New horizons in Kazakhstan
Astana’s architectural style can best be described as idiosyncratic. The variety is a dizzying mix of clashing shapes and colours, yet is oddly suited to a nation made up of 100 ethnic groups following at least 30 different religions. The oriental post-modernism takes some getting used to, although the locals have domesticated all the thrusting modernity by giving many of the buildings homely nicknames according to their shape: a canary-yellow skyscraper is known as the Banana Building; seven squat cylindrical constructions are called the Seven Beer Barrels; and a pair of circular towers are the Ice Cream Cones. The Cigarette Lighter was so-called before it suffered an alarming fire. Inevitably, such an ambitious building project has had its failures: one building is known as the Titanic after a huge crack appeared in its foundations; another, threatened by a crumbling riverbank, has been dubbed the Kursk after the ill-fated Russian submarine.
The Ministry of Finance building gives the impression of a dollar sign, while the sweeping curves of the new stadium look, well, sporty. The National Archives are housed in a grey-green egg, the circus in a flying saucer, and there are now massive, California-style shopping malls, 24-hour supermarkets and numerous cafés and restaurants. But so far, no McDonald’s or Starbucks. ‘We’ll survive,’ says Mac.
New religious buildings stand among government ministries and banks – a spectacular mosque donated by Qatar; a big blue synagogue paid for by a Jewish Russian Orthodox cathedral built by public subscription. The miracle is that everything has been built in little over a decade.
In the centre of the city stands Baiterek Tower, a tall, spiky construction that cradles a glass and aluminium ball at its top. It’s the symbol of Astana and independent Kazakhstan, people take its lift up 97 symbolic metres – 1997 being the date of the move to the capital – to the dome for a clear view over city and steppe in every direction. Once at the top, it’s customary to approach the green malachite plinth that sits in its centre, upon which rests a disc made from five kilograms of solid silver bearing an imprint of the president’s hand crafted from two kilograms of solid gold. Visitors then place their own hand in the president’s palm before making a wish.
On my visit I am led to the plinth by a guide and dutifully place my hand in that of the president – and almost jump out of my skin. Before I can wish, and as I make contact with the presidential palm, the tower is filled with a roaring choir backed by a mighty orchestra belting out the national anthem at full patriotic throttle.
There is a panoramic view of the city from the tower and, in the distance, the vast wedding cake of domes and pillars of the Presidential Palace. The palace is a place of work and not a residence, designed to impress with its ostentation and size. Its interior, hung with crystal chandeliers the size of small buildings, has the proportions of a city square. Small armies parade there in winter when ceremonial occasions cannot be held outside.
Beyond the palace, a gigantic pyramid – the Pyramid of Peace – can be seen. Sixty metres high, it was designed by British architect Lord Foster and contains a 1,500-seat opera house. Another unique creation of Foster’s is the giant, futuristic yurt known as Khan Shatyr – the Khan’s Tent – which contains palm trees, beaches and even an artificial sea, allowing people to enjoy tropical conditions inside while blizzards rage outdoors.
I’d not visited Astana for four years and, having returned, I find the change simply astounding. The last time I was in the city I found it impressive but without soul. Now everything has changed. Astana has developed a personality. Not only has the skyline altered beyond recognition, but the place is alive. There is a buzz about it, an energy reflecting its youthful population. Astana has become human.