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Wednesday23 July 2014

Palace of Peace & Accord, Kazakhstan by Foster and Partners

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New architecture, like much else in Kazakhstan, bears the mark of the country’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Yet the latest landmark in its new capital is a Foster building through and through


The pyramid is exactly as high as it is long and wide.
The pyramid is exactly as high as it is long and wide.

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after, And the poetry he invented was easy to understand…
Epitaph on a Tyrant, WH Auden

In Kazakh mythology, the Samruk bird lays its golden egg in the Baiterek or poplar tree. When the Samruk flies away, a snake eats the egg. The bird returns a year later, lays another, the snake eats it and so, ever bleakly, on. Like the legend of the phoenix, it is a regeneration myth. In the Kazakh steppe stands a tower that has been conceived as a representation of this story. The structure, completed in 2002, comprises an “egg” of gold mirror glass held aloft on a “tree” of white-painted steel latticework. The Kazakhs have dubbed it “The Big Chupa Chups” for its resemblance to the American lollipop.

A lift ascends into the egg. From here, we can gaze out and find a town set on the far bank of the Ishim River, a couple of miles to the north. Its history goes a long way to explaining why a fable of endless renewal should exert such a hold over the Kazakh imagination.

In the 1830s, Russian colonial forces built a fort here and called it Akmolinsk. A settlement developed at first tentatively and then grew apace after it became the site of a major rail intersection. However, further expansion was curtailed by the upheavals of 1917 which saw Kazakhstan morph into the second largest republic of the Soviet Union. It wasn’t until the fifties, when Khrushchev initiated a programme to cultivate a vast expanse of the Kazakh steppe, that the town’s fortunes picked up. Under the Virgin Lands Campaign some 300,000 — mainly Ukrainian — immigrants settled in the town and its hinterland to contribute to the farming effort.

In 1961, its central role in the programme was marked by a change of name. It would now be called Tselinograd, the Virgin Lands City. So it remained until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. With independence, Tselinograd became Aqmola. But not for long: in 1994, the president decreed the capital would be moved here from Almaty, its historic home near the Chinese border. Henceforth, the city’s name would be Astana — literally “capital”.

The pyramid’s congress chamber is sited at the top of the pyramid and is enclosed by stained glas ...
The pyramid’s congress chamber is sited at the top of the pyramid and is enclosed by stained glass designed by Brian Clarke. The hanging garden is visible through the circular void in the centre of the meeting room table.

Quite why the president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, relocated his government to this provincial backwater remains unclear. Almaty is a cosmopolitan city with a rich architectural heritage and balmy climate. Astana’s building stock testifies to the parsimony of the Soviet era, there is next to nothing in the way of cultural infrastructure and the climate is punishing beyond belief — in winter, temperatures of -40C are not unkown.

Quite why the president relocated his capital to this provincial backwater remains unclear

It has been suggested that Nazarbayev was keen to put some distance between the capital and China, a country Kazakhs have historically viewed as a threat. The move also served to consolidate the president’s power in a part of Kazakhstan heavily populated by Russian immigrants — a group that, unchecked, might be tempted to rejoin its former homeland. However there was surely another motivation — a motivation quite removed from the pursuit of narrow tactical advantages but one that had everything to do with securing the president’s position at home, abroad, indeed in history. Moving the capital to Astana allowed Nazarbayev to build and — with the extraordinary level of foreign investment that the country has attracted since the discovery of its untapped oil reserves — to build on an epic scale.

The Big Chupa Chups or “Tree of Life”, to give it its official title, stands midway down the length of a mile-long boulevard, 100m wide — a space not so very far from the scale of Washington DC’s National Mall. This is the backbone of Astana’s new town. Huge offices line it to either side, essaying the wedding-cake architecture of Stalin’s Moscow in aluminium cladding. A smattering of structures that are the product of a rather sweeter tooth are interspersed: a national archive resembling a giant easter egg, a pair of 30-storey cones in gold mirror glass, a trio of towers that shimmy like belly dancers. In what is evidently something of a national pastime, the Kazakhs have given the tallest building here a new name. On account of its profile, the tower of the transport ministry is known as The Lighter. In May, to widespread amusement, it caught fire.

Looking back to Astana from the Palace of Peace and Accord. The domed building at the front is the Presidential Palace.
Looking back to Astana from the Palace of Peace and Accord. The domed building at the front is the Presidential Palace.

