‘Norman said the president wants a pyramid’: how starchitects built Astana

Oct 17, 2017 by

Architects have a thing for strong men, and the big global practices – from Norman Foster to Zaha Hadid – have piled in in a bid to help Kazakhstan’s dictator, Nursultan Nazarbayev, build himself a trophy city

by in Astana

If you could see through the forest of selfie-sticks, the view from the top of the central pavilion of the Astana Expo was a prospect like no other. It was strange enough to be standing on a glass footbridge at the summit of the tallest spherical building in the world – nicknamed the Death Star – with glass bubble elevators zooming up a central neon-lit atrium behind you and a precipitous void plunging beneath your feet. All that was missing was Luke Skywalker dangling from the bridge.

But then you looked out to the horizon to see an assorted collection of pyramids, golden cones and bulging mirrored towers, lined up like a row of awards in a particularly gaudy trophy cabinet, stopping abruptly to give way to the rolling grasslands of the Eurasian steppe. Expo sites are always surreal affairs, as souped-up fairgrounds of nationalist hubris, where novelty pavilions compete for attention with multicultural buffets, marching bands and cavorting mascots. But the weirdness on show here wasn’t the Expo. The chief novelty was the city of Astana itself.

At one end of a monumental axis stands the biggest tent in the world, the Khan Shatyr shopping mall designed by British architect Norman Foster in the form of an inflated plastic yurt that glows pink and green by night. Housing dodgems, a rollercoaster and an artificial beach (with sand imported from the Maldives), it is a tacky pleasure dome that Kublai Khan could only dream of.

At the other end of the boulevard rises an enigmatic silver pyramid, also by Foster, the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, conceived as a meeting place for world religions, crowned with a stained-glass lantern of doves. It stands on a grassy mound like a venerable tomb, on axis with a lake in the shape of a bird in flight.

Foster’s Palace of Peace and Reconciliation pyramid, with the city of Astana behind.
Foster’s Palace of Peace and Reconciliation pyramid, with the city of Astana behind. Photograph: JTB Photo/UIG via Getty Images

Between these totems of the sacred and profane are the mechanisms of state. There is the presidential palace, modelled on the White House, but eight times larger and topped with a big blue dome; a gateway of conical gold mirror-glass towers for the state bank and insurance fund; a polished grey egg for the national archives. At the centre of it all rises an observation tower, a golden orb at the top of a splayed white steel tree, like a Ferrero Rocher chocolate nestling in an upturned shuttlecock.


Secret Stans: where are the Stans?

This unbridled architectural fantasy is the singular vision of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first and only president of Kazakhstan, lifelong leader of the nation since 1989 and chief architect of the capital, who has spent the past 20 years building a city-sized monument to himself in the middle of the Asian steppe.

“Like people, cities have destinies,” wrote Nazarbayev in the Heart of Eurasia, his treatise on architecture and city planning, which reads a little like the brochure of an architect out to secure future work. “Each has a name and an individual biography of its own, a character which cannot be confused with that of any other place on earth.”

Nazarbayev’s presidential palace
Nazarbayev’s presidential palace – modelled on the White House but eight times larger. Photograph: Jane Sweeney/Getty Images/AWL Images RM

Walking the streets of Astana, you feel definite echoes of elsewhere. It has the petrodollar glitz of the Gulf and the monumental axial planning of Pyongyang, but each mirror-glass facade is drenched with a more explicit desire to hark back to an imagined past, searching for legitimacy in the forms of ancient civilisations and Kazakh folk motifs.

“No other modern-day leader has used the myth-making power of architecture to construct a sense of national identity like Nazarbayev,” says Frank Albo, author of a new book on the Kazakh capital, Astana: Architecture, Myth and Destiny. “What you see here is a blend of postmodernism, Central Asian art, Islamic decor, Russian baroque, neoclassicism, orientalism, all melded into something that looks like Las Vegas meets Disneyland on nationalist steroids.” In a bid to cast off the shackles of the Soviet era, the president has embraced practically everything else.

