Astana is a city of odd architecture, but I fear the Kazakh city’s planners are going in the wrong direction
Astana is a new city, a planned city. Rather than growing naturally over centuries, with people building wherever and whatever they want, everything is thought through by a central committee. This introduces an odd dynamic – cities are living, breathing spaces; they are natural hives of human activity. And as soon as people begin to control them too much, weird things begin to happen.
In Astana, much of that can be seen through its weird and wonderful architecture. As always, I spent days wandering through the city – the best way to see a city is always by foot – taking in as much as I possibly could. Like any other city, there are some horrendous buildings, that appear to seriously affect the human experience of Astana, and there are some incredibly elegant examples of architecture.
I wrote last year that the construction of Astana appears to be an exercise in the creation of a founding myth of Kazakhstan. Its purpose is to be great world city that celebrates the nomadic culture of the Kazakh people. This is the first of Astana’s contradictions – how can a permanent settlement celebrate itinerant life?
The best example is the Khan Shatyr, the world’s largest tent. This was designed by Norman Foster, the superstar British architect, and it sits at the opposite end of the Presidential Palace on the Millennium Axis. The Khan Stayr is inspired by the yurts of the nomads, but holds a lacklustre shopping centre. It is as if the planning and management of the building was an afterthought; it is the building itself that is important and not its purpose.
Build, build, build
On the Millennium Axis, particularly Nurzhol Boulevard, buildings such as this rise above Astana. It seems to me that somebody said that a modern city needed skyscrapers, and so skyscrapers were built. Here, they are almost all ugly and each development bears little relation to the others. How could a central planning committee allow this to happen? They just wanted the towers to show how great a city Astana is.
But if Astana truly wants to be a global city, it must focus on the human experience. The architecture is there to serve the people, and through that comes greatness. In London, Paris, Barcelona and New York life is expensive and tough, but people are inspired to live there by the idea of the person into which they can reimagine themselves. Kazakhs speak of Astana as sucking the life out of them.
Add Dubai into the mix and hedonism comes into play. All the great cities of the world allow people to escape the drudge of day to day existence.
Carnival and control
The Russian philosopher, Mikhail Bakhtin, came up with the theory of the carnivalesque. In literature this is the idea that dominant power is subverted through fun, through eccentricities and unacceptable behaviour. He came up with the idea by examining the history of carnivals and their opposition to state parades; one allows the people to free and do what they want for a day, the other exerts the state’s hegemony through formality.
Astana is very much a city that acts to control.
In front of the Presidential Palace stands a huge square. It is almost always completely empty apart from a few gawkers that have ventured past the giant gold sentinels, nicknamed the beer cans, flanked with a troop of curved office buildings. It is these that dominate, and delimitate, the end of the Millennium Axis. No one passes them. The palace is ignored; left alone with only the supreme court and concert hall to see it.
I do happen to think that Astana’s concert hall is a lovely building. It is striking and modern. It has also received a nickname for its green colour and shape – the Cabbage. The hall is one of the few buildings that puncture the formality of Astana; it is fun, interesting and esoteric.
These are qualities that Astana usually lacks – Kentucky Fried Chicken is in TripAdvisor’s top twenty restaurants in the city after all. Fun, interesting and esoteric it os not.
Finding a decent meal is expensive, unless you go to such an international fast-food chain. It should be easy to find the canteens that fill Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian cities. But not in Astana; there is no sense here that business and fun can go hand in hand, unless you decide to find the cities network of vice.
Bread and roses
Life is more interesting in the north of the Astana. Here is where the remnants of Akmoly and Tselinograd lie. Akmoly was founded in 1830, and renamed to Tselinograd by the USSR in 1961. The area is full of old Soviet apartment blocks, but these are disappearing along with anything else that shows there was a city before Astana.
People walk in this part of town, maybe they are unable to afford cars. It is the area in which those who run the city – the bus drivers, cleaners and street sweepers – live. Soon enough, they will be forced to move as modern, expensive apartment blocks destroy their homes.
Surely the Soviet tenements were not built to the highest standard, but they must be replaced with sustainable housing for those that need it. Rent in Astana is very high, when compared to the average wage, for small, new flats.
In the south, where most of the building work is concentrated, it is still possible to see little pockets of the villages that surrounded Tselinograd. They are now surrounded by hoardings that advertise the plans for huge complexes of grand living areas full of fountains and shiny glass buildings.
Soon they will be gone. The poor will be forced to leave; they will be unable to pay the extortionate rents for the fantastical architecture. And Astana will be nothing but a rich Kazakh’s playground, because they have failed at imbuing it with life. Astana will be a husk.