Kazakhstan's capital city of Astana is adding an iconic structure to its cityscape. World-renowned architect Lord Norman Foster has designed a "Palace of Peace," a glass pyramid with a 62-meter base, at President Nursultan Nazarbayev's behest. The building, scheduled for completion in the summer of 2006, is designed to serve as a symbol of inter-ethnic harmony in Kazakhstan.
Foster, based in London, has ample experience www.fosterandpartners.com designing showplaces. His cylindrical Swiss Re headquarters, known as "the gherkin," stands out in his home city's skyline. His new headquarters for the Hearst Corporation in Manhattan will soon be a helical exception to midtown's boxy towers, and his new Beijing airport ranks among the world's biggest construction jobs.
Foster's interests involve nontraditional shapes, glass, and techniques that save energy costs by efficiently delivering sunlight. The Astana project underscores all these interests. Foster's office described the 90,000 square-meter site as a "contemporary reconsideration of religious architecture," for use in the triennial Congress of World and Traditional Religions. While Foster's name may ring more bells in world capitals than that event does, the new home has already staked its claim as a standout among holy sites. "The oculus extends the internal volume to 70 meters," said a representative from Foster's office, "higher than that of Hagia Sophia or St Paul's in London."
Nazarbayev hopes the project will raise Astana's international profile. Plans call for the pyramid to serve as a terminus for a new axial ceremonial route from the presidential palace. It is designed to become a testimonial to Kazakhstani diversity, including "a center for all the ethnic groups and geographic regions of Kazakhstan, a Museum of Culture, the Astana University of Civilization, and a 1,500-seat opera house." Its skin will consist of stone and stained glass, echoing classical cathedrals and mosques in a modern vernacular.
According to one recent estimate, 47 percent of Kazakhstan's citizens are Muslim and 44 percent are Orthodox Christian. Among the remaining 9 percent, officials have cited as many as 40 other religions. Kazakhstan generally has a freer religious climate than that which exists in some other Central Asian states, especially Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. But Kazakhstani officials have become increasingly concerned about the activities of Islamic radical groups, including Hizb-ut-Tahrir. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Kazakhstan's Supreme Court recently confirmed new legislation that bans seven extremist groups. The law prohibits any effort to advocate radical religious ideas aimed at undermining Kazakhstan's multicultural identity.
Despite its intended grandeur, the Peace Palace has arisen in near-silence. Foster's office declined to make the designer or David Nelson, his lead project architect, available for interviews. One reason for this silence may be hurry. The firm's press office explains that Astana's weather, which swings between "40¯c in summer to -40¯c in winter," forced the firm to use pre-built components in the pyramid's structure. The firm decided to use materials its contractors could build in winter and install in summer, Foster's office says. The pyramid's base is concrete; its supporting skeleton consists of steel. More traditional systems, such as those involving brick or concrete structures, probably would have buckled under Kazakhstan's brutal weather.
Another reason Foster may want the building speak for itself could involve the building's context: although Kazakhstan features a relatively high level of cultural tolerance in Central Asia, Nazarbayev's administration has faced international criticism of its business and political practices. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
For example, opposition politicians complained parliamentary elections in late 2004 were rigged to favor pro-presidential parties. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In March 2003, the US attorney's office in New York indicted merchant banker, James Giffen, charging that he arranged bribes from major American energy companies to top Kazakhstani government officials. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Alec Appelbaum is freelance writer based in New York.