16 August 2010

Astana - Kaleidoscopic Capital of Kazakhstan

It has had a number of names in its history, but Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan literally means just that – it is the primary city of the nation.  And what a city it is.  Since its change of name twelve years ago the city has been transformed in to something quite different to the other capitals of the world.  The new name itself was chosen so that it was easy to pronounce by anyone. Take a quick tour and see what you think. Bizarre or brilliant? Or a combination of the two?

One of the first things that catches the eye of the visitor to Astana is the Bayterek – because of its enormous size and central location. Nicknamed the Chupa Chups by the local population the tower is a symbol of the transfer of the capital city to Atsana in 1997.  It is also representative of a Kazakh folk tale about the tree of life and the bird of happiness (not the blue one, however).

Samruk, the bird, laid its egg between two branches of a tree – and the rest is obvious.  If you go up to the altitude deck you can see much of the city – it is almost 100 meters in height.  The tower was designed by the British Architect Sir Norman Foster.

While viewing the city you can take a look at the hand print of the first president of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev.  You can place you hand within the golden imprint (yes, that's solid gold) and make a wish.  From the looks of it however, you might think that the designer had watched a few too many episodes of Stargate (Chevron One is in place!).

The Pyramid of Peace (also known as the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation) was also designed by Sir Norman Foster and architecture myth has it that this was the first and only building where he was given a specific brief and forced to stick with it.  The pyramid has large sections devoted to six major world religions and smaller areas for other faiths. At night it is lit up in a myriad of colors.

Although it is quite a mind boggling site from the exterior, unlike the pyramids of old the public have full access to the interior.  This is the view from the ground floor, looking upward.

The top of the pyramid, from the interior, is remarkable. Opened in 2006, the plan is that every few years that representatives of the major religions will meet to discuss how to co-exist in peace and harmony.  The chamber where the delegates meet is based loosely on the UN Security Council room.  The building also houses the strangely named University of Civilization.

A closer look at the glass pinnacle of the pyramid reveals another image of peace.  However, the affairs of state go on in Astana, and the President needs a palace too.  Anything familiar about his place of residence, do you think?

It is known as the Ak Orda – the white horde – and does seem somewhat similar to a building on a Pennsylvania Avenue, albeit one which may have been reimagined in Second Life.  It was built in 2004 as pretty much a concrete slab, with the marble lining (up to 40cm thick) added later. 

The height of the White House in the US is 70 feet on the south side and just over 60 feet on its  north side.  If they were put side by side, Ak Orda would tower above it – at over 260 feet.

From the symbols of power, to those of religion.  The main mosque in the city is the Nur-Astana and is 40 meters in height.  This is to represent the age of the Prophet Mohamed when he had his first revelation.  Likewise the minarets are an enormous 63 meters in height, which was the prophet’s age when he died.

The prayer room, which comfortable fits five thousand people, is astonishing. Another two thousand can overflow on to the square outside.  Although Kazakhstan is secularly governed it also boasts being the largest country with a population which is predominantly muslim.

As a secular country, Kazakhstan now has more of its fair share of buildings which host cultural events from all over the world. The President's Center of Culture is an imposing structure. From above it looks like a large circle (or star perhaps, a recurring theme in Astana architecture) which emits four rays in to the corners of the world.  The building, although very modern, reflect the Turkic tradition, with the blue dome dominating the building.  It houses a vast collection of relics and artefacts from Kazakhstan through the ages.

Next door to the Ak Orda is the Central Concert Hall.  Opened just last year, the building, by Italian architect Manfredi Nicoletti, is reminiscent of the petals of a flower.  However, just as the building has metaphor at the heart of its design, it has utility too.  Astana is shockingly cold in the winter and the inclined walls protect the interior from the inclemency of Kazakhstan’s weather.

Above are the offices of KazMunayGas. You would be forgiven for wondering where the many millions of dollars come from to make Astana the gleaming new city that it appears.  The answer is oil.  Crude and natural, the country is awash with it – and it is also planning on being a major exporter of uranium. 

The offices of KazMunayGas, the state-owned gas and oil company,  reflect the wealth that the country is now wielding.  The first former Soviet Republic to pay off its debt to the International Monetary Fund, the country is simply awash in oil dollars.

Even the hotels in Astana are spectacular.  The Triumph Astana, although is also serves as apartments for the local good and the great, is one of those buildings that demand a second look.   However, for our money, the standout building remains the Bayterek.