The Incomparable, Futuristic Architecture of Kazakhstan’s Young Capital
Kazakhstan Pavillion and World Expo 2017 area in construction. Designed by Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill Architecture. Photo © Gunnar Knechtel. Courtesy of the artist.
Isolated in the vast grasslands of northern Kazakhstan, the city of Astana rises, shimmering in blues, whites, and golds. It has been called “mirage-like” for its jarring contrast against the land of the Kazakh Steppe; the capital city’s demarcation from its flat, green-and-brown surroundings is so abrupt, it’s as if a far-flung migrating civilization got its coordinates wrong, or a blip in the multiverse occured.
But Astana was not an accident; it’s a planned city. Like Washington, D.C., or Saint Petersburg, it was fully conceptualized instead of gradually settled, and it’s home to more than 1 million residents. The city’s name is quite literal, meaning “capital city,” a badge it has worn proudly ever since its president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, stripped that title from its older and larger sibling, Almaty, in 1997. Before Astana was designed as a futuristic metropolis, it was named Akmola and was best known for housing a gulag prison camp for the wives of convicted Soviet traitors.
Today, the flashy architecture of one of the world’s youngest capitals draws tourists and photographers alike. Germany-born, Barcelona-based photographer Gunnar Knechtel is one of them. Knechtel, who shoots travel reportage work for the likes of The Guardian Weekend, Lufthansa Magazine, Der Spiegel, and Stern, likes to explore cities that are conceptualized and built from scratch. “[Astana] made me think of the city Brasília, which I had photographed a few years before,” he wrote via email. “They are tabula rasa cities that are built from nothing—utopian dreams.”
Overview of the city center, government buildings, and the Baiterek Tower, Astana, Kazakhstan. Photo © Gunnar Knechtel. Courtesy of the artist.
Astana, in particular, is a planned city with oddities, some by the hand of Nazarbayev, who has led the country since 1989, two years before its independence from the Soviet Union. The president (officially, the “Leader of the Nation”) ordered the building of Astana in order to start anew, favoring a spacious city plan from Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa over the congested atmosphere of Almaty, and moving the capital far away from neighboring China. But Astana sees frigid temperatures during its long winter, which can stretch from November to May, and the level steppe the city sits upon offers no natural protection from the biting winds. Nazarbayev’s solution was to plant 1 million trees to insulate the city, an initiative that began in 1997 and is still ongoing.
Astana’s architecture thrives in its atypicality; notable designs include a civic and cultural center shaped like a massive, tilted tent and a pyramid palace that represents unity and peace, both designed by Foster + Partners. There’s also the central Baiterek monument, conceptualized by Nazarbayev himself, in which a golden egg is cradled by the spindly white branches of a stylized poplar tree. Knechtel was drawn to what he called a “fairy-tale presidential palace,” apartment blocks that sparkled like jewels, and monuments that looked as if they were on loan from the fictional world of Westeros. Together, the menagerie casts an otherworldly glow. “I felt many times [as if I were] on another planet,” Knechtel said.
Nazarbayev has positioned the coming-of-age capital city as the host city of the world—the 2016 Nuclear Disarmament Conference, 2017 Syrian Peace Talks, 2018 World Mining Congress, and 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship have all been, or will be, hosted in Astana. Notably, the city was cast into the spotlight last year for presenting EXPO 2017, which set the country back an estimated $3–5 billion, thanks to a massive city-planning project undertaken by firm AS+GG.
The first phase to get Astana world fair-ready entailed the construction of a “post-Industrial Revolution city,” featuring an enormous pavilion space, hotels, and art and performance venues, as well as a “covered city” of retail, residential, and office spaces, all powered by renewable sources. The second phase would then convert expo spaces for sustained use to attract international companies and entrepreneurs, a long-term goal for Astana, which aspires to become a financial and tech center (as of now, the city is rich in oil and gas exports). For all of the city plan’s ambition, what seemed to receive the most attention was the prominent spherical Kazakhstan pavilion, which in no way should be compared to the empire’s ominous Death Star (it’s a touchy subject for the government).
Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, Astana, Kazakhstan. Designed by Norman Foster. Photo © Gunnar Knechtel. Courtesy of the artist.
Though Astana has rapidly developed beyond the vision of the architect Kurokawa (who died in 2007), incoming architects—as well as Nazarbayev—have maintained Kurokawa’s vision to intersperse the city’s unique buildings with substantial green spaces and ample open air. In fact, despite its fast-growing population, the city is so spacious that it can feel disconnected from its population, which Knechtel sensed while he was photographing just a few weeks before the start of EXPO 2017.
“My impression is that the city is like a collage of designer-label architecture,” Knechtel commented. “It appears like a LEGO city: a lot of empty spaces in between. [Astana] is not empty, but somehow, people appear to be displaced in between the large-scale buildings.” It’s not an observation that is unfamiliar to him, having visited planned cities like Brazil’s Brasília or India’s Chandigarh, which he noted have the same effect. Knechtel’s photos emphasize that volume of space, showing few people amid the imposing architectural designs.
What makes the city feel more relatable, more “human,” according to Knechtel, are its oddities: the abrupt boundary between the empty surrounding land and the city; the dose of kitsch. It’s a city with a sense of humor, albeit not intentionally. As for the residents of Astana, they may not be as wealthy as the glitzy exterior of their city—per Business Insider, the average person only makes $450 a month—but it’s a city with a growing middle class, and a growing identity. “A lot of money is being spent or invested to create something new,” Knechtel explained. “If the money is well spent has to be decided by the people of Kazakhstan.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, was the youngest in the world. Astana is no longer the youngest.