For many visitors, Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, is an astonishing sight. Strange shapes rise out of the steppe—spires, domes, globes, ovals, and pyramids in gold, silver, blue, and turquoise. Whatever you think about futuristic architecture (or what it cost to build it, and whether the money could have been better invested in Kazakhstan’s social needs), Astana is unlike any other capital city in Central Asia.
The pyramid-like Palace of Peace and Accord, in the new city on the left bank of the River Ishim, was constructed (with an eye-popping price tag of $58 million) to host the triennial Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. Because of the extreme temperatures, engineers designed the steel frame to withstand expansion and contraction of up to 30 centimeters.
The pyramid is one of two signature designs in Astana by the British architect Sir Norman Foster. Although the idea of a pyramid originally came from a Kazakh architect, Western observers were quick to attribute it to the president. Writing in the Sunday Times in 2005, Hugh Pearman, editor of the Royal Institute of British Architects’ monthly journal, was scathing: “Nothing [Foster] has done to date compares with this latest job. Because nobody asks for buildings like this. Unless you happen to be President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan.” Interviewed after it was opened, Pearman had not changed his view: “It’s an unbelievable folly, in the sense that it’s a grand monument by one man to himself.”
Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other online retailers, or from your local bookstore. Read excerpts at www.davidhmould.com (Travel Blogs and Articles) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube, http://bit.ly/davidhmould