The Building of a City
Astana: From Modest Soviet Town to Glittering Capital
By Tim Cashion
he story of Astana is one of a modest Soviet-era town at the center of the Kazakhstan steppes being transformed into a glittering capital city that is changing perceptions of Central Asia.
After Kazakhstan won independence from the Soviet Union, in 1991, it would be some time before fresh ideas from the rest of the world could be infused into local building designs and the use of public and private space.
However, when, in 1994 President Nursultan Nazarbayev proposed to turn this modest town into Kazakhstan’s new capital, it became clear that without new ideas Kazakhstan would get little more than a ‘new Soviet city’.
Someone intimately involved in the transformation of Astana is Amanzhol Chikanaev, a professor of architecture and the head of the research and development department of the Master Plan of Astana Scientific Research and Design Institute.
He told EDGE that the president was not pleased with early proposals for a master plan for the capital, which came from Kazakh architects in response to a 1996 competition. “When the president looked at them, he was not pleased at all,” Chikanaev said. “The president said the designs looked Soviet. None of the designs was suitable for a city of the future.”
So the president called for an international competition, in effect forcing Kazakh companies to raise their game or be forced to leave the development of the main areas of the capital to foreign firms.
The master plan was chosen from 43 proposals from Europe, Asia, Australia and the United States. An international jury short-listed three projects for the president to choose from. The president was attracted by the theory of Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa that a modern city should achieve a symbiosis of urban life and nature, and Kurokawa’s design won the day.
As the city has unfolded along the lines drawn by Kurokawa, the modern Astana has emerged. Other great architects, notably Britain’s Norman Foster, have added iconic buildings that now give the capital its identity as a blend of tradition and modernity.
Chikanaev, who has spent 45 years in Astana, said that in 1997 and 1998 the town authorities had to practically beg investors to work in the new capital. In 1999, however, things began to change and Astana saw investors and developers lining up to get a piece of the capital building project.
In 1998, the Kazakhstan parliament decided to rename the city from Akmola to Astana, which means “capital” in the Kazakh language, derived from a Persian word meaning threshold.
Astana is said to be one of the three coldest capitals in the world, along with Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and Ottawa, Canada. In winter the temperatures plunge to as low as -40 degrees Celsius and winds can cut like a knife. To address this challenge, building codes for the city include several provisions for thick walls and additional insulation.
Before being chosen for the new capital, Astana was a city of 280,000. Today it is a city of 750,000 and there is plenty of room on the vast Kazakh steppes for any expansion.
With their capital city positioned on the Ishim (Esil) River, Astana’s planners are working to stay true to Kurokawa’s principles by matching expansion of the city itself with the development of parks and forests to envelope the business and residential areas of the capital and to diminish the sense of unlimited spaces on the open steppe.
Already the modern city has long since overshadowed its Soviet-era roots, rising from the steppe like a Central Asian Dubai or Abu Dhabi, a new nexus of human exchange and interaction burning a bright light on a world map that for long showed only large dark spaces in this region.
Speaking of Kazakhstan’s vision for Astana, Chikanaev said: “We want to make the city a green comfortable oasis in the steppe, one of the most beautiful cities in Eurasia, if not the world. We want our capital to become a center of international cooperation in Eurasia.”