Kazakhstan All Over Again

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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 programmes 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 notso-recent architecture shows that Kazakhstan’s interiors are as beautifully over-scaled as their outdoor counterparts. Hallways are dimensionedto 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 realisable 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.

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25 March 2008
C-Lab's Jeffrey Inaba and Jesse Seegers recently interviewed robotics engineer, artist, and Berkeley professor Ken Goldberg for an upcoming issue of Volume on the theme of "Content Management." C-Lab is currently researching philanthropy, so we were very interested to hear about Goldberg's "Donation Dashboard" project, a online filtering program that recommends philanthropic causes suited to your preferences.
[Donation Dashboard]

21 February 2008
Jeffrey Inaba's Spring 2008 GSAPP Master of Architecture studio is preparing a master plan proposal for the 20km x 20km Saemangeum site in South Korea to explore the potential of large-scale infrastructure projects to serve as a catalyst for the national economy. The study involves studios from 7 invited schools, Columbia University, Yonsei University, Berlage Institute, MIT, London Metropolitan University, European University Madrid, and Tokyo Institute of Technology and is sponsored by the Urban Design Institute of Korea. The study was feautred on the front page of the Jeolla Ilbo newspaper on 1 February, 2008.
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21 February 2008
The Chronicle of Philanthropy reviewed INABA/C-Lab's Donor Hall in their January 10, 2008 issue.
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15 February 2008
View pictures from the Volume 13 and Donor Hall launch discussion, hosted by the New Museum.

8 February 2008
Thanks to the New Museum for hosting a discussion and launch party last night for Volume 13 and INABA/C-Lab's Donor Hall project. Pictures from the event will be posted soon.

6 February 2008
C-Lab has completed an installation, titled Trash, for the exhibition 'World's Away: New Suburban Landscapes' at the Walker Art Center, opening February 16, 2008.
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1 December 2007
C-Lab has collaborated with INABA on a graphic environment for the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, which opens December 1, 2007.
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20 November 2007
C-Lab is now accepting applications for internships at its New York office for fall 2007. Interns will be working on Volume Magazine and other C-Lab projects.
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19 October 2007
C-Lab has finished editing Volume 13, on Ambition. The issue features interviews with Momoyo Kaijima, Bjarke Ingels, Charles Jencks, Alejandro Zaera-Polo, Elizabeth Diller, Vincent Gallo, Thom Mayne, Kevin Roche, Philip Johnson, Shohei Shigematsu and Mohsen Mostafavi. There are photos by Todd Eberle, Danielle Levitt, and Doug Aitken and writings by Francesco Bonami, Mark Wigley, Sylvia Lavin, Keller Easterling, and Yehuda Safran, as well as a special 'Alibi' travel guide to Kazakhstan. Watch for the issue on sale in November.
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12 October 2007
C-Lab and Jeffrey Inaba have authored a piece for Urban China on Flushing, Queens and Chinese suburbanism in America. Watch for it soon.

19 September 2007
C-Lab and Volume Magazine sponsored a guest lecture by Michael Hardt (author of Empire and Multitude) at Columbia's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. Images from the lecture will be posted soon.

21 May 2007
C-Lab will be editing Volume 13, on Ambition. 'Instead of dreaming of this kind of stardom as a career goal, architects can seize the current moment when the discipline enjoys heightened interest to embrace other, greater ambitions.'
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2 April 2007
Jeffrey Inaba will give a talk, entitled "Learning From Astana," about urban planning in Kazakhstan at the Canadian Centre for Architecture Thursday 19 April. Strong leadership, the discovery of oil fields, "rush to market" high-end construction, low population, large land area, and weather combine to make Kazakhstan's new capital a lesson in 21st century nation building. Columbia GSAPP's Kazstravaganza Advanced Design Studio will produce a feature on Kazakh urbanism for issue 13 of Volume.

23 March 2007
C-Lab sponsored a lecture by artist/inventor Natalie Jeremijenko at Columbia's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. Watch for work from her to be featured in the upcoming Volume 13.

14 February 2007
C-Lab is in the process of editing the video interviews from Volume 10. For now, check out Francois Roche and Peter Cook in the 'broadcasts' section.

10 January 2007
C-Lab recently finished editing Volume 10: Agitation!
The issue features C-Lab's interviews with Peter Cook, François Roche, Hernan Diaz-Alonso, Rene Daalder, Philippe Parreno, and Cesar Millan, as well as essays by Mark Wigley, Reinhold Martin, David Turnbull, Arakawa + Gins, and much more.
Watch for the issue in late January.

16 October 2006
Jeffrey Inaba presented the project of Volume and C-Lab at 'Discrimination: A discussion on architectural judgment', a debate at GSAPP convened by Cynthia Davidson (Log) about the current state of architectural periodicals. The other participants included Michael Kubo (Verb), Reinhold Martin (Grey Room), and Ashley Schafer (Praxis).