I was making my way through the land of misfit skyscrapers a few months ago. Otherwise referred to as Astana, this is the place where the rejected samples of contemporary architecture are apparently exiled to. Here you have an array of squiggly green skyscrapers sprouting up next to sparkly blue ones; there is an ornate, gold domed mosque right next to a shopping mall that’s shaped like a colossal yurt; there’s giant buildings that look like something from classical Europe right next to a bulging art-deco tower. The place looks more like a showroom of an avid collector of odd buildings than an actual city.
But I like places like this. I have a peculiar attraction to new cities, and there are few in the world as new or as intentional as Astana.
Astana has no history. Astana has no pre-set character. Astana has no period of evolution where diverse architectural influences were gradually dissolved into a particular style. Astana is 100% artificial; it’s a made-up city. Almost literally, the place is the creation of one man: the president, Narsultan Nazarbayev. In 1994 Nazarbayev said let there be a new capital here, and by 1998 it was so.
Architecture is a snapshot of a place at a certain point in time. As eras pass, successive waves of “contemporary” buildings are constructed, but many of the previous ones still remain. Eventually, cities become mirrors of themselves, a kaleidoscope of its history, a living record of who was been there for how long. Over the cityscape buildings are like graffiti saying, “Joe was here 1972.” Only “Joe” is the Romans, the British, the French, the Turks, the Chinese . . . all leaving their tag in architecture.
Eventually cities become architectural messes — shards of different colors and shapes piled in altogether and churned constantly. Walk down the streets of London and you will see age-old palaces and dungeons and mansions presided over by a colossal, uber-modern prism-looking thing. This is how cities should look. Architecture blends time, people, and place and is a constant reminder of who we are and where we came from. Architecture is the great chronicler of change.
The worst thing in urban design is uniformity. While this may be done to preserve “heritage” or to be more appealing to tourists, what results are places that just seem faked.
That is because they are.
The Hallstatt of UNESCO fame is hardly more genuine than the Chinese replica of it in Guangdong province.
Astana is fake. But it’s so blatant that there is something genuine about it. When you have a completely empty canvas to paint a city upon, there are no style conventions or restrictions, you can create your own image, your own story, your own history. You can set up the mirror which your period of time looks into. There is nothing monotonous about the architecture of Astana, there is nothing uniform there. It’s a place that is grasping for its identity in extreme diversity. It’s a place that is un-boxable, beyond categorization.
A city’s architecture tells you everything about it. You can read a city like a book, and this is nowhere more explicit than in Astana.