Excerpts from an article by Rowan Moore, For the Observer:
"Peas and beans! Peas and beans!" The famous Japanese architect was in his office, high in a Tokyo tower, its walls crowded with framed honours and diplomas. Assistants of exceptional beauty shimmered in with tea, but what he wanted to talk about was pulses. Rising prosperity in China would lead to rising meat consumption, and in turn a global protein crisis. It was the greatest problem, he said, facing mankind today. The solution lay in Kazakhstan, the vast former Soviet republic, for whose president the architect, Kisho Kurokawa, was masterplanning a new capital. This country, to the south of Russia, stretches from the eastern edge of Europe almost to Mongolia. For Kurokawa it offered ample opportunity for growing peas and beans, and – in a symbolic way – his plan would help. It was based on the interweaving of city and nature, with swaths of green between the buildings. It represented an idea of interdependence of which pulse-growing on an immense scale would be the practical outcome.
This meeting was in 2001, and Kurokawa died in 2007, but his city is now there, more or less following his plan. There are plenty of parks and trees. Called Astana, it is the world's latest example of a rare but persistent type, the capital from zero. It is in a line that includes St Petersburg, Washington DC, Canberra, Ankara and Brasilia and like them it provokes a question: can a city, in all its teeming complexity, really be planned? Or does the attempt lead only to a synthetic simulacrum, a kind-of city that is not quite the real thing?
To look at, Astana is so strange that it has one grasping for images. It's a space station, marooned in an ungraspable expanse of level steppe, its name (to English speakers) having the invented sound of a science fiction writer's creation. It's a city of fable or dream, as recounted by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan. Except it's not quite so magical: it's also like a battery-operated plastic toy, all whirring noises and flashing colours, of a kind sold by the city's street vendors.
Astana's ornaments include a 62-metre-high silver pyramid, designed by British architects Foster + Partners, giant gold-green cones and a gold orb resting on a structure of erupting white steel. At night its buildings go purple, pink, green and yellow. Astana's latest, most technically ambitious addition is a 150-metre-high translucent tent, also by Lord Foster. Called Khan Shatyr, a single leaning mast props its roof, which offers shelter from a harsh climate to a shopping and entertainment complex underneath. It follows a familiar Foster strategy, to be seen in the Great Court of the British Museum, or his airports at Stansted, Hong Kong and Beijing, which is to create an impressively engineered roof – a thing to be looked at and admired but not inhabited – hovering over a lower, less ordered, zone where the activity of the buildings, in this case shops and theme-park rides, takes place. This strategy, derived from the geodesic domes which the visionary American designer Buckminster Fuller once proposed throwing over whole cities, makes for striking architecture but also for awkward clashes where the two zones meet. Top and bottom seem to be different worlds.
Such cities are often the work of a single strong man. There is a museum of the founder in Astana, as there are of Kemal Atatürk in Ankara and President Kubitschek in Brasilia, pharaonic insurance against the afterlife that contains such things as Nazarbayev's grandfather's seal of office as a local judge. There is the president's palace, which stands on a long axis linking the two Foster works, the tent and the pyramid, and the golden orb. The palace is a version of the White House, improved by the addition of a blue dome. Also by its dominating location: the American original is placed off-centre from Washington's Mall, signifying a separation of powers that is not quite the Kazakh style.
The world's most famous Kazakh is the fictional Borat, but people in Astana are nothing like him. Except, perhaps for a taxi driver who growled like a tomcat whenever he saw a woman. In general Astanans are placid and dignified. They gather in the hour or so around dusk, when the hammering heat of the day gives way to deliciously balmy air, and promenade in the city's grand avenue. Children career over the pavements in electric cars like unfenced dodgems, while everyone gasps obediently at the pre-programmed fountain displays. The avenue is decorated with topiary giraffes and elephants, and vast swirling carpets of brightly coloured bedding plants. There are artificial trees, made of steel rods, blossoming with pink or orange lights and the plastic roof of Khan Shatyr now joins the display, lit from within with a spectrum of disco colours. Sam Cooke's Wonderful World plays from the shrubberies. The place offers childish delights, laid on by the unseen hand of a benevolent daddy.
There is not, yet, much more to Astana than this. It doesn't have bohemian quarters, or a rich nightlife, or hidden surprises. It feels sedated. The striking architecture is combined with a lack of excitement in the street life, as if the design of buildings were a cipher for risk and drama. These are very early days, of course, and over the decades Astana might mature into something different.
Astana, Kazakhstan: the space station in the steppes. The Observer. August 10, 2010
First picture from the Observer; next pictures from http://www.guardian.co.uk/