20 4 / 2014
My journey through my native land continues. Soon it will be exactly a year since I’ve been writing these entries. I would love to dedicate a few days and finish off all my thoughts and lay out all the notes that I have acquired from my trip from last summer but I can’t, so I’m working with whatever time I have.
To recap, I have visited Astana, capital of Kazakhstan in my previous blog entry, This time I arrived to the city of Karaganda. It’s located 2 hours South-East from Astana. A smaller and more humble city, Karaganda, formerly and industrial town, was dominated by the mining industry. It is strongly expressed through this monument to the miners found in the centre of the city.
Soviet memorabilia can be found in a form of residential architecture like this:
and more cultural places like this square with wonderful mozaic mural, depicting miners and other industrial workers. The working class was really the backbone of former communist superpower and this city espoused that.
Architecturally there is something but very little the city can be proud about. This theater was finished recently and adds a bit of newness and nationalistic flair to otherwise a city that is growing dull.
Apart from buildings, I loved the monuments of famous Soviet figures and events that showcased resiliency of the people against various adversities. I noticed a great sculptural integrity about them. With their forms they evoked an unwavering spirit of victory, optimism and hopeful future. The monuments are still relevant because of universality of those themes. They still resonate despite the failure of communism, reminding citizens that a hopeful and prosperous future is possible, whatever challenges may lay ahead.
The newer monuments present themselves as one-dimensional, appearing to favour size and height above all else. As if that is the only way to represent a blossoming republic with a diverse population and rich history. I feel like they could be so much more…
Driving through the city and comparing fresh impressions of Astana to Karaganda’s humble districts, made me like this kind of city more than the capital. According to residents I spoke to, Karaganda evolved organically, by the people and evolving economy. There is no manicuring or pretense about it, no rushing to some imaginary finish line of glory.
Like nature the city slowly shifts, grows and ages becoming something deeper and more meaningful to its inhabitants.
18 2 / 2014
02 2 / 2014
30 1 / 2014
Let’s continue the last part of my trip to Astana.
I am at the entrance to Norman Foster’s Khan Shatyr. Seeing the preliminary drawings I was impressed with the structure. Quoting from the firm’s website, “The ETFE membrane and cable roof is very lightweight and thus efficient. The large spans would make for a very heavy structure if it was steel and glass, therefore by hanging the roof from the tripod all the cables are simply in tension, which is a very efficient system for steel. Because of the cable net’s nature as a tension structure the entire roof is designed to move as wind and snow loads are imposed - the whole structure will thus move - but in fairly small amounts.”
I wont dispute the strength of the roof as it has not collapsed just yet, but I have a feeling it might, based on the low quality construction I’ve seen around the city. The best part is that diffused natural light floods the space in the interior courtyard. That, along with dramatic tripod structure creates an impressive scene as one enters the building.
Curved mezzanine levels snake around the perimeter and host dozens of retail stores and restaurants. Most of it is fast food like KFC and McDonald’s, though I usually stay away from those. The mall has mainly superficial Kazakh cultural identity, but mostly it is a good example of western consumerist values as it features all of the foreign brands that you find in any North American store.
Still I was impressed by the space. Take out all retail and people, and It would make a good space of tranquility and contemplation something skin to a museum or a gallery.
As I traveled higher up, with every floor the air felt more stuffy. On the fourth floor of the amusement park it started to feel like you are inside of a greenhouse. There seemed to be a lack of ventilation and someone told me that the building’s skin was supposed to breathe so the space would not rely on air conditioning. I refused to believe that a prominent architect like Norman Foster would overlook something as basic as proper air ventilation in his building. My father’s friend, a local resident, told me that cheap labour and expedited construction might have been a factor.
Scale of the structure is enormous! I avoided the stores and focused on admiring the pillars which were holding up the roof.
Although, I didn’t think that the interior climate would even suit that T-Rex, if he was alive.
We lunched on some authentic Kazakh cuisine. Food was delicious but with very bad service. I did not complain as I was full to continue my tour of the city.
Next we drove to the nearby park with a highway running through it. I cannot even put those things together in my head!
A gas company headquarters surround the park and one feels completely dwarfed by the scale of the buildings. It’s always fun to visit the place right after you have seen a scaled down version in the model of the city. This is how you really get in touch with it, as it affects you mentally and physically. My experience left me with a surreal, confused feeling of what that park is all about.
Right away the highway going above the park at a slight arc is a shocker to me as it creates such an oppressive threshold which ruins the intimacy and pedestrian feeling that a park should have. On top of that, it was gross to see cars parked right in the open square of the park near the central fountain. Probably the best way to destroy a valuable public space is to designate it for cars. Even the main passageways leading into the central fountain and around the perimeter had abundant parking spaces with cars in every single one of them.
