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‘Astana is the architectural love child of the Emerald City and Back to the Future II’

Astana 02.jpg
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As the world’s eyes turn to Expo host nation Kazakhstan, Atomik Architecture’s Mike Oades gives us an insider’s view of Astana and explains why his practice has offices in both London and Kazakhstan

With a theme entitled ‘Future Energy’, Expo 2017 Astana opened its doors on Saturday. Astana is Kazakhstan’s post-independence capital city. Located on the edge of the Great Steppe, Astana appears on the horizon like the architectural love child of The Wizard of Oz’s Emerald City and the vision of the future in Back to the Future II

Masterplanned by Kisho Kurakawa, the scale of Astana’s ‘Left Bank’ is heroic. The main axis is over 5km long and bookended by two Foster + Partners buildings; the tent-like Khan Satyr shopping centre at one end and the pyramid of the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation at the other. The architecture between these two vertices borrows its inspiration from everywhere and nowhere - a neo-classical opera house, a homage to Moscow’s Stalinist skyscapers, a Chinese pagoda, a pair of Chicago-like towers, and a rash of early 21st-century Parametric shapes. Even the president lent a hand in the design of the symbolic Baiterek Tower, which takes centre stage on the axis. Astana is definitely a colourful city as a result.

The city is made of two parts: Astana (Left Bank), the post-Soviet half of the city and home to the Presidential Palace and the Expo; and Tselinograd (Right Bank), which was developed as part of Khrushchev’s ‘virgin lands’ project in the 1950s. The two parts of the city are quite different. Even though Tselinograd is Soviet in scale and appearance, it still feels more compact than Astana. 

Astana 01b.jpg

Astana 01b.jpg

While there is a fairly good public transport system, Astana is a city that is dependent on the automobile for transporting its citizens from A to B. As a passenger sat comfortably in the back of your taxi, Astana is a city for looking at. As a pedestrian, the city is exhausting. Firstly, there are the epic distances you need to cover from one part of the city to another. Secondly, as a pedestrian you are continually at the mercy of the elements: notably the wind and sun in summer and the wind, ice and sub-zero temperatures in winter – there is no shelter, no colonnades, no shade.

The exception is where two halves of the city are separated by the Ishim River, arguably Astana’s greatest asset. Largely manmade, the Ishim River is perhaps the only place within the city that is focused on the pedestrian, as the banks are car-free. Here you can walk through parkland and along promenades unimpeded by obstacles to sit on one of the many café terraces and admire the shimmering city skyline over the water.

Witnessing the preparations for the opening of Expo gather pace over the last few months, I can’t help but think that less would have been far more

Astana as a city has certainly grown on me over the last four years and the quality of the built environment undoubtedly increased. However, while witnessing the preparations for the opening of Expo gather pace over the last few months, I can’t help but think that less would have been far more. Watching groundworkers plant kilometres of new trees to line just one street and lay the acres of brick paving required to take a fairly narrow footpath from one city block to another, I wonder if the impact could have been greater if the city was more intimate. It would certainly reduce the ‘future energy’ required to maintain the city for future generations.

Astana clearly needs time to properly establish itself. My hope (if it is not already too late) is that the opening of the Expo will signify the end of the first chapter in Astana’s history, as a city obsessed by its picture-postcard image. The authors of the next chapter might want to consider developing a city for its citizens to live and explore more comfortably.

Why we opened a studio in Kazakhstan

Atomik photo kairat temirgali.jpg

Atomik photo kairat temirgali.jpg

Our work and relationship with Kazakhstan has evolved through fate and circumstance. In the summer of 2013 I was marooned in Kazakhstan while working at a previous practice on the early stages of an Expo project. The original plan was to travel to Astana for a couple of days to present our scheme then return. Very quickly two days ended up becoming two months. 

While I was there I met up with a former colleague and Kazakh architect, Asel Yeszhanova. Asel had returned to Kazakhstan after completing her master’s degree at the Pratt Institute in New York. As a recipient of a Bolashak Scholarship (a national programme for supporting Kazakhstani students to study abroad – ’bolashak’ means ‘future’ in Kazakh), Asel had completed her degree in Astana, but decided to relocate to Almaty on her return. She had just started her own studio and was working on a series of arts projects in the city.

