boxed set. Published by Humboldt Books and designed by pupilla grafik (Francesca Pellicciari, Francesca Biagiotti), Mahalla—The Survey offers a comprehensive compiling of the project’s research, containing maps of current and past mahalla morphologies, drone imagery, contemporary street views, records of modern interventions (such as Soviet mahallas or major roads), exclusive art prints by Bas Princen, and a 12 inch LP of Carlos Casas’ soundscapes.
Images courtesy of the Art and Culture Development Foundation under the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Uzbekistan / CCA Lab Tashkent