Uzbek respect

Uzbekistan’s dazzling architectural heritage survived the rigours of Soviet repression, and Islamic tradition still tempers the modernising elements of any local design brief. John Stones talks to a consultancy that has coped with these conflicting demands

Tucked away between Afghanistan and Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan is a dry, landlocked country that has a somewhat querulous relationship with the outside world. Tourism from outside remains a pretty limited and specialised business. But, just like the traders who have followed the Silk Road for centuries, those who do go to Uzbekistan will see a wealth of historic Islamic architecture, with an intricate, decorative nature that continues to be a source of national pride and identity.

‘Each building in any [Uzbek] city, and especially in the capital [Tashkent], has to comply with that city’s architecture, and this aspect was taken into consideration.’ So decreed President Islam Karimov, who rules the country with an iron fist, at the recent opening of the Uzbekistan International Forums Palace. ‘The buildings we raise – be they administrative, educational, healthcare or residential – have to serve not only us, but also future generations,’ he continues in the official communique.

Situated on Amir Timur Square, bang in the centre of Tashkent, the palace is a conference and exhibition centre, replete with a dome 53m in diameter. The grand historicist nature of its architecture has more than a whiff of the bombast of its Soviet past, yet it also vaguely tries to create an opening to the future. ‘The national style was in harmony with the modern architectural solutions’ is the official line.

At this point you are probably expecting Sacha Baron Cohen to jump out, as he did in Borat, his spoof on neighbouring Kazakhstan. Instead, it is Ippolito Fleitz Group, a German design consultancy based in Stuttgart, that pops up. Self-styled ‘identity architects’, the group is responsible for some widely admired and accomplished interiors such as the Linden Apotheke, a pharmacy in Ludwigsburg, and Waku Waku, a fast food restaurant in Hamburg. Departing from its normal practise, the group was commissioned to develop the interiors for the Forums Palace, which led in turn to the invitation to design a neighbouring jewellery shop as well.

This store is housed in a bell tower, built in the traditional style mimicking a pre-existing historic bell tower that stands close by. Rather than aiming for pastiche or opulence, Ippolito Fleitz conceived an extraordinary interior that, much like Jean Nouvel’s celebrated 1998 Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, combines modern design and Islamic heritage to stunning effect.

The repeating geometric designs typical of Islamic architecture are interpreted for the jewellery store interior with polished, laser-cut stainless panels. These envelop the interior of the space to create, suggest the designers, a ‘shimmering casket’, and the dark walls recede behind the steel latticework.

The wares themselves – locally produced jewellery, often antique – are lit by fibre optics, while a twisting fluorescent light snakes through the space, creating intriguing reflections as it does so. The designers chose to accentuate the long rooms of the store by introducing tinted mirrors to the end walls, which, taken together with the glass tables and display cases, further elongate the space and allow even more opportunity for reflections, particularly for the contrasting traditional architectural elements such as the arched window.

The resulting florid and busy environment is in distinct contrast with the clean, typically German neo-Modern lines of most of Ippolito Fleitz’s designs. ‘Wait until you see the interiors of the Forums Palace,’ says consultancy co-founder Peter Ippolito with a chuckle, before adding, more seriously, ‘With our claim to be identity architects, we really do try to develop a language for every customer. Uzbekistan is not the Western world.’

‘They are very proud of their building heritage, but also aware that they need to introduce more modern elements, which is where we came in. So the shop is extremely respectful of local culture, but with a new language,’ says Ippolito. The solution manages to be both metaphorical and aesthetic, with the stainless steel panels forming a second, modern surface that allows the old and traditional to reflect into the new.

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