Tashkent Modernism. Index, was initiated by Arts and Culture Development Foundation, coordinated by Grace, and conducted by an international team of architects, historians, and experts in restoration, including the Politecnico di Milano, Boris Chukhovich, Armin Linke and Laboratorio Permanente, who got together to document, interpret and preserve the modernist architecture in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Through the images and narratives of 20 buildings the exhibition on view at Triennale Milano on April 17-23, 2023 explored key themes related to architectural, social and cultural history of Tashkent and its current condition. In this interview, we talk about cultural significance and how to transmit passion for historic buildings to the people who use them.
KOOZ Tashkent Modernism. Index is the first public presentation of Tashkent. Modernism XX/XXI, a research which aims to document, interpret and preserve the modernist architecture in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. What prompted the project?
GAYANE UMEROVA The impetus for the development of the project was the desire to preserve the unique appearance of Tashkent. We have learned to appreciate antiquity, we are developing modern architecture, but we do not pay due attention to the architecture of the second half of the 20th century, not seeing its historical and cultural significance. At the same time, it is precisely the architecture of modernism that is evidence of the cultural identity, creative independence and high professionalism of architects who subordinated metal and concrete to their design, and erected not just buildings, but literally created a new reality.
"we do not pay due attention to the architecture of the second half of the 20th century, not seeing its historical and cultural significance."
- Gayane Umerova, Chairperson of Uzbekistan Art and Culture Development Foundation.
KOOZ Tashkent Modernism XX/XXI specifically addresses the preservation of 20 architectures which can be identified as “difficult” as they are part of a rather complex and contradictory recent history. Why does the Foundation think it is important to preserve these architectural manufacts?
GU These buildings are an architectural imprint of their time, with all its hopes and contradictions. By preserving them, we preserve for future generations a part of the cultural code that defines modern Tashkent. Each object is an author's unique view of a person, their role and place in society. Each object is an important part of the current cultural discourse, which makes Tashkent a point of attraction in the global cultural space.
KOOZ Within the context of Uzbekistan, although a monument can be listed, this does not specifically mean that it cannot be demolished. Boris Chukhovich, you have been engaged in safeguarding Tashkent Modernism throughout your entire life also deploying social media tools as facebook. Could you expand on how your background as an art historian informed your activity in the safeguarding of Tashkent Modernism and what you identify as the greatest threats to this?
BORIS CHUKHOVICH My work on the preservation of modernist monuments was motivated both rationally and emotionally. The rational part was due obviously to my understanding of the Modern movement values, but also to the fact that I was losing the object of my studies. Emotionally, I was connected to the Tashkent architecture of the 1960s-80s because I was born and grew up in a residential Tashkent district built in the 1960s with industrial modernist methods. Furthermore, my father was an architect and I met some of the protagonists of the Tashkent architecture during my childhood. Perhaps this double perception has carried over into our days. As a researcher, I am an impassioned historian of the late modernist heritage and cannot stand it when the Soviet is idealised or thoughtlessly glorified. But as someone who has been involved in the architectural world and its stories for many decades, I react heartily to the demolition or radical reconstruction of buildings that seem important to me. I am aware of the contradiction between these roles. Let's say, among the modernist buildings, there are those to which I have an emotionally negative attitude. I believe that the professional role should prevail over a human one: therefore I am equally ready to defend buildings that I like and buildings that I am indifferent to. As for social media, that is where my role as an historian is most involved. Influencers, institutions or citizens in general often ask me to speak out on various questions, and then use my opinion as a kind of immediate professional expertise. As a result of such discussions, I have also had to write more formal texts with an evaluation of the significance of a particular building. In some cases, these texts have become arguments in courts. And I am glad that some of these buildings were eventually saved from demolition or radical reconstruction.
"I react heartily to the demolition or radical reconstruction of buildings that seem important to me."
- Boris Chukhovich, historian.
KOOZ Armin Linke, in your conversation with Ekaterina Golovatyuk in Milan, on occasion of the premiere of the exhibition, you mentioned your difficulty in photographing exteriors as the “anthropological traces are in the interiors”. Could you expand on your interest in the multiple identities and narratives which, through time, build upon the original scripts of the architects? What is the importance of these photographs as not being subject to “the clichés formed during the last 15 years in the representation of Soviet modernism, whereby the modernist buildings are portrayed out of context, and glorified as remnants of an exotic, remote and extinguished culture”?