Architects tend to have a thing for strong men, and with the arrival of a dictator with a gushing pump of oil money and a keen interest in architecture, few big practices have managed to resist beating a path to Nazarbayev’s door. Japan’s proudest export, Kisho Kurokawa, was the first to be employed, conjuring a cosmic masterplan for the city that has mostly been ignored. Italian architect Manfredi Nicoletti designed the city’s concert hall, a mess of turquoise glass wings that writhes like a crash-landed kingfisher near the presidential palace. Calatrava Grace, the company run by Santiago Calatrava’s son Micael, is in discussions with the president about building an elaborate canopy the full length of the main boulevard.

The competition for the Expo site was won by Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill – long-time darlings of authoritarian regimes, as authors of Dubai’s tallest tower – while runners-up included Zaha Hadid, Moshe Safdie, UN Studio, Snøhetta, Mecanoo and others. Newspapers are shut down, critics locked up and protesters tortured, but cor just look at that parametric blob.

The new Khan

Building work on the Khan Shatyry entertainment centre in Astana, designed by Norman Foster in 2006.

Nazarbayev decided to move the capital in the early 1990s, soon after taking office. His reasoning has been the subject of considerable speculation ever since, particularly among the civil servants forced to move here. Home to the town of Akmola (“the white graveyard”) since the 1830s, this exposed plain, which ranges from -40C in winter to +40C in summer, was an unlikely choice, a thousand kilometres north of the balmy former capital of Almaty.

Some say it was to shift the centre of gravity away from the border with China, while others argue that it was to cement Kazakh presence in an area that was predominantly ethnically Russian. Either way, it was primarily an opportunity to start from scratch, providing a blank slate on which the new leader could inscribe his new world, following in the footsteps of Darius the Great and Persepolis.

As if there was any doubt about his self-image, at the inauguration of Astana in 1997 Nazarbayev performed an “alastau”, the ancient Mongolian fire-purification ritual culminating in a processional walk along a white carpet, of the same kind used to elevate the great Khans to their position of power.

Astana by night, with Foster’s Khan Shatyr tent to the left.
Astana by night, with Foster’s Khan Shatyr – the biggest tent in the world – lit up on the left. Photograph: Oliver Wainwright

The origin story of the city is told at some length in the Nazarbayev Centre, a gigantic stone bowl topped with a bulbous glass lens, tilted towards the presidential palace like an all-seeing eye and surrounded by a high-security perimeter fence patrolled by soldiers. Another product of the Foster office, it houses an exhibition of the president’s personal effects, from the suit he wore on inauguration day to the gold fountain pen with which he co-authored the national anthem, each reverentially illuminated in its own glass case.

Gifts from adoring nations fill more vitrines on the cascading levels of the building – a silver model of an oil pipeline from China, a bejewelled train carriage from Turkmenistan – along with a 3D holographic presentation of medals that Nazarbayev has received from world leaders. My young guide was particularly keen to point out the signed photo of Margaret Thatcher, who wrote the foreword to another of the president’s works, The Kazakhstan Way, and he was eager to show me the leader’s personal collection of 4,000 books, housed in a special glass shrine. “He has read them all,” he added diligently. “He is a very learned man.”

The centrepiece of this eerie mausoleum is a display of architectural models, wrought in silver, gold and semiprecious stones, shown alongside some of the initial napkin sketches drawn by Nazarbayev himself. There is his scribble of the shuttlecock-shaped Bayterek Tower, designed to represent the magic tree of life where Samruk, the mythical Kazakh bird of happiness, laid its golden egg. There is also the original model of Kurokawa’s masterplan, designed according to his principles of “metabolism and symbiosis”. He proposed an organic model of development that would integrate the existing Soviet-era town on the right bank of the river with the new city on the left, surrounding the capital with a dense belt of trees to protect it from the icy winds. They have never been planted.

