Astana Searching for the – Kazakh City
by Philipp Meuser
Examining contemporary architecture in Kazakhstan inevitably raises questions: how can a young state with an indigenous nomadic culture contribute towards architecture in the twenty-first century? How should a prototype of a Kazakh city look like when older generations have left behind hardly any architectural relics, other than tombs and sacred buildings? To what extent does the urban planning and construction sector in an autocratically governed Kazakhstan prove the hypothesis that large-scale projects can only be implemented at short notice in political systems which ignore the Western concept of democracy? This architectural guide does not claim to answer these questions in full. Kazakh architecture is still at a stage where it is searching for an identity after decades of Soviet building culture dominating. At most this architectural guide can identify currents and tendencies.
However, for various reasons documenting a status quo is useful nowadays. In 2017 Astana was the host of the World Expo. Twenty years after its appointment as the capital of the Republic of Kazakhstan, this was a prime opportunity to present to the international community the Kazakh interpretation of a twenty-first century city. For this global media event President Nursultan Nazarbayev allowed the capital – one of the youngest in the world – to be smartened up. The World Expo, whose theme was “Future Energy”, and whose location in Astana came out on top in a deciding vote in November 2012 over Liège, Belgium, represented a temporary peak in the nation-building between Siberia in the north and Syr Darya in the south. The architecture in the capital plays a significant role in this new identity since it not only pervasively determines public space but has also long become a symbol of presidential power in the Kazakh steppe. Hardly any of Nazarbayev’s portraits, which were commissioned in the tradition of European court paintings, dispense with the visually stunning depiction of contemporary Kazakh architecture. The iconic buildings have a high recognition value, being used to decorate chocolate wrappers or offer topics for discussion in children’s books and textbooks. New buildings in Astana play a significant role in image propaganda, particularly the Bayterek Tower, which is said to have been sketched first-hand by Nazarbayev himself. This amalgam of architecture and state power displays clear-cut parallels with those political models in which a leader of a country commissions a monument to himself for future generations, created through the medium of architectural constructs. Viewed in this respect, Nazarbayev’s realm is no different from the neighbouring republics of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Discussion of architecture in Kazakhstan also represents an opportunity to take a closer look at a still largely unknown chapter in the history of architecture between 1960 and 1990. Construction activity that took place during these three decades, which currently finds its way into architectural history books under the name “Soviet Modernism”, is generally considered to be dominated by monotonous prefabricated buildings. In recent years, though, a critical generation of young architectural historians who are hungry for knowledge has identified numerous buildings – also in the former Kazakh SSR – which represent an era with a belief in progress and an enthusiasm for technology, but which also stand for the ideological competition during the Cold War. Thus, examples of Soviet Modernism in Central Asia are also featured in this architectural guide.
One generation after its independence, the oil-rich country of Kazakhstan is still undergoing a process of transformation, in common with its Central Asian neighbours. This change includes the restructuring of society as a whole, from a foreign-ruled indigenous population with nomadic roots towards an emancipated state that steps up to the international stage. Recent artistic works illustrate the balancing act society currently performs. While state-sponsored art broaches political themes such as the establishment of a capital city and nation-building (cf. Agimsaly Duzelkhanov: The First President) and pays homage to the idea of progress, the work of a small but critical avant-garde movement seize on social ruptures, as well as the problems between tradition and modernity (cf. Almagul Menlibayeva: video performance Apa). This new socio-cultural and political orientation is accompanied by a marked change in the appearance of cities, in which architecture has once again become the key symbol of modernisation. It is surprising to note that so far this architectural renaissance has largely taken place without an international discourse on the typology of a Eurasian city. If, however, this publication is to succeed in incorporating Kazakhstan into the international context of design and construction and thus fill a blank spot on the map for the wider public, then it has at least achieved part of its objectives. If, in addition, it manages to illustrate the combination of politics and the construction industry, as well as of architecture and state propaganda – a combination viewed with suspicion in the West but accepted as commonplace in Kazakhstan – the Treaty on the Eurasian Economic Union, which came into effect on 1 January 2014, may be easier to understand as an alternative model to the EU. In Astana, Presidents Alexander Lukashenko (Belarus), Vladimir Putin (Russian Federation) and Nursultan Nazarbayev (Kazakhstan) agreed upon the creation of a Single Economic Space, together with a Customs Union, which other countries dependent on Russia are expected to join. The Economist deems this forced marriage to be the greatest challenge facing any future President of multi-ethnic Kazakhstan.
