Kazakhstan All Over Again

Everywhere in Kazakhstan there is lots of space. For example, in Astana, the country’s new capital, built from the ground up, there are large urban spaces including a massive monumental axis that is flanked by equally large buildings with more space inside. The recent building boom in Kazakhstan carries with it the expectation that a huge population will flock to its cities. Urban landscapes are proportioned in anticipation of the arrival of hundreds of thousands. But it seems it wouldn’t be a surprise if no one showed up.

There are increasing instances of cities with a relative absence of people. Whether it is the result of global real-estate speculation, free trade zone-style incentives, or old-school money laundering, it is not uncommon to find generally unoccupied new cities. Even so, Kazakhstan is exceptional in that it will in all likelihood be a place where the numbers will remain low. After the hope of new arrivals has waned, the country will settle back into its eternal state of large spaces and few people. It currently is, and will continue to be, Kazakhstan all over again.

Although the country is geographically central – it lies at the crossroads between Europe, the Middle East, China, India and Russia – there are few reasons to live there. Kazakhstan is not particularly attractive. For one thing, the weather is not ideal. In Astana, winter temperatures regularly dip below –45° Celsius, and in summer they reach upwards of 45°. Most of the country is barren steppe terrain, and is covered in snow and ice for much of the year. During summertime, as the snow thaws and temperatures rise, Astana is known to have an acute mosquito problem. In general, Kazakhstan’s climate makes liveability challenging, and while it is the economic hub of Central Asia, there are more people leaving the country than entering.

Powerful leaders have had difficulties bringing people here. To populate the desolate Soviet hinterlands, Khrushchev 'encouraged' resettlement around Astana through his Virgin Lands Territory agricultural development plan. The results were mediocre. Until as late as 1989, the city’s population remained well below 100,000. In fact, it would require tens of millions more people for the country to begin to feel populated by European standards. It is the world’s 9th largest nation by land area, with a footprint about the same as the Euro Zone, but its entire population is only 15 million. Since the 1950s, the city’s planners have been designing urban spaces on a scale that is disproportionately large in relation to the actual number of people. The country’s remoteness, the lack of nearby urban comparisons, and the historic absence of cities in this originally nomadic region have allowed this over-scaled urbanism to propagate and become normality.

This tendency to allocate generous amounts of space is increasing as the actual rate of newly arriving residents is decreasing. Since planning for the new capital began in the mid-1990s, the estimate of new inhabitants has risen like Argentinian inflation. When official projections are occasionally revised downwards, hope is revived with the launch of new government-backed programs for even larger spaces than the still vacant ones. The cognitive dissonance between reported estimates of new residents and the numbers that are actually seen is over-compensated by constructing bigger buildings, which serves to make the lack of people perceptibly greater.

A photographic inventory of recent and not-so-recent architecture shows that Kazakhstan’s interiors are as beautifully over-scaled as their outdoor counterparts. Hallways are dimensioned to accommodate rush-hour Tokyo pedestrian traffic. Classrooms are longer than the distance a teacher’s voice can carry. Lobbies are proportioned for the largest conceivable assembly of people. Vegetation, which is not present outside for most of the year, is strategically arranged to fill the inevitable void in composition. The potted plant is an architectural detail.

While the distribution of objects in built spaces creates abstract, inanimate tableaux, the objects placed in architectural models form an imaginary urban harmony. There are no people, just animals, plant life and cars, occupying a field of public spaces and buildings – a meticulously crafted post-human urbanism of wildlife, vegetation and phantom mobility. In these carefully detailed models the buildings assume a life of their own. They are constructed so passionately that the sum and proximity of details give birth to architecture of unrealistic compactness. There is a highly compressed order in the internal relationship of their parts: roof segmentation, floor plates, columns, window bays and coursings are spaced in a tight pattern of oversized components, leaving one wondering if they are realizable on full scale.

The largest models also demonstrate an attention to the intricacies of life. One measuring 15 metres in length built at 1:200 includes interior landscaping and furnishings in penthouse apartments. The skyscrapers have stair cores with risers fit proportionally to size, showing how the penthouse’s occupants would come and go. It is safe to assume that the reason the rest of the building’s units are made with less detail is not due to a shortage of money or time. They are empty because they would likely be unoccupied. Perhaps the non-human figures, intricate building details and limited signs of human inhabitation faithfully portray Kazakhstan’s urban 'life'. The architectural model as empty realism. While the arrival of a critical mass of people to Kazakhstan’s cities would be desirable, all signs indicate that it may not be expected. A desire for people and a resignation towards their absence is the country’s urban dogma.
-Jeffrey Inaba


Kazakhstan All Over Again was originally published in Domus: 914, May 2008.










Jeffrey Inaba
Alibi: Kazakhstan
Domus Web