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.”