Founded in 1991, the country is the ninth-largest country on the Earth, achieving international fame a few years ago owing to a cinematic farce: Borat. This blatantly absurd comedy tells the story of how the backwoodsman Borat – a supposed Kazakh simpleton with unspoilt naivety and a healthy portion of political incorrectness – travels across the United States of America. In the process, he not only obtains his own highly original view of Americans, but also affords an insight into underdeveloped relations in his purported native country. The fact that this fictional character is a gimmick was lost in the subsequent debate on the politically correct portrayal of Kazakhstan and its people. The film was controversially banned in Kazakhstan: the picture conveyed by Borat of an impoverished country populated by illiterates and bands of cutthroats in the Central Asian steppe appeared to be too suspect for the rulers of the real existing Kazakhstan, and would be too much to ask of the ordinary cinemagoer between Almaty and Aktau. The fact that the number of tourists increased fivefold after the film’s global release was however readily accepted. Regrettably, the case of Borat exposes the narrow limits of free speech which is officially permitted but is in reality thwarted, similar to Soviet times.
The former Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, which today boasts the same number of inhabitants as the Netherlands and is situated on an area half the size of Europe, is a child of Stalin who forced the steppe with its nomadic tribes into a geographical border in the early years of the Soviet Union. Back then, however, Stalin could not have suspected that vast petroleum and natural gas reserves were to be found to the east of the Caspian Sea. Kazakhstan instead found itself caught in the crossfire of the Cold War: a zone for nuclear testing near Semipalatinsk, a missile test site in Baikonur, the exploitation and ecological meltdown of the Aral Sea. Only with the collapse of the Soviet Union did the multi-ethnic state manage to liberate itself from Moscow’s rule. The first demands for more democracy were still met with repression and violence in December 1986. This was triggered by the Central Committee of the Kazakh SSR’s decision to swap the First Secretary of Kazakhstan, Dinmukhamed Kunayev, who was well-liked among the people, for the Russian Gennady Kolbin. The growing resentment among the population towards repression initially manifested itself in peaceful rallies. The Communist leadership responded with a violent campaign in order to implement a crackdown on demonstrations which has entered Kazakh history under the name Metel 86. From today’s perspective, these events appear as a harbinger of the dissolution of the USSR which was to follow shortly afterwards. Five years after the bloody end of the demonstrations, the leaders of twelve Soviet republics signed the Alma-Ata Protocol about the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) on 21 December 1991 in Alma-Ata (today known as Almaty) and thereby sealed the fate of the Soviet Union. Almost overnight, the unknown city became a navigation point for the new global policy; the list of countries worldwide was extended by the addition of Kazakhstan and eleven other countries.
The relocation of the capital from Alma-Ata to what was then Akmola was one of the most influential decisions made for the development of the young Kazakhstan. As early as 1830, the place which bore the name Tselinograd from 1961 to 1991 had been founded by troops of Nicholas I, Tsar of Russia, as the Russian fortress Akmolinsk on the banks of the Ishim River, in order to protect southern Siberia against the Kazakh tribes. Northern Kazakhstan is still to this day influenced by Russia (cf. map on the end-paper). Against this backdrop, it is an open secret that President Nursultan Nazarbayev pressed ahead with the relocation of the capital from the Kyrgyz and Chinese border to the extremely unpleasant climate conditions of the north in order to reinforce territorial claims over territories which in the sixties Nikita Khrushchev wanted to be a Soviet breadbasket. Nazarbayev had a book 2 published under his name on the strengthening of his power base through the strategy of urban development. On the one hand, this reads like a manual for the construction of a capital and, on the other it resembles the diary of an ambitious architect who is out to secure future contracts. The author also muses upon the unusual name of the new capital in the individual chapters relating to the philosophy of urbanity, the history of urban development and the aesthetic qualities of the capital. Nowadays, the former centre of Soviet Kazakh agriculture is simply named Astana, Kazakh for capital. Generally speaking, many Kazakh denotations are very direct and straightforward: thus, the Kazakh currency is called tenge, which means money in English.
Everything connected to the construction of the new city revolves around money. Payments are often issued without the relevant receipt. This starts right from the reservation – and not just the acquisition – of land, but extends from building permits all the way to the actual construction. In a market where most stakeholders are doing everything for the first time in a toxic combination of greed and naivety, the shortage of building materials regularly leads to tempestuous fits of anger and reckless decisions. Load-bearing walls are built quickly in lightweight construction, or only half of the cement is added to the concrete. If it costs less to implement and – at least at first glance – looks as required then many construction companies and architects (if still involved in the project) are willing to turn a blind eye. This is because many inexperienced building tycoons in the Kazakh Steppe have failed to realise that dates and times in the construction process cannot be negotiated in a similar manner to prices. A façade can only be installed if the heat insulation is fitted beforehand. Furniture should only be assembled once the floor screed has been poured onto the entire office floor. However, like construction workers who left either Uzbekistan or Tajikistan in search of work in the cold north, their employers constantly breathing down their necks, local investors with names such as Elitstroy, Bazis or KUAT are also pressed for time. It is assumed that those who do not manage to complete the construction of their building in time for the President’s birthday most likely suffer from a flawed time management in their business. One could surmise that the Kazakh construction industry would warmly welcome a new President; at least this would mean a second deadline for the completion of buildings. Investors could then decide for themselves whether to open a building in honour of the first or second President of the Republic of Kazakhstan.