Contemporary Architecture in the Caspian Region: Nursultan (Astana)

The Caspian Post
Panorama of Nursultan, one of the world’s most under-appreciated capital cities. Image: CB0JI04/Shutterstock

This city is “so strange that it has one grasping for images,” wrote architecture critic Rowan Moore in the Guardian, describing the place as a “space station, marooned in an ungraspable expanse of level steppe.” The sheer architectural audacity here is incredible.


If you’ve never heard of Nursultan, it’s probably because you haven’t kept up with regular name changes in Kazakhstan. Known as Tselinograd from 1961, the city reverted to its pre-Soviet name of Akmola after independence and became Astana (‘capital’) in 1998 – an appropriate name since it had just officially replaced Almaty as Kazakhstan’s capital the year before. The city’s newfound status, along with a burst of funding from Kazakhstan’s rapidly developing hydrocarbon boom, has allowed an unusual degree of creativity in forging a city with a new sense of power and place. Astana was re-renamed Nursultan in 2019 to honour the former president Nursultan Nazarbayev who had recently stepped down. The population has approximately quadrupled within the last 30 years.


Central Nursultan. Image: Meiram Nurtazin/Shutterstock

What makes Nursultan particularly special is the sense of carefully designed order, allowing clear sight-lines between imposing, well-spaced structures. It’s the result of following a layout sketched in a city master plan by Japanese ‘metabolist’ architect Kisho Kurokawa, although not completed until after his death.


 The Baiterek Tower symbolizes a mythical tree with a golden egg. Image: udmurd/Shutterstock

The undoubted icon of the city is the Baiterek Tower – its white steel filigree rising like a gigantic alien flower to cup a gleaming golden sphere some 105m above Nursultan’s central circular plaza. Supposedly designed by ex-President Nazarbayev himself, the tower symbolizes the tree of life upon which the mythical bird of happiness (called Samruk in Turkic languages, Simorgh in Persian) lays its precious egg.


The long arc of the KazMunayGaz building’s ‘arms’ become more evident when seen from above. Behind rises Khan Shatyr. Image: Andrey Orekhov/Shutterstock

Long strolling promenade-parks extend from the tower. Nurzhol Boulevard heads west to the KazMunayGaz building, built in a stepped arch style that vaguely mimics the Atlantis Dubai.


During Expo 2017, the KazMunayGaz was fronted by an army of globe-carrying figures representing the world’s nations. Image: Camera_Bravo/Shutterstock

The building frames views across Lovers’ Park to the world’s largest ‘tent’ - Khan Shatyr (‘Royal Marquee’). It’s a gigantic modernist structure some 150m tall, designed by Norman Foster & Partners. Its translucent ‘skin’ is an intricate latticework made of a heat absorbent polymer designed to maintain a stable temperature of around 24 degrees with minimal heating, even when outside the winter temperatures dip way below zero.


Khan Shatyr’s translucent skirt glows in the sunset. Image: kakiryga/Shutterstock

The sheer scale of the creation can be hard to absorb. Seen from one side, the whole structure appears to be leaning precariously, the long spike of the central ‘tent pole’ at a distinct angle. But, don’t worry, that’s how it was designed.


Khan Shatyr, viewed from the north, looks a little like the petticoat of a gigantic wedding dress. Image: kurbanov/Shutterstock

Inside it contains a huge entertainment centre including shops, a spa, mini-golf, monorail, drop-ride, T-rex dominated ‘Dino-Park’ and an indoor swimming pool complete with palm trees and beach.


Khan Shatyr’s indoor beach. Image: Evgeniy Gorbunov/Shutterstock

Khan Shatyr - “the world’s largest tent” comes with its own internal monorail. Image: donikz/Shutterstock

Heading east from the Baiterek Tower, the wide boulevard continues to two golden skyscrapers, tapered cylindrical sentinels guarding the approach to the presidential palace.


Image: Andrey Orekhov/Shutterstock

Set in a sprawling park that forces the River Esil/Ishim to make a semi-circular diversion, the palace was described by journalist Giles Fraser as “a Disney version of the White House.” The president must have a perfect view across the river to the 62m tall metal pyramid known as the ‘Palace of Peace and Reconciliation.’ This purpose-built venue hosts an interfaith congress that, every three years, brings together religious leaders and public organizations from dozens of countries. The next edition is due next month (October 2021).


Hazrat Sultan Mosque overlooking Nursultan’s Independence Square. Image: Andrey Orekhov/Shutterstock

Beyond the pyramid sprawls the seemingly endless expanse of Independence Square, surveyed by a golden eagle atop the 91m-tall Kazakh Eli column. It’s overlooked by the Hazrat Sultan Mosque, itself built on a grandiose scale with a 28m diameter dome, 77m-tall minarets and space for up to 10,000 worshippers. In winter, a big problem here – as across most of the city centre – is the large acreage of smooth marble paving, which looks gorgeous but becomes treacherous underfoot after rain or a dusting of snow.


The Nur Alem sphere during Expo 2017. Image: taravelworld1971/Shutterstock

Astana also boasts the world’s biggest fully spherical building, the Nur Alem Pavilion, an eight-storey blue-glass ball with an internal diameter of 80m. It’s unusual in that each glass panel was carefully moulded to curve in three dimensions rather than being faceted as a geodesic dome in the style of other approximately round buildings like La Géode in Paris. The top of the sphere incorporates a pair of wind turbines and has photo-voltaic cells embedded into the glass to improve the sustainability of the structure’s energy profile.


With its glass walkways and multi-storey drops, the awesome interior of the spherical Nur Alem Pavilion can feel disorientating. Image: NICK MELNICHENKO/Shutterstock

The pavilion was originally constructed to house the Expo 2017 International Exhibition, so follows in the same futuristic lineage as the Eiffel Tower (1889) and the Brussels Atomium (1958). It is now part of the Astana International Finance Centre – an institution that aims to position Kazakhstan in the role of environmental financier for Central Asia and beyond.


Inside the Nur Alem Pavilion. Image: Okunin/Shutterstock