Posted May 2012
Las Vegas on the steppe
– Kazakhstan’s capital Astana is quite a sight to behold.
Sitting squat right in the middle of a flat nowhereness, which
actually happens to be the largest dry steppe on earth that
reaches for over 2,000 km from the Caspian Sea in the east to
the Altai mountains in the west, Astana is one of those few
planned capital cities which owe their existence exclusively to
the whims of one man.
I don’t know if Kazakhstan’s
president Nursultan Nazarbayev wanted to be an architect when he
was young. He studied to become an engineer, I have been told.
But isn’t it the desire of
every plutocrat to leave his mark on the face of the earth – and
I don’t just mean metaphorically?
If Russia’s Peter the Great
could have St Petersburg, the least Kazakhstan’s uncontested
ruler (since 1990) could have was Astana, whose flashy and
glitzy buildings would bear testimony to his superior sense of
style and astute planning for generations to come. Of course,
all would be bankrolled by Kazakhstan’s oil and gas riches.
Some time after Kazakhstan’s
independence in 1991, he took the expert decision to move the
capital from Almaty in the south to Akmola in the north. At the
time, the president reportedly explained the rationale by saying
that Almaty had grown from a manageable population of 400,000 to
1.5 million, and had simply run out of space to expand.
That’s one version of events.
Another has it that he thought a prosperous, independent country
like Kazakhstan ought to have its capital “in the centre” of the
country, rather than on the border. Almaty, the old capital, was
pleasantly situated in the foothills of the Tian Shan Mountain
range, and was famous for its apple orchards. But Akmola? It was
about 1,000 km to the north—that is to say, toward Russia—and
Well, I don’t buy either
explanation, no matter how sensible they may sound, but never
Akmola wasn’t exactly tabula
rasa. It used to be a small Russian frontier settlement called
Akmolinsk until the 20th
century, when Stalin, in his great wisdom and callous disregard
for human life, decreed that millions of ethnic Russians and
Germans should be dumped onto the surrounding steppe to
literally scrape a living from its soil. That’s when Akmola
became an important railroad junction, allowing the Russians to
better exploit the country’s mineral resources.
So why did President
Nazarbayev choose Akmola for his new capital?
Well, he did not have many
options, location-wise, I’d say. Kazakhstan was, and still is,
sparsely populated. The vast country, the size of western
Europe, is home to 15 million people. There are only two dozen
cities with over a hundred thousand inhabitants. Akmola came in
handy as it happened to be Kazakhstan’s second-largest city
already. Which meant his bureaucrats could not put up much of a
fight or dig in their heels when they were told to pack their
bags and call in the movers.
For another, if you are
planning a vertical city to impress the seen-it-all oil men and
bankers you’d better chose a spot which is not as seismically
active as Almaty. Shaky grounds and shonky construction don’t
instil much confidence in home-buyers.
Today Astana, as Akmola was
renamed in 1998, has swelled to accommodate about 700,000
people. Others say it is home to about a million. Make no
mistake: it is a two-faced city. Given that space - or lack of
it - was not an issue, Mr Nazarbayev didn’t have to knock the
old Soviet buildings down. No renovation jobs for him. Instead,
he just added a new town to the rambling old one.
As a result, one half of the
city is still genuine Soviet identikit: blocks of grey flats
with their festering facades, rotting windows and leaky pipes,
criss-crossed by long-distance heat lines whose insulation
padding has burst, all interspersed with single-storey houses
where ramshackle outdoor loos grace the yards and the streets in
front have never seen any tarmac. If you have toured the former
Soviet Union, you know what I mean.
In contrast, the new Astana
is, how shall I put this, pure Las Vegas, minus the gambling,
and Mr Nazarbayev, the Steve Wynn of the steppe. Steve Wynn is
the magnate behind Las Vegas’ casinos Golden Nugget, The Mirage,
Treasure Island, Bellagio, Wynn, and Encore, in case you have
never been to Las Vegas.
Astana’s architecture is all
mock-this, mock-that and the opposite of understated. The
streets are as wide as the Las Vegas Strip, lined by office
high-rises and apartment towers, with a nod to Georges Hausmann
here (the so-called French Quarter) and a nod to Stalin there
(the head office of state-owned oil and gas company KazMunayGas
is pure Stalinist Gothic).
I saw a high-rise which had a
pagoda slapped on it, and another one resembling an opened book.
As in Las Vegas, there is a pyramid. This one was built by
Foster+Partners. It is called the Palace of Peace and
Reconciliation, representing the world’s religious faiths and
housing a 1,500-seat opera. Although it was only opened in 2006,
I noticed that some of the outer panels were already broken.
Will this building withstand the steppe’s harsh climate (-30
degrees in winter, +30 degrees in summer) for thousands of years
like the Egyptian pyramids? I doubt it.
The similarities don’t end
here. Las Vegas has the Stratosphere Tower (ca 350 metres) with
its notorious thrill ride, while Astana has the Bayterek (105
metres), a weird, white structure which The New Yorker aptly
compared to a giant badminton birdie, with a golden bird’s egg
Aware that the well-heeled
cannot survive on a diet of work and high culture alone, Mr
Nazarbayev gave the British architect Norman Foster another
assignment. He was to build the Khan Shatyr centre, a huge
entertainment park for 10,000 people complete with indoor sand
beach, shipped in all the way from the Maldives (allegedly), and
wave pool. Where are Astana’s nouveau rich to go in their free
time? Hiking in the steppe? Hardly. The exterior of the Khan
Shatyr centre resembles a gigantic tent – looking a bit like
Berlin’s Sony Center actually, which was built by Mr Foster’s
rival Helmut Jahn. Here in Astana the tent is probably meant to
celebrate the Kazak peoples’ nomadic past.
The view which intrigued me
most was the one from the pyramid which underlines Mr
Nazarbayev’s unerring political instincts for making a symbolic
statement through architecture. Standing with my back to the
supposedly multi-denominational temple, aka the pyramid, I faced
Astana’s big new mosque across a street wide and straight enough
for an impressive military parade. I forgot to ask if they have
those still. These days, following the exodus of over two
million ethnic Russians and Germans, Kazakhstan is predominantly
Muslim. Mind you, few women wear a headscarf, if that’s anything
to go by. The shiny white mosque is built for 8,000 people and
will be opened later this year, following a fire in January.
Surprise, surprise. Mr
Nazarbayev even thought of having parks. However, the fenced-in
one I saw had plastic trees planted outside and looked like work
on it had been abandoned a long time ago. I briefly wondered:
who will ever walk in these parks? Mr Nazarbayev’s new Astana is
not a city for flaneurs. Only the masses of minions, who service
the buildings and who are bussed in each day on circuitous
routes through town because there aren’t yet enough bus lines,
can be seen walking in the new Astana. Those who employ them
drive around in cars. Big SUVs, for sure. And they cause massive
The local taxi driver who took
me around was a bit vague on what many of the new buildings were
used for. He thought the pyramid actually was a shopping centre,
which proves to show that he had never been inside. But he
turned out to be a real-estate agent in disguise, rattling off
the prices for flats in buildings as we drove by.
Not that I was in any buying mood.
I fear that Astana will never
turn into a tourism hot-spot. Too far away from anywhere for the
weekender. But the photos of Astana, which can be found on the
web, are a real delight for the armchair traveller. As I said:
Astana is quite a sight to behold.