The Excesses of Kazakh Architecture

by Joshua Foust on 12/10/2006 · 5 comments

Via New Eurasia: Sir Norman Foster, a famous British architect, is set to build another outrageous building in Kazakhstan. His first act of lunacy was the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, a gigantic pyramid plopped down in the middle of the country’s barren capital, Astana.

Astana Yurt by Ben Foster

Now, Foster is set to build a really big yurt, or, as the BBC calls it, a “giant tent,” 500-ft high and acting as its own little self-contained eco-system. Why good old Uncle Nazzy needs such excesses is a mystery to me, especially while his country still has issues with grinding and intractable poverty outside Astana and Almaty. Since Nazarbayev’s decision to move the capital up north just over a decade ago, he has spent nearly $15 billion on construction; Ben is right to see in this the shadows of Turkenbashi, the cultish leader of Turkmenistan.

It might not just be megalomania, however. When I was there in 2003, Astana was a tiny city, more of a village, with those annoying, expansive public squares that seem the hallmark of overly-planned socialist towns across the former Soviet Union. There were lots of tall, half-built buildings all over the place. The place looked like it was designed for growth, though, with pretty apartment buildings along the Ishim River, and a bunch of gigantic buildings with seemingly no purpose. Word among the expats was that most didn’t want to leave beautiful, mountainous Almaty for extra-cold, flat, isolated Astana.

Astana Waterfront, 2003 by Joshua Foust

Even a decade after the capital was officially moved up north, most embassies remain in Almaty. It is entirely possible Nazarbayev is just trying to make his shiny new capital city an attractive place to live—it is certainly surreal enough (seemingly a requirement for Central Asian capitals). If it also becomes a legitimate tourist destination, then, it might all seem worth it. But that still doesn’t mean Uncle Nazzy’s ego isn’t at the center of it all.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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yan December 11, 2006 at 5:14 am

Looks a bit like the Sony Center in Berlin. I wonder where the support for the roof is going to be.

Amira December 11, 2006 at 10:45 am

I think that could be Nazarbaev’s biggest goal, but a bunch of big buildings aren’t going to make the expats happy. Those who are being shipped up there from, for example, the US Embassy aren’t too happy. The marginal socializing and shopping opportunities and the tiny international school might improve over time, but even Nazarbaev can’t fix the weather. I doubt Nazarbaev will ever see the day that people would rather live in Astana than Almaty.

Michael Hancock December 11, 2006 at 10:46 am

Two 250m redwood trunks stapled together, which will be hoisted using pulleys and Elephants, like in Dumbo!

KZblog December 11, 2006 at 11:33 pm

Well I wouldn’t mind some indoor golf and a little tropical rainforest going on.
The problem is like everything else it will probably all be to look at but not to get anywhere near. It shows the level of mentality that the giant Presidential Park from Ak-orda to kazmunai gas is just for walking, no football field, nothing in short to do but look at the admittedly pretty scenery.

cgb December 13, 2006 at 12:41 am

The Zazhigalka caught fire this Spring but MChS was able to contain the blaze pretty well, considering the building is 50 (or so) stories tall and most of the flames were at the top. That’s a rather unheard of problem in post-Soviet societies and I will venture to say most fire departments throughout have very little in the way of training, much less understanding, in how to go about this.

The downside to Astana is that right now it’s sterile and hollow and full of underqualified service-sector employees and underpaid migrant construction workers….but in 35 years Astana will be like Brasilia or Canberra (or, more likely in terms of climate, Ottawa). That is, an artificially created capital that functions as an administrative center, and not a commercial and banking capital that doubles, and thus loses its focus.

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