Crowning the lavish 70th birthday of Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev on 6 July in his capital, Astana, was the grand opening of Khan Shatyr: a giant, peaked, transparent tent. In this bizarre structure, 10,000 citizens at a time will be able to stretch their legs in the city’s bleak winter, when temperatures drop to minus 40oC and punishing winds rush in off the frozen steppes. Richard Orange visited the project during its construction, and explores the impact of Foster & Partners’ work on this new city.
‘There’s obviously a culture of tents in the Kazakh and the Russian steppes,’ says Nigel Dancey of Foster and Partners, who led the design team that came up with the 150m tent. But, he says Foster’s central idea was to make the entertainment centre a vertical structure to mirror the Pyramid of Peace and Reconciliation, another Foster building at the opposite end of a long mall that cuts through the city centre.
Astana’s come a long way since the grand inauguration 12 years ago as the new capital of Kazakhstan. Then, some of the buildings were discovered to be little more than facades, leading to hoots of derision in the international press. This was despite a herculean effort to complete the city’s grand central avenue and presidential buildings in time, with 15,000 workers and 80 construction companies working around the clock. But there was always more to moving the capital than mere presidential whim. At the time of independence in 1990, there were calls in Russia to annex the north of Kazakhstan, where the population is overwhelmingly ethnically Russian. By moving the capital, Nazarbayev secured the region, and spurred an influx of ethnic Kazakhs.
Almaty is too close to the southeast corner of the country, he argues, and too close to China (just 161km), and long overdue a catastrophic earthquake. The facades weren’t the only fodder for sneering Western critics, though. The buildings that were completed, such as the 97m Baiterek tower at the city centre, and the hulking neoclassical Ak Orda (Presidential Palace), were built in an overblown post-Soviet style. The new name, Astana, just means ‘capital’ in Kazakh.
Then a long delay meant that Foiltec was forced to do its work in the middle of the winter, and it rebelled, so Gultekin contacted Turkish mountaineering clubs, hired 400 climbers, and trained them to do the work. Every morning, the site resounded with hard rock music as the teams psyched themselves up to brave the icy heights. Now, in the final push to meet the 5 July deadline, Sembol is bringing so many extra workmen in from China, Turkey, and Uzbekistan that on some flights, builders outnumber businessmen.
Two weeks after that visit, it looked like they would probably make it. Tight deadlines are something of a speciality for Gultekin. Six years ago, he designed and built the Rixos President Hotel for the president from start to finish in a just 10 months. Sembol was the first builder to work through the harsh Astana winter.
Ever since, Sembol has won most of the capital’s major projects, building a sizeable business, with about $1bn (£670m) of buildings underway, and all beginning with a chance meeting with Nazarbayev on holiday in the company’s home town, Antalya.
It was Sembol that brought Foster and Partners in to design the glass Pyramid with its opera house in the basement. The Pyramid, which opened in 2006, more than any other building, whetted the president’s taste for top international architects, a taste that is starting to turn the city into a future museum of today’s styles. Aytekin says: ‘if this continues, in 50 years’ time, Astana will be an open exhibition of all the good products of architecture. In Chicago, there was a similar situation and now architects who come to the US, they visit Chicago to see the masterpieces.’
Nazarbayev employed Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa to draw up the city’s strange hub-and-spoke master plan, back in 1998, but in the last few years he has stepped up the pace. Paul Robbrecht has won the contract to design the City Museum, Manfredi Nicoletti is doing the Concert Hall, Bjarke Ingels Group, from Copenhagen, is doing the National Library, HOK architects, now Populous, did the National Stadium. ‘It’s like the Olympic games for architecture here,’ says a Lithuanian architect there to meet the city’s chief architect. ‘Last year there were six international competitions running simultaneously. There are so many famous names working here. To play in one basketball court with all these people is amazing.’
It’s not just big name international architects. The city is filling up with office and apartment blocks, hotels, schools, and shopping centres, all in a jangled mix of international styles. The government claims there are 1,700 cranes working on 650 separate sites. The official population has soared from 250,000 to close to 700,000.
So has it worked? Is Astana now a city befitting the ambition of Nazarbayev’s young, prosperous central Asian nation? Not really, or at least not yet. One foreign resident says that there’s only one pub in the city that has any atmosphere. ‘The city is orientated around the diplomatic function, rather than for anyone living here,’ he says. ‘For everyone else there’s still sod all really.’ Expats complain that it’s still surreal, lifeless, and artificial. But that is changing. More Kazakhs are bringing their families, and schools are opening.
And the new buildings do help to give the city an identity. The first generation has already gained irreverent names such as ‘the Chupa Chup’, or the ‘Cigarette Lighter.’ Khan Shatyr is exactly the kind of leisure facility the place needs. Its bigger brother, Indoor City, a Sembol concept for a covered park four times the area of London’s Dome, will be even more so if Foster and Partners’ design is realised.
Aytekin, ever philosophical, says Astana still needs to grow into itself: ‘you can build buildings, you can build bridges, you can build roads, but it doesn’t mean that you have a city. A city means you have a soul, a style of dressing, a style of living, even an accent. Of course in 10 years, you cannot build it. It needs time’