A mid-sized ring road surrounds the park, with no adequate pedestrian crossings. One has to cautiously cross the road in order to get to the other side, meandering between the parked cars. Somehow I imagined the park to have more green elements than metal.
Meandering paths and greenery make it all nice and park-like, but the highway’s presence dwarfs everything and creates a compression effect when you are under it. I appreciated the shading that it provided from the blazing sun at the time, but I can’t help but ask, seriously? Who designed this?
However I did like the street furniture and planters, there was a vernacular feel about them, like they really do belong there.
Walking through the park I quickly started noticing that the scale of the public spaces is messed up, there is almost too much space on the main boulevards with nowhere to sit, or hide from the sun. One has to walk a substantial distance to seek refuge, and even there you don’t have a tree to sit under, except for a tiny shrub and flowers. It feels like the park was planned for cars not for the people.
Moving along I decided to check out Norman Foster’s Pyramid on the other side of the neighbourhood. Driving by I noticed this atrocious piece of architecture was actually built! Reminds me of the 1970’s North American architectural pastiche.
The pyramid or Palace of Peace and Reconciliation is placed right in the center of an expansive park (this one is nicer, with a lot of young trees and beautiful flowers). The placement of the building is aligned with all the other landmarks like Khan Shatyr and Baiterek. Walking along the main boulevard to the entrance reminded me of those imperial palaces where architecture is used to suppress and dwarf the peasants and assert the power of the emperor. I like the idea of the procession, but I think it is over-exaggerated here. Instead there could be more intimate spaces or domains for people to enjoy.
I did like this landscape idea where the stone paving creates these round mini hills adjacent to each other. They in turn create wading pools, where kids were jumping and running around playing with water.
I walked inside. Once again huge lobby, massive spaces and a rather disorienting colour scheme on the ground floor - reflective black tile on the floor and on the walls plus dark ceiling.
The atrium space on the upper floor is designed to flood natural light inside, creating a pleasant gathering space. Hmm, maybe this building is not that bad after all…
Here is an interior garden where 60% of the plant’s are fake (according to the tour guide), dominates the next level. Spiraling stair walkway leads to the upper chamber where religious leaders gather to talk about pressing religious matters. I noticed the overall progression from light to dark which I loved, and the green wall that surrounds the garden is super cool!
The top chamber is amazing! It is nothing more than a boardroom, but the mural on the windows, the abstract national flag at the top and the abundance of sunlight made it a truly special place to be in. The inclining walls and windows covered in flying white doves, obstruct the overall view of the city, so instead you are forced to sit at the table and bath in sunlight with blue and yellow colours all around. Norman Foster managed to place a mediocre looking building in the city, but he counter-balances it with some of the best architectural spaces I’ve seen. I’m glad I paid a visit.
Walking down to the exit, I spotted some cracks in the interior finishes. I thought it was odd because the building is only 7 years old, however as I left the building, I noticed these tiles, completely falling apart! Did the weather affect them? Vandalism? or maybe it is the quality of construction?
We walked on, and nearby I saw a square and a few starchitecture buildings on each side. Between them and myself - an 8 lane-wide avenue with no crossing in sight…
Due to fairly low amount of traffic, we successfully jaywalked across to see more of this bizarre architecture. The Presidential Square has a monument to Nazarbayev and a lot of marble went into its construction. Coming closer I noticed the same bad tile joinery as in the independence hill with the national flag.
The endless sea of granite paving dominates the public space with no seating and a handful of flower pots. The temperature that day was +40 C, and I feel bad for the elderly visiting this square as they surely will pass out before walking to the other side.
I decided to take a look at the blue round building behind me and found nothing but glass and stone. A giant ramp wraps the inside of the structure with no sense of pedestrian public space. It looked like it was still under construction, and I already spotted some damage on the tile work. Whats going on?
All the examples of poor design that I learned in school, I saw before my eyes. Is this supposed to be world class architecture as described in the magazines? It seemed like the neighbourhood was designed to enjoy by observing it from the distance. Once you come closer you see how it just does not hang together with issues pertaining to scale, craftsmanship and use. Is this the future of the rest of the city?
The sun was setting and we drove away from it all, to the old parts of Astana and somehow they just seemed more appealing to me…more humanized. Yes, they are old soviet apartments, extremely utilitarian and familiar. However, they are still standing and some of them are in better shape than the new buildings. They have their own problems due to aging but somehow there is no pretense or confusion about what their purpose is.