Shortly after this first visit to Kazakhstan Derek and I started Atomik Architecture in London. Coincidentally, Asel, Derek and I were all former colleagues and it wasn’t long before Asel was encouraging Derek and I to come and visit. She was concerned that the city did not seem to value its architectural heritage and a number of prominent Soviet buildings were on the verge of being lost. 

Asel was concerned that the city did not seem to value its architectural heritage and a number of prominent Soviet buildings were on the verge of being lost

Almaty is the former Soviet capital of Kazakhstan and is a complete contrast to Astana. Nestled in the foothills of the Trans-Ili Alatau mountains it is a slightly dishevelled Soviet city, densely overgrown with tree-lined avenues and a multitude of parks and fountains. Almaty is also home to a collection of examples of some world-class 20th-century Soviet architecture; from some early Constructivist works by Ginsberg, to a style that you might call Soviet Expressionism by a generation of architects little known outside the city.

Our collaboration began in 2014. Asel thought that it might be interesting to set up a series of workshops to look at how the existing Soviet buildings could be restored, adapted or repurposed.  This wasn’t an approach being explored at the time in the city, but a way of working that we were more familiar with in the UK.

With the help of the British Council and the Goethe Institut we ran three workshops in Almaty. The workshops were open to anyone who was interested. We had architects attend, but we also had people of all ages and backgrounds come along to join us. We organised some urban drawing events in the city and hosted an evening debate at a local café to discuss Almaty’s architectural identity.

Artpoint atomik.jpg

Artpoint atomik.jpg

Initially, our interest was a more academic cultural exchange and as a new practice it was a way for us to explore interests outside of our traditional roles. We didn’t think about actively seeking work opportunities in Kazakhstan until we were approached to design a pavilion for an annual arts festival in 2015. It was around this time we discussed joining forces and combining both our practices into one. It felt like an obvious and a natural step to take. Most of the hard work had been done in a way, and we had established a good working relationship between the two cities, working on each other’s projects in London and Almaty.

The Almaty office is two years old next month. The initial workshops we ran in 2014 have led to Asel creating a more organised platform for discussing the city’s development – Urban Forum Almaty. Now in its third year, it has garnered much support from NGOs, academia, local community groups, experts and the local administration. The forum has increased significantly and now also supports and funds a programme of community and cultural initiatives around the city.

We also have a mixture of traditional architectural projects in Kazakhstan from developing a Fabrication Laboratory for the American consulate, a new Social Impact Hub and co-working space, a number of urban design projects and feasibility studies, an Apart Hotel in Astana and an access audit of local court buildings. We also just finished a memorial for a well-known Kazakh guitarist who was popular throughout the Soviet Union. 

Panfilovstreet atomik.jpg

Panfilovstreet atomik.jpg

We are currently co-curating and designing a travelling exhibition with the British Council, which is the next phase of a project called City Nomads and will open at the end of June in Astana to coincide with Expo, before touring the rest of the country. This is the second phase of a project we initially developed with the British Council over the last couple of years. Assisted by staff and students at Kingston University’s MA in Curating Contemporary Design and tutors from UAL’s Narrative Environments course, a group of contemporary Kazakhstani product designers and traditional Kazakh artisans have been brought together to create a series of objects that are resourceful, transformable, transportable and multifunctional design approach found in historical and contemporary objects.

So far working in Kazakhstan has been a positive experience for us.  We have found clients more willing to take a chance and to trust their professionals; it seems being a professional still means something. This makes a refreshing change from the risk-averse, box-ticking culture of the UK. 

Through experience we have had to really work hard to simplify and bring clarity to the design process. As a consequence, we have found that we have had to become more agile in our approach to design and procurement and this change of methodology has also paid dividends in our work in the UK. We have also discovered that the British architectural profession and affiliation to the RIBA is greatly valued. Interestingly, albeit by proxy, the profession has a protected function in Kazakhstan, but no real professional organisation or body to regulate quality.

Mike Oades is director of Atomik Architecture. Asel Yeszhanova will be moderating a panel discussion about the future of urban design and architecture at the Expo, and Atomik will be taking over the AJ’s Instagram, posting from the Astana Expo, later this month

Asif Khan UK Pavilion Expo2017 Photo by Luke Hayes Courtesy Department for International Trade 265

Asif Khan UK Pavilion Expo2017 Photo by Luke Hayes Courtesy Department for International Trade 265

Source: Luke Hayes

Asif Khan’s UK pavilion at Expo 2017

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