Nazarbayev moved the capital from Almaty in 1997 — a figure that, Libeskind-style, is reflected in the 97m height of “The Tree of Life”. However, construction of the new town began only six years ago, nominally in accordance with a masterplan by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa. Takashi Tsubokura, a member of his team, maintains a website, www.astanamp.kepter.kz, which chronicles the history of the city. Here he recalls the afternoon in 2001 when the plan of the new city was finalised. Working at a scale of 1:20,000, Kurokawa determined the layout on a large sheet of tracing paper laid out on the conference room table. “He drew roads with black pens and painted green zones with green pens, using his whole body like a conductor wielding the baton,” explains Tsubokura. “Every time the ink ran out, he threw away the pen and took a new one. Sometimes he stopped and frowned and sometimes grinned contentedly. A staff of four or five just kept standing without a word. I was vacantly looking at Tokyo skyscrapers outside the window. It lasted one or one and a half hours. Startled at the sound of a pen hitting the floor, I came to myself. Just at that time Kurokawa finally painted out the whole tracing paper. He told us in a tired voice to make a fair copy of it on the computer and went out of the room.”

Whatever dreams of omnipotence Kurokawa entertained during this performance can’t have lasted long. His role was soon usurped by local consultants and key features of his plan, such as planting a forest around the city’s perimeter were junked. In fact, Kurokawa’s marginal place in the scheme of things had never been hard to discern. “I am the architect of Astana,” Nazarbayev once told a journalist, “and I am not ashamed to say that.”

In the course of my three days in Astana, I didn’t manage to meet the president. However, I did place my hand in his. From the observation deck of the Tree of Life, a stately spiral staircase rises to an elevated platform. Here we find a pedestal, oriented towards the Presidential Palace at the eastern end of the boulevard. It supports a triangular gold ingot in which Nazarbayev’s (suspiciously gigantic) handprint has been cast. You can touch palms, make a wish and a few bars of the Kazakh national anthem burst forth.

Construction work in Astana. The Tree of Life is visible at the far right of the image.
Construction work in Astana. The Tree of Life is visible at the far right of the image.

‘I am the architect of Astana,’ president Nazarbayev once told a journalist. ‘ I am not ashamed to say that’

Stood here, you can but wonder about the latter-day Khan who has willed this Xanadu into being. Nazarbayev was born to peasant stock but rose through the Kazakh Communist party, to become first secretary in 1989. Keeping a firm grip on the reins of power he survived the break-up of the Soviet Union to be elected to the presidency in 1991. It is a post he has held ever since. In January, he was sworn in for another seven-year term having secured 91% of the vote in the last general election. As the scale of that majority suggests, Kazakhstan isn’t exactly Sweden. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe monitored the last election and condemned it as falling short of international democratic standards. Intimidation of voters was cited as a key concern. Corruption is endemic. A journalist who revealed that $1 billion had found its way into a secret Swiss bank account in Nazarbayev’s name was subsequently gaoled on a dubious rape conviction. Newspapers are habitually impounded and in the past 12 months, two opposition leaders have been murdered.

That said, observers are also agreed, that in this country with no democratic tradition, the president does genuinely enjoy enormous support. It is not hard to see why. Under his leadership, the standard of living has risen steadily and the country is unencumbered by a strong police presence. Looking down on the new town’s main boulevard you may bridle at the monomania of the planning but it is an undeniably relaxed scene. Workers are covering the hoardings round one of the many construction sites with CGIs of the corporate wonderland to come. Or rather, they should be – for the moment they have seconded one of these huge vinyl banners as an improvised wrestling mat. Behind them a Busby Berkeley parade of flowerbeds, sculptures and fountains processes down the boulevard in immaculate formation. Sooner flowerbeds than jackboots, I find myself thinking.

Beside the president’s handprint, there is just one other object on the upper platform of the golden egg. It is a tablet commemorating a conference held at Astana’s Intercontinental Hotel in September 2003. The memorial’s privileged location reflects this event’s central role in the founding mythology of the city. At the president’s invitation, representatives of 18 religions assembled for two days of discussion. In conclusion, they issued a declaration of their shared commitment to values of peace and religious tolerance. This first Congress of World and Traditional Religions also voted to convene further gatherings in Astana, to be held once every three years. Last week it met again, this time in a building specially designed for the purpose.

The pyramid viewed from the Presidential Palace.
The pyramid viewed from the Presidential Palace.

In the summer of 2004, Foster & Partners received a call from Sembol Construction, a Turkish contractor that had begun to secure a significant quantity of work in Astana. It explained that Nazarbayev had approached it with the request for a permanent structure to house the congress. There was a site: directly opposite the presidential palace. There was a timeframe: it had to be ready in just over two years. Otherwise, the brief was fuzzy in the extreme. But there was one further proviso. The “architect of Astana” had been thinking about the form that his Palace of Peace & Accord should take. He had decided that a pyramid would be suitable. Would Foster & Partners like to design it?

