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On Architecture: The Big Top Comes to Kazakhstan

Exterior night view of Khan Shatyr.

In early July, Kazakstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev presided over the opening of the latest addition to Astana's growing list of monumental structures. The complex, known as Khan Shatyr, is a recreational center for the people of Kazakhstan that promises a year-round "outdoor" active life for a city caught in the extreme climate of the Kazakh steppe.

Norman Foster, an English architect known for his high tech work, designed Khan Shatyr, which resembles from the outside a Disneyesque Tomorrowland, a soaring structure that boasts being the "tallest tent in the world." Yet, with its strangely Western program, it seems more an idiosyncratic distraction from the harsh reality of Astana than a pointer to some bright new day.

Khan Shatyr’s variety of planned uses reads like the Mall of America - a wish list straight out of the American suburbs. The giant plastic tent houses a shopping mall, miniature golf, condos, a spa, restaurant, a kid's playground, a hypermarket (i.e. a Walmart on steroids), a water park, wave pool, cinemas and a café. It's not that there's anything wrong with such a program per se, but as a symbol of some bright Kazakh future and as a respite from Astana’s climatic extremes, it seems sad that it is so divorced from Kazakh culture. More than simply a shelter from the weather, it seems like an escape from Kazakhstan itself.

There is no disputing that the complex is big. Over 1 million square feet under roof and almost 500 feet tall, Khan Shatyr ("Royal Marquee" in English) will not sip fossil fuels. Projected to be heated partly by solar gain, (which is wishful thinking in a climate that averages 1 degree Fahrenheit in January) the majority of the heat will come from forced air that will flow down the interior surface of the tent. Foster claims the inside temperature will average between 59-86 degrees. Given the scale of the project, it's clear that sustainability was not an issue.

But what about that fantastic structure, the acrobatic feat of engineering that at once to symbolizes Kazakstan's high-tech future while recognizing its nomadic past?

Foster owes his inspiration to Frei Otto, whose tensile structures -- especially Munich’s Olympic Park -- possess an expressive tension equal to their construction style. The Olympic Park is a structure that succeeds in embodying the aspirations of the Olympic athletes who competed in Munich in 1972. [For additional information click here].

Khan Shatyr does not supply the same kind of expressive tension. In what is a first for entering a tent, people enter though an earthen berm, essentially coming in underground. This tent, you are told, isn't going anywhere. The connection to the ground makes the overall form read more as an oddly distorted cone than a tent. Never has a tent looked so stiff and lifeless. The illusion of motion so clear and engaging in Otto's work has failed here, as has the illusion of progress it is supposed to embody. Rather than a tent, which by its very nature symbolizes a kind of freedom of movement, an ability to "pick up stakes" and go at a moment's notice, Foster has built Nazarbayev, and in turn Kazakhstan, a beautiful cage.

Dow Kimbrell is an architecture critic and designer based in Columbus, Ohio. His weekly reviews can be followed at http://www.dowkimbrell.com.

On Architecture: The Big Top Comes to Kazakhstan

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