I leave Astana with a sense of disappointment, but also with a hopeful prospect that the city will turn around. It just has a lot of growing up to do…
After dinner we drove to a smaller city called Karaganda. A miners town that is the opposite of what I’ve seen in Astana. Should be a very interesting experience!
18 1 / 2014
Sorry it took so long for the 2nd part of my day at the capital but I was busy with new job + holidays + grad school applications. It is a new year and all the other things are taken care of, hence I can continue with my writing.
Let’s continue my story of my 2 week trip to Kazakhstan. Here’s part 2 of my visit to the capital.
Astana is considered by many locals as a vanity project for the country’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Tall observation tower Baiterek, which I just visited, apparently grew from a sketch Nazarbayev did himself. At the top visitors can touch his gilded handprint, and each year, the city’s anniversary celebrations happen to coincide with his birthday. While I regard him as a man with a big ego, a lot of articles suggest that he has more of a love for the country and an ambition to develop it to its fullest potential. I still recall, as a child witnessing massive propaganda of “Kazakhstan 2030”. Banners, commercials, print ads, radio always talked about that slogan throughout the 90’s ,promising a country like no other by year 2030. The vision was almost perfection - strong education, large military, clean air, pure water, energy independence, excellent work environment, and a strong economy. All in the mind of one man. Although Nazarbayev has been ruling the country way longer than a typical president should (22 years now), I have to give him props for having a positive vision and trying to shed the country’s impoverished post-soviet image.
Back to my trip, I got in the car and was on my way to see a 3D map of the country. It’s essentially a park that you can walk through, with cities, topographic features as well as major architectural landmarks. On our way, driving through the city we were graced by the flowering urban gardens. Even the smallest plots of land were covered in perennial flowers of varying colours, comprising national patterns found on traditional Kazakh clothing.
The flowers were probably my favourite thing along with the parks. New architecture sort of falls by the wayside - it is pretentious, confused and crumbling. I did not expect either of those things on my way to Astana, however, pictures speak for themselves. First structure I visited after Baiterek, was a monument to independence. I assume it is situated in a park dedicated to country’s independence.
At the top of the monument/hill is a mast with the country’s flag. The writing along the wall states, “Restoration of Independence - is a lawful ability to amend the sacrifices carried out by our ancestors, in a centuries-long struggle for freedom.”
Poetic and powerful. Flowering landscape along with lush lawn grass and a stair procession to the top all gave me an expectancy that I will be blown away. That was not the case. At the top is an empty gathering area with a half-decent view of the city and the park. Without the focal point I started to look at the perimeter and craftsmanship of granite tiles. To my horror I found this:
And there was more than one of these sad patchworks. Perplexed, I descended down the spiraling ramp (which was quite cool) and started to head towards the 3D map of the country.
We walked on to the map which was supposed to have a tour guide, but out of all days, today he had a day off. Shrugging it off, we decided to explore it nonetheless. We followed a narrow winding path snaking through the south of the country, along the eastern border, to the north through the capital and all the way west to the Kaspian Sea.
We walked through cement mountains with random pots with flowers. Along the way we encountered paper mache buildings that define each city. Unfortunately, their geographical placing was incorrect, which makes wonder if this park was made by someone from a different country.
Walking past the models which would make any Environmental Design student from OCAD horrified, I entered inside a room with a model of the new district in Astana. This gave me a birds eye view of the new architecture. Looking around I noticed the consistency of colours and symmetrical layout of the neighbourhood. I started looking at buildings and they seemed to be all from different era. They were so alien to the surroundings and appeared to have no dialog with each other, apart from being situated along the same trajectory. Here are some of them, at a glance. I still do not know what they mean and how they contribute to the prospering evolution of the city:
The building on the right is a concert hall, which I believe is a cousin of Walt Disney opera house by Frank Ghery.
Here is a crumbling model of headquarters of a natural gas company. The buildings surround a park that is dissected by a highway. I visited the park later on, which I think would make Jane Jacobs turn in her grave. The placement of the highway is bizarre, oppressive and out of place. It is a shame to ruin a park just like that where it could have easily been a rich pedestrian space.
These towers remind me of condos in Toronto only with a punch of colour.
This one is a stadium perhaps or an aquarium? Not a fan of the icicles though…
I did not expect to see a Chicago Tribune cousin to show up but there it is!
This one must be an ill-fated OMA imitation or Corbusier’s mutant offspring.
I guess Post-Modernism is still a thing in Astana - here is a jug of horse milk, shoved inside a building which is prominently designated as a music hall.
A volcano? At least it has a park inside of it…
??? I dont even know…
Next blog post will take a closer look at Norman Foster’s Pyramid and Khan Shatyr (a mall with tent-like structure). Also a visit to some parks and a Presidential Square. Stay tuned…