It is tempting to speculate on just how many Pritzker Prize winners would have accepted such an invitation. In an age of signature architecture, the notion that a client might offer diktats on form would surely be anathema to most. Why then did Foster say yes? No doubt, the challenge of getting the thing built at such speed spoke to a certain boy scout can-doism. The prospect of conquering another far-flung location may even have tickled some imperial aspiration. And, of course, it wasn’t a totally ridiculous marriage of form and architect. While it may never have employed quite so unadulterated a platonic solid as this, the search for a reduced, unified expression is a thread running through all Foster & Partners’ work. Of particular relevance, many of its defining projects — the Sainsbury Centre, Swiss Re and Sage Gateshead among them — like the pyramid, conflate roof and wall into a single treatment.

However, none of this would have swayed the decision to take the job, practice partner David Nelson insists, had the practice not felt that the pyramid form enjoyed a convincing relationship to the programme. Nelson offers two arguments in support of his belief that it does. The first turns on a question of symbolism. “As a representational form for what [Nazarbayev] was trying to do the pyramid fitted pretty well,” he says. “The pyramid hasn’t really been owned by any religion since ancient Egyptian times. It could therefore represent a large number of different religions.” That is true. However, how many forms are owned by religions? Granted, you might want to steer clear of steeples, minarets and six-pointed stars, but it is not a long list.

The president had decided a pyramid would be suitable. Would Foster like to design it?

Nelson’s other point is a functional one. “We liked the hierarchical disposition of the pyramid,” he explains. “The top is clearly the most important part and the base is broader. It is a perfect hierarchical diagram. We could therefore dedicate a space at the top to a focused religious activity and accommodate large gatherings at the base.” Very large gatherings, it turned out. The dimensions of Foster’s first scheme were exactly modelled on those of the Great Pyramid of Cheops, largest of the pyramids at Giza. That is 230m in width and length, 146m high. Nazarbayev was impressed, but even he balked at the scale — the ground level could accommodate a crowd of 80,000. He sent his architects off to try again and threw them an extra challenge — could the building incorporate a 1,500 seat opera house? Needless to say, the deadline was unchanged.

Plan of the Presidential Park.
Plan of the Presidential Park.

It required a workforce of nearly 2,000 (supplemented by the Kazakh army in the final stretch) but earlier this month, Nazarbayev got his pyramid. With a width and length of 62m, its ground floor area may be a mere 14th that of the earlier project, but this isn’t a building that you are going to miss. It sits at the eastern end of the new town’s main axis, although separated from the rest of the recently built development by the Ishim River. Its seclusion won’t last for long. The city plan proposes that the axis will be extended east a further mile as Astana builds towards a notional “completion date” of 2030. Already, the Presidential Park — of which the pyramid is the centrepiece — is underway as are some of the tall, mainly residential, buildings that are to be ranged around it.

The opera house has been buried below the pyramid, or at least as low as Astana’s high water table allowed. So placed, it still projected 5m above the surrounding ground level, prompting the construction of a major earthwork to cover it up. This actually proves a happy counterpoint to the structure above it. In this interminably flat landscape, the mound lends the pyramid an elevated situation, at once helping to retrieve it from the realms of cod-Egyptian caricature while greatly enhancing its impact. Crucially, the mound also resolves the question of how to make an entrance in such a pure form. Four routes have been cut into the base — a main entrance on the east, a VIP entrance to the west and service entrances to north and south — ensuring that one effectively enters the pyramid from below.

The pyramid itself is more pertly proportioned than the earlier scheme: at 62m tall, it is exactly as high as it is wide and long. In response to the challenges of building in the Kazakh winter, it was designed in steel rather than in the concrete that has been used for the building’s lower levels. Its triangulated frame registers on the elevations as a net of stainless steel lines, each bay corresponding to the proportion of the overall surface within which it is read. The first scheme was to be entirely of stained glass designed by Foster & Partners’ long-time collaborator, Brian Clarke. In the final building, Clarke’s contribution is largely restricted to the pyramid’s peak, where the congress chamber is sited. Otherwise, the structure is faced in granite — pre-mounted on large concrete panels — save for a run of small, diamond-shaped windows at low level. With so little glazing, the building presents an enigmatic, not to say forbidding, image. Yet, watching the light calibrate the relationship between the stainless steel and grey granite, I had to admit that it had a beauty, however chilly.

