BIG Makes Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

BIG Astana Library

Arch Daily reports that the Danish firm BIG was awarded first prize on an open international design competition for Kazakhstan’s new National Library in Astana. The building’s Möbius Strip design is clearly indebted to the Books Spiral in Rem Koolhaas’s Seattle Central Library, as well as BIG’s own design for the Danish pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo. The new library will be named after the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been accused of overseeing one of the most nepotistic, ruthless and corrupt regimes in central Asia.

Bjarke Ingels, one of the project architects, explains the design this way:

The circle, the rotunda, the arch and the yurt are merged into the form of a Moebius strip. The clarity of the circle, the courtyard of the rotunda, the gateway of the arch and the soft silhouette of the yurt are combined to create a new national monument appearing local and universal, contemporary and timeless, unique and archetypal at the same time.

A new national monument is probably not what Kazakhstan needs right now. Higher on the nation’s wish list are a transparent government (the nation is 124th, or perilously close to the bottom, on Transparency International’s list of countries by corruption) and a functioning democracy (the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a democracy and human rights group, has never found a Kazakh election to be free and fair). In 2007 Nazarbayev granted himself the right to run for office as many times as he likes. When he no longer feels like ruling the country, he will turn over power to his eldest daughter Dariga, an opera singing mezzo soprano.

Kazakhstan is a highly bureaucratized police state sitting on the largest oil find in the world since the discovery of Prudhoe Bay off Alaska. Until 1997 the national capital was Almaty, which, the government claimed, no longer offered enough room for expansion, perhaps because the city is ringed with the graves of people killed by government death squads.

So Nazarbayev moved the capital from Almaty, near where most of the people live, to Astana, out in the frozen steppes. Nazarbayev is something of an architecture fan, and he’s been busily spending his nation’s oil wealth to spruce up Astana, the world’s second-coldest national capital. BIG’s new National Library is actually the latest in a long list of national monuments on the Kazakh steppes. Norman Foster has designed several high-profile buildings for Astana, including the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, a pyramid which houses, among other things, something called a “university of civilization.” Foster also designed the Khan Shatyry Entertainment Centre, a sort of giant glass yurt set upon the highest point in the capital. The Khan Shatyry is due to be completed some time this year.

Until Khan Shatyry and BIG’s Nazarbayev National Library are completed, the centerpiece of the new capital will remain the Bayterek tower, designed in the timeless neo-fascist style. If you ever visit Astana, head immediately to the Bayterek so you can press your hand into Nazarbayev’s golden hand print—don’t forget to take your gloves off first—and make a wish. Your wish will be granted, provided you’ve wished to hear the Kazakh national anthem yet again, because that’s what will happen. Afterwards, bribe a government official to tell you where to find Astana’s best place for beshbarmak, the national dish of boiled horsemeat and noodles.

Cap off the evening by voting to rename the capital Nursultan, after the president. Nazarbayev was too bashful to allow Astana to be named after him when it was first proposed in 2008, but no doubt he could be persuaded to change his mind by an outpouring of national affection along the lines of the 2005 national election, when 91% who voted to re-elect him president for life.

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3 Comments

  1. I’m no fan of the politics over here in Kazakhstan, but a couple of points of information re. this post…
    “one of the most nepotistic, ruthless and corrupt regimes in central Asia”
    If you had stated “in this part of the world”, perhaps the statement would have rung true. However, compared to the rest of Central Asia, things aren’t actually that bad here.
    “When he no longer feels like ruling the country, he will turn over power to his eldest daughter Dariga, an opera singing mezzo soprano.”
    Not a certainty. Although one of the possibles, the ever changing tides of family, business and politics mean she could (relatively) easily be leap frogged by another contender.
    “Kazakhstan is a highly bureaucratized police state”
    Again, this country is no free-loving, preach what you like sort of country, but police state seems like an exaggeration TBH, unless you dip your toes into the murky world of politics, your day to day life is not very likely to involve police interaction or heavy monitoring by the FSB.
    “Until 1997 the national capital was Almaty, which, the government claimed, no longer offered enough room for expansion,”
    Given the fact that Almaty is mostly hemmed in by mountains, the existing infrastructure was already groaning at the existing population levels, and the pollution problems caused by no real wind blowing through, moving the capital wasn’t an entirely pointless exercise.
    “because the city is ringed with the graves of people killed by government death squads.”
    Again, hyperbole will do nothing except perhaps encourage some people to roll their eyes and assume the accusations are entirely exaggerated, rather than midly over-blown. Government death squads have not killed scores of people over here. There are a number of high profile deaths of political opponents etc., where the ruling of suicide/mugging seems HIGHLY suspicious, but we’re not talking about Argentina in the 70s, or some Shining Path style setup here.
    “don’t forget to take your gloves off first”
    Written for comic effect/very little research done? It is CERTAINLY sub-freezing here in the winter months, but temperatures regularly hit 35/40+ centigrade come summer. Ignore wikipedia’s entry on the average temperatures, I’ve visited/lived here for some 9 summers, and you won’t get much hotter unless you head out to Dubai in the midday sun.
    “Your wish will be granted, provided you’ve wished to hear the Kazakh national anthem yet again, because that’s what will happen.”
    They (thankfully) turned off the music that plays years ago. I think the tour guides were in danger of going stir crazy if they had to listen to it again.
    “beshbarmak, the national dish of boiled horsemeat and noodles”
    Often also includes beef, and noodles isn’t how I (as a Brit, no idea on Euro/American naming convention) would describe the accompanying pasta. If you think about the sheets you get in lasagne, you’d be a lot closer.
    Anyway, thanks for the article, an interesting read, and if you skip past the recent influx of baby pictures, feel free to read a little more about life in Kazakhstan at my blog.

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  2. I did a lot of research for this post, and I have to say, Kazakhstan doesn’t get very good press. Most of my sources were British. The “one of the most nepotistic, ruthless and corrupt regimes in central Asia” is a close paraphrase of an article in the Guardian. The info about Astana being the second coldest capital in the world did come from Wikipedia. I’m glad to hear they stopped playing the national anthem at the Bayterek. My claim that they moved the capital because of the dead bodies was a joke, for sure, although the move was controversial, according to my sources.
    While my post was snarkier than it really needed to be, I wanted to make a point about the pious language used to describe major architectural projects in Kazakhstan’s capital. For an architect to call a library named after the president for life a “national symbol” is self-serving, especially in view of the nation that it’s symbolizing.

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  3. Fair enough, I mainly posted to correct a few minor points, rather than criticise the article in its entirety. Seriously, looking at the other ‘stans around here though, we could have it a lot worse. I wasn’t arguing about Astana being the second coldest capital, just that it is also very hot in the summer 🙂 Also the dead bodies being a reason for moving wasn’t what I was disputing, merely that the phrasing did make the amount sound excessive. The move itself was definitely controversial, Almaty people definitely felt it was a huge slight to their beloved city. TBH, a LOT of business remains in Almaty, and if you want a wide variety of entertainment, you would be better off there than in Astana.
    Too true re. the pious nature of most articles that laud a new building or scheme over here in Kazakhstan; mind you, you should have heard some of the scripts I read for a voice over on a couple of government information films.
    If I can ever be of help re. research in this area, feel free to drop me a line.
    Oh, finally, are gravatars not supposed to be implemented on this site, as mine doesn’t appear to display?

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