Zaha Hadid’s proposal for Astana Expo site.
Zaha Hadid’s rejected proposal for the Astana Expo site. Photograph: Zaha Hadid Architects

Walking the gaping boulevards of new Astana today, it is clear that Kurokawa’s plan was abandoned from the very beginning. The new city is an alienating place of six-lane roads punctuated by vast object buildings, conceived with a total absence of human scale, making the former Soviet centre across the river feel like a cosy village in comparison. It is a place obsessed with size: Nazarbayev even had the Ishim river widened, so it would have the majesty of other capitals’ rivers, like the Thames, Danube or Seine. If you look at the map, the watercourse shrinks back either side of Astana, only bulging out in the centre of the city, like a snake digesting its lunch.

Adil Nurmakov, a political scientist and co-founder of  Urban Forum Almaty, who recently relocated to Astana for his wife’s work, with their young child, is still reeling from the move. “I am honestly so embarrassed by our capital,” he says. “I don’t understand how it is possible to build a city from scratch and make it so unfriendly to people. It is too monumental and car-centric and has no sensitivity to the harsh climate. The buildings are so far apart that there can be no life on the streets. In winter, it’s just about getting from one underground car park to the next, while in summer there’s no shade in these barren open spaces.”

On a warm August evening, there is little sign of life in the city centre. Groups of teenagers are to be found wandering the promenade along the old right bank of the river, while across the water, a handful of families stroll down the central Nurzhol boulevard, admiring the illuminated buildings, which twinkle like the battery-operated toys being hawked by a few lonely street vendors. Nazarbayev’s face looms from a five-storey high video screen, intercut with lurid fly-through films of the city’s weird buildings, merging the monuments and their maker together in one candy-coloured montage.

Santiago Calatrava’s son Micael, co-CEO of development company Calatrava Grace, in talks with President Nazarbayev.
Santiago Calatrava’s son Micael, co-CEO of development company Calatrava Grace, in talks with President Nazarbayev. Photograph: ADG

“The whole place is a combination of Kafka and Orwell,” says Yevgeniy Zhovtis, director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, an NGO based in Almaty. “It has cost dozens of billions of dollars to build this vanity project, yet there are towns and villages a few kilometres away which don’t have proper roads, electricity or basic civic services. All the money that is spent on heating these huge buildings in winter and cooling them in summer could be used to fund decent services and infrastructure for the rest of the country.”

It is a common sentiment for which the $3bn Expo has become a potent focus, as a painful symbol of profligacy when almost half the population still lives on $70 a month. The project was mired in scandal from the beginning, accused of diverting money from the national pension fund and subject to claims of public sector employees being forced to buy tickets to bolster visitor numbers. Three top Expo officials were arrested for embezzlement.

“The Kazakh people are now very angry,” says one primary school teacher, visiting the Expo with her class of children from the town of Esil, six hours’ drive away. “We are proud that the Expo is here, but the leaders of our country have spent far too much money on it, trying to show off to the world.”

The chosen theme of “future energy” also jarred with an event that is mostly sponsored by petrol companies, in a country where oil and gas accounts for 70% of exports. I was welcomed into the Shell pavilion and invited to generate my own kinetic energy by running inside a Zorb. I was invited to ponder the effects of global warming in the French pavilion, with the Total oil logo looming above a glowing Earth.

Following the Expo’s announcement, heralding the country’s transition to green energy, president Nazarbayev was quoted saying: “I personally do not believe in alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar,” adding that “oil and gas is our main horse, and we should not be afraid that these are fossil fuels”.

The banners and mascots have now been swept away, and the 174-hectare site is being converted into the new International Financial Centre, intended to lure foreign companies with the promise of English law, tax exemptions and an independent financial court. It is the usual free zone model favoured by dictatorships around the world, creating a thin bubble of democracy that evaporates as soon as you leave the compound.

The PR pays off?

Nazarbayev on a big screen in Astana.

The western-friendly mirage is something Nazarbayev has been at great pains to cultivate over the years, cementing his position as the best of a bad bunch of despots in charge of the former Soviet states of central Asia. Following in Thatcher’s footsteps, Jonathan Aitken wrote a fine hagiography of the president in 2009, while Tony Blair famously enjoyed a £5m-a-year deal advising Nazarbayev on such matters as how to deal with the massacre of striking workers in the oil town of Zhanaozen in 2011. (“These events, tragic though they were,” Blair wrote in 2012, advising on a speech to be given at Cambridge University, “should not obscure the enormous progress that Kazakhstan has made.”)