The first impression of the interior is one of extraordinary darkness. The architect describes the building as “a tent on top of a cave”. Accordingly, the foyer has been lined out in polished black stone. What light there is, comes in through the diamond shaped windows at the pyramid’s base, high above our heads. In front of us, stands the volume of the auditorium, the outer walls of which have — rather inadequately — been clad in timber-veneered panels. However, given that it was added so late to the programme, the auditorium is, surprisingly, the most convincing of the building’s interiors. Squeezing the fly tower into the profile of the pyramid was a headache but the three-tiered horseshoe arrangement recalls the intimacy of Glyndebourne. There is one significant innovation: the inclusion of a glazed oculus that can be closed off at the start of each performance by motorised flaps. Otherwise, the space makes no bones about the fact that it is the product of the accumulated experience of countless earlier opera theatres. It is all the better for it.

Returning to the foyer, we can at last climb into the body of the pyramid. The architect describes it as a transition from dark to light and, comparatively, it is. Stepping on to the roof of the opera house, we enter an atrium that echoes the building’s external form. Blue and yellow light permeates from on high, generating a sub-aquatic atmosphere. In order that the coloured light might have a surface to play on, a white ceramic frit has been applied over 70% of the full-height glazing that separates the atrium from the five floors of accommodation distributed around its edge. Without any other light source, these floors are very poorly lit indeed. The brief was always sketchy about these areas. At one time they were to house a “University of Civilisations”. Now, one floor has been fitted out to serve as office space during the congress while it is thought that the others will support some form of exhibition. In truth, occupying them is always going to be a question of “making do”. No attempt has been made to make more of them than the low-grade stuffing required to pad out the pyramid form.

A 70% ceramic frit has been applied to the full-height glass walls around the central atrium.
A 70% ceramic frit has been applied to the full-height glass walls around the central atrium.

The main means of vertical circulation takes the form of two banks of inclined lifts — a disappointingly cursory means of choreographing the journey towards the Congress Chamber. However, on exiting the lift at level six, delegates will find that the short walk to their seats isn’t one that they will forget in a hurry. A pair of double-helix ramps ascend through a densely planted hanging garden. They wind towards a circular steel platform which is cradled off the main structure at just four points. Light falls around its edge and also through a wide oculus at its centre. As the delegates arrive at this level, they discover that a United Nations style table encircles this void. They also see the full splendour of Brian Clarke’s stained glass at close quarters. A flock of enormous doves are pictured ascending towards the sun that is the central emblem of Kazakhstan’s national flag. A pacific inner glow is doubtless anticipated. Alternatively, you may feel like Tippi Hedren in the last reel of The Birds.

What are we to make of this extraordinarily bizarre project? The first thing to say is that, despite the mixed parentage of its design, the finished work is — for better or worse — a “Foster building” through and through. Along with the recent Hearst Tower, it belongs to a lineage that can be traced back through the practice’s past work to a number of the megastructures devised by Foster’s mentor, Buckminster Fuller. That heritage bestows predictable strengths and weaknesses. As ever, the rigour with which a single idea has been pursued astounds, never more so than when the price of such rigour proves to be five floors with next to no daylight.

In modern times, pyramid-building may have become something of a specialist activity, but the Foster scheme is not unique. Saparmyrat Niyazov, the authoritarian leader of neighbouring Turkmenistan, has built a pyramidic “trade centre” which doubles as the largest fountain in the world. Last month he ordered the construction of a second 40m pyramid to commemorate his country’s independence from the Soviet Union. Kim Jong Il, the leader of North Korea, famously decreed the construction of a vast pyramidic hotel in Pyongyang which lies abandoned after it was discovered that it wouldn’t bear its own weight. The form’s attractions to such demagogues aren’t hard to guess, not least what David Nelson calls its status as a “perfect hierarchical diagram”.

Whatever else it may be, the Palace of Peace & Accord strikes me as inescapably a monument to the president. Evoking an ancient history of mausoleum-building, it is a structure built to house if not Nazarbayev’s body, then at least his legacy down the ages. However, when Foster & Partners was considering whether to accept the commission, the ostensible value of the programme proved enough to sweep away any concerns about how the building might be co-opted as part of Nazarbayev’s personal mythology. It is a position that it evidently shares with the leaders of 18 world religions.

So is the programme a meaningful one? I can’t speak for Nazarbayev’s motivations. However, the day before the Palace of Peace & Accord opened, Yerjan Utembaev, former head of the Kazakhstan Senate staff and the man that Nazarbayev had charged with organising the first Congress was sentenced to 20 years in prison for having ordered the murder of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev and his two assistants. History in Kazakhstan is moving quickly. It won’t be long before we learn whether Foster & Partners has acted as an agent of peace and accord or as something more unwitting.

“The dimensions of Foster’s first scheme were modelled on those of the Great Pyramid of Cheops”

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