Uzbek pavilion lures Venice visitors into the labyrinth
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Visitors to Uzbekistan’s national pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale will find themselves navigating a sort of maze. Despite being created inside the Arsenale in bricks reclaimed from the Veneto region, its form derives from structures thousands of miles away — ancient, pre-Islamic qala fortresses in the Karakalpakstan part of the country, some built in the sixth century BC.
“But it’s also a metaphor to describe the period we are in,” explains Karl Fournier, one of the project’s curators. “We’ve gone the wrong way — we’re building towers in the desert! — and now we need to find the way out. The maze, for us, was the best metaphoric form.”
Fournier, as you might surmise, is not an Uzbek name; he is one half of the French architecture firm Studio KO, run with his life and work partner, Olivier Marty. The practice is based between Paris and Marrakech, which is home to one of their best-known projects, the pink brick and granite Yves Saint Laurent Museum, completed in 2017. Another highlight is London’s Chiltern Firehouse hotel from 2014 — an exclusive, hedonistic venue kitted out like an Edwardian boarding house, where nepo babies party the night away.
Neither project makes them an obvious match to curate the pavilion of this post-Soviet, mostly Muslim country. Yet Studio KO have roots in Uzbekistan: they are working on the conversion of a 1912 power station into Tashkent’s new Centre for Contemporary Art. “If you passed it in the street you might think it was a library or a church,” says Fournier of the building which dates from the period of imperial Russian rule. “We are happy to be saving and reusing, not wasting it and tearing it down.” Indeed, they are using the space as a model for their Venice labyrinth, building a full-size mock-up in wood to test out its design.
Studio KO like to find solutions in the architectural sediment of a place, celebrating traditional techniques and materials, as well as embracing local conditions. For the YSL Museum, Fournier says that they were influenced by the way Moroccan riads draw light and air through their interior courtyards. “The bricks we used are local, the granite is local,” he says. “The plan is contemporary, but the materiality followed tradition.”
Picking up the theme, their Uzbek pavilion in Venice is titled Unbuild Together: Archaism vs Modernity. “We see ourselves as interpreters, as transmitters,” says Marty. “We wanted to involve Uzbek people very directly.”
By way of preparation, they took 24 architecture students from Ajou University in Tashkent to visit Karakalpakstan’s qalas to research how they were built and how people lived inside them. Constructed solidly from brick, they were places for defence, but also provided housing, storage and community; their labyrinthine form made them remarkably safe. And because the bricks were made from local clay, they quite literally grew from the ground on which they sit.
“They have a real architectural power,” says Fournier. “Their geometry hasn’t been diminished in any way.” For the students, many of whom had not left Tashkent before, it also showed their own heritage and the value of focusing on their own region.
“Through TikTok, they are totally globalised,” says Fournier, “but less naturally inclined to look closer to home. It’s good to realise that interesting solutions can exist locally.” The students’ responses to the field trip will be exhibited in the pavilion.
“We have to demonstrate to our government about what we are producing culturally,” says Gayane Umerova, who runs the Art and Culture Development Foundation for the Republic of Uzbekistan and who invited Fournier and Marty to curate the pavilion (and also commissioned them to make Tashkent’s Centre for Contemporary Art). “And how these projects are both regionally and internationally relevant.”
Even by the standards of post-Soviet states, Uzbekistan is authoritarian. In 2021 elections, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev was re-elected with more than 80 per cent of the vote; no serious opposition candidates were allowed to stand, and recent constitutional changes mean that he could stay in power until 2040. Karakalpakstan itself has been a site of unrest; in July 2022, following Mirziyoyev’s attempts to remove the region’s autonomy, there were protests there, the largest in the country in two decades, which were brutally put down.
Some might question Umerova for inviting foreign architects to represent her country. But “the perceived expectation of what a national pavilion should be puts a lot of pressure” on those in Umerova’s position, says Inga Lāce, a Latvian curator and research fellow at MoMA who has travelled extensively around Uzbekistan and its neighbours. “I understand the emphasis on history — but it makes you keen to know about more contemporary local voices.”
Umerova argues that the pavilion can have quiet political power. In 2021, for the first Uzbek pavilion at Venice, she invited the Swiss architects Christ & Gantenbein to create a replica of a traditional mahalla — dense neighbourhoods of houses, alleys and courtyards that are a vital part of Uzbek heritage, but are threatened by urban developments. The exercise yielded direct results, Umerova says. “When the exhibition had been up for a couple of months, the government decided to try to keep some of the remaining mahallas.”
All of which makes KO’s theme — archaism vs modernity — seem entirely fitting and goes to show that it’s not always modernity that wins.