Mahalla – Urban Rural Living: Showcasing the Cultural Heritage of Uzbekistan at Venice Biennale of Architecture (Alsu Akhmetzyanova, Uzbekistan, ITP Fellow 2019)

Written by Alsu Akhmetzyanova, Head of Education, Arts and Culture Development Foundation (Uzbekistan, ITP Fellow 2019)

In the recent years, large scale changes have been taking place in Uzbekistan, including massive efforts to be recognised on the international stage as for a quite a long time, Uzbekistan seemed to be a closed and mysterious country for people abroad.

One of the biggest international projects was the first participation of Uzbekistan with its national pavilion on the Architectural Biennale in Venice. The Arts and Culture Development Foundation applied as a commissioner of the national pavilion in 2019, but due to the pandemic the event was postponed until May 2021. This gave us enough time to undertake deep academic research and documentation on the cultural heritage called Mahalla. Mahalla is considered to be the threatened forms of community living, a concept which was perfectly matched to the topic of the Biennale “How will we live together?”

“Mahallas” are units of community, so called tiny separated neighbourhoods, that function as a truly rural space embedded in an urban context. They are commonly spread in the Arab world, Western and Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and the Balkans. Such a traditional form of common living is built around family bonds and daily routine, and has effective self-governing bodies. Mahallas have their own unique architecture, traditions, smells, sounds and even lifestyle.

At the moment, there are around 9,000 Mahallas left in Uzbekistan. Due to the rapid process of urban revolution, these are under a big threat of demolition, substituting not only the architecture of the country, but the mentality and lifestyle of the inhabitants. Therefore, the curatorial team explored the question whether the social organisation of these neighbourhoods and their various architectural formations offer urban society a sustainable and ecological model.

The pavilion “Mahalla: Urban Rural Living” represents not only a 1:1 scale model of a Mahalla house occupying the whole space of the Quarta Tesa at Arsenale, but also research and documentation led by ETH Zurich professors Emanuel Christ and Christoph Gantenbein, together with Adjunct Curator Victoria Easton. Throughout the research, the ETH Zurich team collaborated with local scientists, artists and the participants of the cross-disciplinary, experimental laboratory of the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Tashkent.

In the pavilion visitors can experience different habitats, from room to room – the atmospheric soundscapes created by Carlos Casas Some, and extracts of Mahalla houses as fragments of spaces represented by photographs by Bas Princen.


Additionally, some digital tools were developed: a website giving information about the project ( ), an app which allows the visitor to experience the house structure suggested by the soundscapes (Mahalla: Urban Rural Living available on AppStore and GooglePlay), and a page at Google Arts and Culture which gives the opportunity to visit the exhibition online ( ).

This emotional, aesthetic, and spatial experience is complemented by an analytical and intellectual experience conveyed by the catalogue. Additional content is provided in a special edition published by Humboldt Books, a carefully designed folder which features a series of prints by Bas Princen and a recording by Carlos Casas.

Based on collected data and a wide range of foreign experts involved, the Mahalla Stories series of events were hosted in Venice. Mahalla Stories is a series of educational and cultural events which includes the performance of Uzbek traditional music, public talks and lectures on academic research of the topic of Mahallas, open sessions on sound, and film screenings of the film “Mahallada duv-duv gap” (The whole Mahalla speaks about it).

The participation of Uzbekistan in the 17th Architectural Biennale has laid the foundation to the long-term research of the topic Mahalla, and might impact the architectural planning of the restructure of the cities of Uzbekistan.