Some of the PR is paying off. Between 2016 and 2017 Kazakhstan leapt from 51st to 35th place on the World Bank’s ease of doing business rankings. Yet, on the world press freedom index, it languishes at 157th out of 180 countries and stands at 131st on the corruption perceptions index. Now aged 77, Nazarbayev is cracking down more than ever before, silencing critics and crushing opposition, his advancing age accentuating his paranoia and desire for control.

Astana National Library in Kazakhstan by BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group
Bjarke Ingels’ design for the Astana National Library. Photograph: BIG

Kazakhstan has not had an election that could be considered free and fair by independent monitors in 25 years of Nazaybayev’s rule, according to Human Rights Watch. The president has exempted himself from laws limiting presidential terms and received 97.7% of the vote in the last election. The main opposition newspapers were all banned in 2013 and the internet is now closely controlled. Peaceful protests against the government’s proposed land reforms in 2016 ended with the two organisers being given five-year prison sentences. In May this year, a prominent government critic and journalist was stabbed by two unidentified attackers on an overnight train journey to Astana, where he planned to brief European diplomats about imprisoned activists and journalists.

“Our lack of democracy can be felt on the streets of Astana,” says Nurmakov. “When the president still chairs the televised planning meetings and has the final say over every project, there can be no discussion about what the city needs and what public money is being spent on.”

Nazarbayev, for his part, makes no pretence of democratic planning. “When it comes to the design and overall appearance of our capital,” he wrote, in Heart of Eurasia, “I believe that this should emanate, in the first instance, from the central organs of power.”

‘We’ve never worked directly for anyone in Kazakhstan’

Norman Foster’s Palace of Peace and Reconciliation.

In the west London offices of Foster and Partners, at a big round meeting table overlooking the Thames, Astana’s great pyramid of peace flickers up on a big screen. A model of the Apple Campus sits on a table nearby, its primary geometry and vast scale giving it a Nazarbayevian air.

“In the summer of 2004 we got a phone call from Norman, who was on holiday in Cap Ferrat at the time,” recalls senior partner Nigel Dancey. “He said the president of Kazakhstan wants a pyramid. It has to be finished in 21 months. Let your imagination soar.”

They flew to Astana to present their first scheme, something the size of the Great Pyramid at Giza, 227 metres across, which proved too big even for Nazarbayev’s ambitions. It was hastily redesigned in the hotel lobby, scaled down to almost a quarter of the size, and given the president’s blessing. After being regaled with stories of how they spent a day driving around Astana to find the only printing shop in town, I ask how can the office justify working for a regime like this?

“We’ve never worked directly for anyone in Kazakhstan,” says Dancey, in a frosty turn. “Our client has always been the Turkish contractor, Sembol, who pay their workers very well.”

Inside the Astana Expo centre designed by Chicago-based Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill.
Inside the Astana Expo centre designed by Chicago-based Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill. Photograph: Oliver Wainwright for the Guardian

David Nelson, the company’s head of design, elaborates: “When we first got the phone call, Kazakhstan was halfway up the Amnesty International list,” he says. “It was somewhere in the middle of a lot of other countries that we and a lot of other people work in as well. We certainly have no interest in encouraging anything that hurts people or puts people into difficult conditions.”

I suggest that “we work for other bad people too and some of them are even worse” isn’t much of a defence, that these are monuments to Nazarbayev not facilities for the public good, and that Foster and Partners is implicated in reinforcing the regime.

A tour guide on the steps leading to the ceremonial meeting room at the summit of the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, designed by Foster + Partners as a global centre for religious understanding.
A tour guide on the steps leading to the ceremonial meeting room at the summit of Foster’s Palace of Peace and Reconciliation. Photograph: Oliver Wainwright

“When, on paper, you’re designing a palace to encourage peace between world religions,” says Dancey, “that sounds pretty honourable. That’s a pretty good thing to do. And the Khan Shatyr – if you can design a sustainable building where millions of people can go and have a good time in a harsh climate, that’s pretty good, too.” He is less keen to talk about the merits of the Nazarbayev Centre.