ARMIN LINKE I was very interested in photographing buildings not only for their aesthetics but also to show them as social spaces, how they are inhabited and used and changed in time by the users and citizens and how they are still very actual and work well also in their social function. This is somehow especially visible in their interiors. Like the Pearl apartment building, by O. Aydinova, where the social spaces are taken over and are readapted by the inhabitants' communities. Or how museum and performance places are still intensively used to show the everyday backstage and infrastructure of daily life and not only the “monumental” part.
"I was very interested in photographing buildings not only for their aesthetics but also to show them as social spaces."
- Armin Linke, photographer.
KOOZ This first phase of the research project on Tashkent specifically engaged a multitude of voices and research institutions to help define a set of strategies and parameters for the preservation of a selection of 20 architectures throughout the city. How does the project respond to the existing approach to preservation within the context of Uzbekistan? How did the research, and its findings, determine the diverse preservation strategies adopted?
EKATERINA GOLOVATYUK I believe there is no centralised approach to the preservation of recent XX century heritage in Uzbekistan. Building owners sporadically carry out upgrades, expansions or maintenance works—when these are needed—but such interventions have often been detrimental to the overall architectural integrity of buildings. However, as a team, we do consider that there have been a few interesting cases of interventions that are not strictly preservation but could be conceptually framed as such. For example, the architect of the Panoramic cinema has designed the expansion and the upgrade of the building 12 years after its completion. It’s a clearly distinct part of the cinema but is still harmonious with the earlier composition. Or in the case of the residential building Zhemchug, we believe that the maintenance and appropriations that were carried out by the inhabitants to the suspended courtyards have provided an interesting interpretation of the architect’s original intent to create a “vertical mahalla” (traditional residential neighbourhood). In other words, they made the vernacular claim of the architect more real.
"We are preserving the monuments built to celebrate the socialist society and to function within it, and, at the same time, we aim to make this heritage sustainable within the new capitalist condition."
- Ekaterina Golovatyuk, co-founder of Grace.
The research was crucial for identifying why to preserve a building, what to preserve in it and how. It laid the foundation for the statements of significance, methodologically defined by Davide Del Curto. Beyond specific stories of architects, their design intentions or the analysis of the present-day condition of buildings, we aimed to build larger thematic narratives (soviet building typologies, modernism and orientalism, technological experimentation, social surplus), which also informed our preservation actions, suggesting more nuanced methodologies of preservation. Maybe one of the conceptually more interesting aspects of our effort in Tashkent was the fact that we are preserving the monuments built to celebrate the socialist society and to function within it, and, at the same time, we aim to make this heritage sustainable within the new capitalist condition, which often demands exactly the opposite of what the original design catered for. In this sense, having a deep understanding of the past, on the one hand, and the needs of contemporary Tashkent, on the other, is where the research really informed our work.
KOOZ Davide del Curto, one of the outputs and preservation strategies of the research project is the creation of a series of “Building passports” through which you seek to document both the individual buildings but also outline a statement of significance revealing what specific parts of these buildings matter and how to deal with these. Whilst for some buildings the process was quite immediate, others have been subject to a series of transformations through time. How did you approach which elements and buildings should be restored to their original status and which should, on the other hand, bear testament to the multiple identities which have through time?
DAVIDE DEL CURTO Thanks for the question, which reveals a great understanding of our work. We usually tend to keep what we value. Furthermore, we tend to appreciate—and thus to attribute value—to what we get to know. Following this basic principle of modern conservation, the first step was to thoroughly describe each building, documenting 1) the history of the design (including the architects and institutions involved), 2) the history of the construction, 3) and the history of the subsequent use which often caused modifications to the initial building.
"We usually tend to keep what we value. Furthermore, we tend to appreciate—and thus to attribute value—to what we get to know."
- Davide del Curto, Associate professor of Architectural Restoration.
Sometimes these changes added value to the building, other times they did not. Today, some buildings still house the function for which they were designed and have not undergone any intentional changes. In these cases, we recommend a conservative restoration activity. This is the case of the Palace of People Friendship and the Art History Research Institute.
Other buildings, which have also retained their original function, have been subjected to significant architectural changes over time, because of changing standards and context. In these cases, we propose a careful balance between the restoration of the original modernist qualities and the adaptation to contemporary demands. This is the case of Hotel Uzbekistan and hotels in general since they often require a rapid functional upgrade.
"We have proposed a case-by-case approach to conservation, carefully balancing the preservation of authentic elements, the restoration of hidden qualities testifying the modernist character of the architecture and the adaptation to current needs."
- Davide del Curto, Associate professor of Architectural Restoration.
