Contemporary Architecture in the Caspian Region: Ashgabat
Image: Matyas Rehak/Shutterstock
For the fourth of our five-part series on the Caspian Region’s contemporary architecture, we sneak into Turkmenistan to look around the country’s surreal capital Ashgabat – the City of Love.
Since independence, the tourist-shy country of Turkmenistan has developed its own very distinctive style in virtually everything from the triumphalism of the grand monuments to the symbolism of octograms and carpet motifs that are worked into so many designs.
Asghabat’s Independence monument doesn’t try to be modest. Image: Michal Knitl/Shutterstock
Amid its bombastic commemorative follies, none is more compulsive a curiosity than the Arch of Neutrality. Often nicknamed the Giant Tripod, it’s a three-legged tower that soars 75m and looks like a festive rocket ready to launch. Yet on the tip of the nose-cone is a gilded figure – a statue of the country’s first president Saparmurat Niyazov, aka Turkmenbashi, who ruled the republic for 20 years (both in Soviet times and well after).
The Arch of Neutrality. Image: Thiago B Trevisan/Shutterstock
When the monument was first built, it was designed to slowly turn 180 degrees during a day, ensuring that he faced both the sunrise and the sunset. Sadly the mechanism no longer functions.
It’s not just monuments. Architecturally too, Ashgabat is unforgettable, albeit not so much for the drama of any one building but for the sheer scale of all the white marble that is the basis for virtually any building constructed here over the last 25 years.
All that white marble makes many of Ashgabat's wide avenues look like they're architect's models. Image: velirina/Shutterstock
The uncountable 12+ storey white apartment blocks leave the mind reeling, and the tendency to have so many all built alike adds to a vague sense of unreality as you explore.
Image: Jakub Buza/Shutterstock
Though some older Soviet-style corners do still exist, certain areas of older blocks have been clad in marble, too, making the city whiter still. Floodlighting softens the effect at night, especially in the central area.
Yyldyz Hotel. Image: velirina/Shutterstock
Head to the city’s outskirts to see some of Ashgabat’s weirder buildings. The 24-storey Yyldyz Hotel would score magnificently as a Scrabble word, but its teardrop form also makes a striking addition to the capital’s skyline. Guest room interiors go overboard on gilded details and racehorse pictures.
Asghabat’s Wedding Palace enjoys regularly changing colours of floodlight at night. Image: velirina/Shutterstock
On the same low ridgetop as the Yyldyz Hotel, the Ashgabat Wedding Palace is an extraordinary 11-storey structure with a giant 32m-diameter ‘mirrorball’ chamber featuring golden maps of Turkmenistan. That’s flanked on the outside by a series of superimposed concrete squares that create architectural eight-pointed stars.
The lower storeys are eight-pointed stars too. However, if you think that’s an original idea, you obviously haven’t spent much time in Turkmenistan. Such octogram motifs are ubiquitous here: you’ll find them on everything from street lamps to bus shelters to street paving.
At night, Ashgabat’s ‘indoor’ Ferris wheel arguably looks more attractive from outside than the view one gets when aboard. Image: Uwe Seidner/Shutterstock
The octogram also appears on the exterior of what Guinness World Records has declared to be the world’s largest enclosed Ferris wheel, though it’s unclear quite what competition there is for such an accolade.
Ashgabat’s TV Tower is 211m tall. Image: Jakub Buza/Shutterstock
One of the most striking uses of the octogram device is the Turkmenistan Broadcasting Centre, a building in the form of an eight-pointed star through which Ashgabat’s fanciful TV tower emerges.
Turkmens generally see the octogram double-square star motif as the symbol of Oghuz Khan, the semi-mythical progenitor of the Turkmens. In world Islam, it’s also known as the Rub el Hizb.
Ashgabat’s monorail is a 5.2km loop within the Olympic Village area. Image: velirina/Shutterstock
Built for the Asian Games of 2017, Ashgabad has an extensive Olympic Village with its own 8-station monorail. The buildings here are just as white as in the rest of town.
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Ashgabat’s new airport terminal. Image: Anton Watman/Shutterstock
And then there’s Ashgabat’s international airport. It seems absurdly over-engineered for a country that rarely welcomes more than a few thousand international tourists a year. But the terminal’s stylized ‘falcon’ form has a certain elegance, the wings forming the building’s roof and a curved white ‘beak’ overhanging the main entrance.