A look at its troubled evolution might indicate why. In 2009, the fashionable Danish firm BIG, led by Bjarke Ingels, beat Foster and Zaha Hadid to design a new national library for Astana, conceived as a gravity-defying Möbius strip, an “infinite loop” of knowledge. But it seems Ingels’ outlook didn’t quite gel with the way things are run in Kazakhstan. As he recounted in a New Yorker interview, his client demanded haste, delayed the signing of a realistic contract, and showed no interest in the library’s interior arrangement. He also said he was asked to pay bribes while in Kazakhstan. BIG got as far as building the foundations and the four elevator cores, before withdrawing from the project – to be replaced by Foster.

The scheme was hastily redesigned, placing a structural ring over the four cores and covering it with a big glass dome. In an apt reflection of the president’s view on public access to information, the planned national library was reborn as the Nazarbayev Centre, bookshelves replaced with glass cases of presidential memorabilia. Ingels, for his part, advises any architects working in Kazakhstan to appoint a project leader who weighs three hundred pounds “and has enormous hands”.

‘It’s like a teenager trying to show off’

While residents of urbane cosmopolitan Almaty are sniffy about their brash northern counterpart, for many young people in the capital, who have moved here from more remote regions, life in Astana provides a thrilling taste of the future.

“I found it quite alienating when I first came here,” says Aigerim Kagarmanova, a student at the local Nazarbayev University, who grew up in Oskemen in the east of Kazakhstan and now lives near the new Mega Silk Way mall, built as part of the Expo development. “But now I feel like it’s giving hope, showing what the rest of the country could be like in the future. People like the strange buildings because they give the city an identity. Without them there would be nothing except wind in winter and mosquitoes in summer.” To her, Astana’s teething problems are merely a symptom of its newness. “It’s like a teenager or a person in their 20s, trying hard to be more than it is, to show itself off to the world.”

Abu Dhabi Plaza towers being built in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan
The Abu Dhabi Plaza under construction. Rising to over 380 metres, it will be the tallest building in Central Asia when it is completed. Photograph: Alamy

There are signs of hope in the shape of a relatively progressive new mayor, Asset Issekeshev, a former minister of trade and industry with a reputation for innovation. As one of his first acts he set up a new Centre of Urbanism to breathe some new life into the Astangenplan, the city planning office that still has a whiff of the Soviet era. The centre is headed up by young architect Askhat Saduov, who is well-versed in progressive planning ideas and is optimistic that things will improve.

“The capital has always been planned from the top-down and, as you can see, it doesn’t really work,” he says, standing over a big model of the city, where a large number of yet-to-be-built spheres, towers and obelisks extend outwards along ever-growing axes. “We want to make it more pedestrian-friendly, with a focus on human-scale public spaces and a city without suburbs. The mayor thinks the era of ‘starchitects’ and tall buildings is over; he wants creative young architects rather than expensive stars.”

Saduov is sincere, but it’s hard to believe that his small team will have much effect on the city-making machine, which is still very much ruled from the top. Starchitects and their tall buildings continue apace. The billion-dollar Abu Dhabi Plaza is currently rising out of the ground in the centre of town, soon to reach its full height of 382 metres. This Emirati obelisk will be the tallest building in central Asia, dwarfing the Bayterek Tower, as if to show which petro-state is really in charge. A glossy model of an undulating white U-shaped canopy stands in the planning office, billowing upwards into an angled spire, like a toilet seat ready to give you a nasty surprise. It is a “memorial complex” for an island in the river, once again designed by Foster and Partners, awaiting the green light from above.

“Astana is a city in the making,” says Nurmakov, “but it is not making itself. Maybe that’s the problem. It is not being allowed to develop itself, because everything is directed by the one and only architect of Astana.”

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