In other cases, the building has kept its original function, but some new parts have been added later. In many cases, these additions show less quality than the 1970s architecture. For this reason, we propose to restore the building to its original appearance, eliminating the incongruous additions and bringing it back to the original quality. Sometimes it is possible, because the original parts—although hidden—are still present and can therefore be restored. This is the case of the State Museum of Arts, the National History (former Lenin) Museum, and the Panoramic Cinema.
In conclusion, the method is based on a thorough knowledge of each building, acquired not only on books and documents, but also through site-surveys and technical analyses of the as-built. On these bases, we have proposed a case-by-case approach to conservation, carefully balancing the preservation of authentic elements, the restoration of hidden qualities testifying the modernist character of the architecture and the adaptation to current needs.
KOOZ Tashkent Modernism. Index was first presented within the Triennale in Milan. What is the value of exhibiting such research projects within cultural institutions as that of the Triennale? Now that the specific exhibition has closed, how will the project develop in the near future? What are the next steps?
GU Bringing such a large-scale research project to the attention of an international audience gives us the opportunity to sum up, to report on the results of the path that the working group has gone through. The main thing is to realise and rethink the work done, to see opportunities for development from the outside, new plots that open up thanks to a change in cultural context.
We have to continue research work and solve an important cultural area studies task: to “embed” the monuments of Tashkent modernism not so much into the urban environment, but into the minds of people, the residents of the city, to give them a new life, to make sure that an updated understanding leads to new content.
Uzbekistan Art and Culture Development Foundation was founded in 2017 by the decree of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. It fosters international cooperation and promotes the culture of Uzbekistan on the international stage. Its aim is to showcase national heritage by initiating projects related to fine arts, architecture, literature, theater, music, craft, design, and dance. The mission of the Foundation is to create an inclusive and accessible environment in the country’s cultural institutions, contribute to the renovation of museums, and develop cultural patronage and professional training for the arts and culture sector.
Gayane Umerova is the Chairperson of Uzbekistan Art and Culture Development Foundation (ACDF) and Secretary-General of the National Commission of the Republic of Uzbekistan for UNESCO. Gayane holds BA in Business Administration from Westminster University and MA in Art Business from Sotheby’s Institute of Art and Manchester University. She is a commissioner of the Uzbekistan National Pavilion at La Biennale di Venezia. She recently commissioned two major exhibitions in Paris: The Splendours of Uzbekistan’s Oases at the Musée du Louvre and The Road to Samarkand: Miracles of Silk and Gold at the Institut du Monde Arabe.
Grace is a Milan-based international studio of architecture, design, and research. Co-founded by Ekaterina Golovatyuk and Giacomo Cantoni, a substantial part of Grace’s portfolio is dedicated to exhibition design, museum architecture, and preservation of heritage. In 2019, Grace was selected by Domus Magazine among the top 100 best architectural practices worldwide.
Laboratorio Permanente is a Milan-based practice founded by Nicola Russi and Angelica Sylos Labini which works at different scales, from architecture to interior design and urban design. All its projects build on a sensible observation of their context and its multiple features: the natural environment, the material culture of each place with its own norms, the identity of local communities, and even the personal history of individuals.
Boris Chukhovich (b. 1962, Tashkent) is a leading historian specialising in Central Asian art and architecture and an independent curator and author. He curated multiple exhibitions of Central Asian art in Montreal, Ottawa, Venice, Bishkek, and Almaty. Chukhovich is an associated researcher at the University of Montreal and president of the Observatory of Central Asian Cultural Heritage Alerte Héritage. Currently, he serves as a visiting scholar at Politecnico di Milano.
The Department of Architecture and Urban Studies is an interdisciplinary research structure of the Politecnico di Milano, established in 2013. It carries out research, design experimentation and training activities in the field of architectural and urban design, spatial planning and territorial governance, urban policies, preservation and intervention on the built and natural heritage, and historical and critical interpretation of architecture and the city.
Armin Linke (b. 1966, Milan) is a photographer and filmmaker combining a range of contemporary image processing technologies to blur the border between fiction and reality. In a collective approach with other artists, as well as with curators, designers, architects, historians, philosophers and scientists, the narratives of his works expand on the level of multiple discourses. Linke has served as a research affiliate at the MIT Visual Arts Program, guest professor at the IUAV Arts and Design University in Venice, and professor for photography at the Karlsruhe University for Arts and Design. Currently Armin Linke is guest professor at ISIA, Urbino (IT) and artist in residence at the KHI Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz.