Wednesday, September 22, 2010

In Europe...for a bit

A few days ago, in fact last Saturday, I arrived in Holland. Safely, but not entirely healthy yet.
Later today to Belgium, later this week to France, for a vacation. October 16, I will leave for Uzbekistan again.

Narrating, let alone explaining, the Uzbek experience proves more difficult than I thought.

Yet, also some unexpected similarities with Holland came up in a conversation with Harro, a friend and famous landscape architect: also here, in Holland, we are part of an extended delta system, with rivers overflowing, changing course, a sea rising and retreating, and all of this resulting in a patchwork soil with a complex layering, with peat, sand, clay and salt alternating in complex patterns. Also here, water management cannot rely on generic recommendations. The abundant rain makes the salt less of a problem, though.

Thanks to a book on pasturage in Uzbekistan, and conversations with the Dutch friends here, it finally dawned on me that the fertility of much of Khorezm's desert has the same cause: it might be dry, but other than that, the rivers and streams deposited everything needed for good agriculture.

(And now, a vacation)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


SNIP's are stroitelnyi normi i praveli, or, roughly translated, building norms and standards. In our research in Georgia, it became clear that in the USSR, those norms were in many ways more important than the different types of plans supposedly guiding urban development. How so? After conversations here with retired architects and other bureaucrats, I got a better idea.

Plans were produced by planners and architects at many levels, those levels of administration were competing, resources were unpredictable, and, most of all, other organizations, like industrial ministries with their own planners, could override the plans that were supposed to be comprehensive. Norms on the other hand were easier to check, simplified and standardized the development process for all parties involved, saved money, guaranteed a basic quality of the product amidst the turmoil of competing state actors.

There were however so many norms, so many types of norms, that it became hard to follow them all, and they could easily contradict each other. This opened the door to corruption, theft, but it also created breathing room, flexibility to adapt to local circumstances, space for creativity, for planning as design. Connections helped, and a city with a strong and networked chief architect could probably boast better, more context- sensitive and multi- functional design.

When this was not the case, city planning and urban design would be delivered to the uniformity of the SNIP's, dictating everything from building design (detailed per type of building) to street design (related to adjoining building ensembles), green space (required surfaces), and neighborhood planing (standardized programmatically, and design- wise). Then, planning was reduced to moving around with predefined building blocks, in predictable patterns. Then, 'design was almost impossible', according to an insider.

(Tuesday, a disappointment: the famed German beer house was closed. We did find a good alternative, and solved many world problems with the help of a few beers. On TV, images of the cotton harvest, and military gymnastics in a football stadium, cheered by the crowds.)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Khiva revisited

This is my friend Mukhammed Riza Irniyazbek og'li Agakhiy (1809-1874), a renowned irrigator, poet, calligrapher, translator and historian from the late Khiva Khanate. In those days, right before the Russian takeover, Khorezm had been slowly marginalized. With the breakdown of the silk roads and the Central Asian empires in the 16th century, Khiva became a backwater. So exactly how famous Agakhiy was, is hard to tell. (His picture is in the Khiva museum though)

In his History of Khorezm, written in Chagatay Turk, a work he took over from his nephew Muni in 1839, Agakhyi mostly describes the military exploits of the young Qongrat dynasty. He himself was close to the Khan, followed him on military expeditions -maybe more appropriately called 'raids'- as one of his top civil servants, one of the four mirabs, or superintendents of the irrigation systems. Even though the Khanate then spoke Turkish, as opposed to Persianised Bukhara, the Persian tradition of an intellectual and artistic bureaucracy lived on. Since even then, everything depended on irrigation, it is not so strange to find a top bureaucrat that is an irrigation planner/ poet.

On my second visit to Khiva, last Sunday, it struck me more than before how much the present structure and appearance of the old town is a product of that 19th century, of the new Qongrat dynasty trying to leave a mark, and the new Russian overlords doing the same. It also struck me to what extent it is the result of restoration: old pictures and paintings show a city that is much denser, more chaotic, less dominated by geometric open spaces, more by mud than brick. Also in the details, the historicized Khiva is a rough reinvention, with hasty reconstruction showing in dangling wires, awkward gas pipes, cracks and holes, new brick types, and -not really a detail- residents moved to the margins. Unesco sponsored those imperfect projects, but one can wonder what the alternatives would have been. Yes, it partly is an orientalist dream now, but would Soviet urbanization or total marginalization (sold as authentic) would have been better?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Landscape architects?

A few days ago, we visited the municipal park service, talked to the director. Tucked away behind Urgench's 'Central Park', aptly named the Amur Timur garden - Tamerlane appreciated a fine garden- we found a few greenhouses (see picture), a small office, and a gentleman willing to talk about plants in the city. Despite his openness, it was not easy to discuss design of green spaces, or landscape architecture.

He himself was an agronomist, general agricultural expert, and he worked together with the architects at city planning. Sometimes they designed green urban spaces, asking him for planting advice later, sometimes they designed it on the basis of his planting and siting ideas, sometimes he did it himself. For the largest projects, e.g. the new Avesta park (Zoroastrianism is included in the heritage canon now) experts from the capital come over and assist in the process.

No mention of landscape architecture. Architects and agronomists decided on green spaces, in line with what we saw in Tbilisi and Erevan, where planning and urban design were also dominated by architects. There however, many had some notion of landscape architecture, and one could even study it at the academy of arts -I do not know how old these programs are.

When I asked him about his sources of inspiration, he showed me exactly one Soviet- era garden book, dated 1971, full of blurry plant pictures and model garden designs. Still, it seems to work!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Today, after two and a half months, a breakthrough: I learned what a Plan is...

We talked to an old hydrotechnical engineer, still in an important position, and he showed me some plans, for a renovated irrigation/ drainage system, the basis for all other forms of planning. Stamps all over the place, the plan itself drawn by hand, with markers and pencils in different colors.

But this was not the plan! No! This is not the project (the Soviet word for physical plan) This was just the request. Requests could come from different places (a kolkhoz, a district water management), were provided with a hierarchical series of stamps, sent to Tashkent, if approved sent back down the ladder, this time to the 'Project organizations', where the detailing and technical analysis is done. In the eyes of the people in the planning system, the author of the plan is either that project organization, or the organization with the biggest stamp.

Where the idea, and the sketch plan came from, is considered not relevant. And if you get an answer, people disperse authorship and responsibility again among committees, where everyone is involved. That in fact most of the requests are the final plan, eludes the attention, and with that, the actual power relations and the actual functioning of the system remain in the mist. How exactly formal and informal institutions feed off each other, is extremly hard to trace.

But at least now I know what a Plan is...

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Badai tugai

Last Thursday, two colleagues and I undertook a small expedition to Karkalpakstan, braving a little tornado, to find the mysterious Badai Tugai, a Soviet- era natural preserve (zapovednik) with allegedly primeval tugai forest, the original floodplain vegetation.

Turned out that, though interesting and exotic in its own way, it is quite hard for a western observer to call the place either primeval or forest. There are trees, yes, a few poplar species and here and there a Russian olive. Those trees are small and crooked, since even regular river floods cannot hide that this is harsh terrain, precarious habitat eked out in desert conditions.

So the result for me would be a mix of steppe, savannah, and maquis, dry shrubland, in some places eerily resembling the aspen parklands of the American north, also mosaic landscapes with dwarf poplar trees, shrubs and grasses, parsed with little wetlands. Evidently, the desert context makes a difference, and the history of irrigation and land reclamation made it even harder to maintain anything looking like a forest.

This brings us to the un- natural appearance of the place, with elaborate ground works, a deer farm, irrigation canals, wide roads, logging, and virtually no dead wood. Poverty is one explanation: people collect the tinder and brushwood. Land reclamation plays a role: water levels dropped so much that the forest would have died without irrigation canals. And there is the Soviet attitude of translating policies into quantitative targets: 'Forest is trees and deer, so forest protection is managing their numbers'. Probably it was naive of mine to expect anything close to a natural forest in this engineered region.

[Saturday night, an adventure of a different sort: I tried dog meat for the first time, in a Korean restaurant here in Urgench. In two versions: a soup with dog meat, where you could add different herbs and spices, and a spicy dogstew with rice. An Uzbek colleague recommended, insisted, that dog always goes with vodka, so we had to comply with that ritual too]