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Oliver Wainwright

Small is beautiful for the despotic Kazakh president

I was the only visitor that morning at the Atameken Ethno-Memorial Complex. The Kazakh capital of Astana feels empty at the best of times, but there’s something even more eerie about standing alone in the middle of a model of it all.

The Atameken park is a model within a model, a scale toy town of a city that was itself conceived from scratch as a model capital. When Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev decided to shift 1,000km north from Almaty in the 1990s, he planned his new city – originally with Kisho Kurakawa – as a tool for constructing a new national identity. He invested much faith and cash in the symbolic power of object buildings.

With the later help of Norman Foster, he adorned his new playground with a gigantic pyramid, a yurt-shaped shopping mall and a national library in the form of an all-seeing eye. Foster added his monuments to existing ones such as an observation tower designed as a golden ball nestling at the top of a tree, a presidential palace as a Frankenstein mash-up of the White House and St Paul’s Cathedral, and a state oil-and-gas company HQ modelled like a massive triumphal arch, on a steroidal scale that Stalin would envy.

These, and many more curious confec­tions, can be found remade at doll’s house scale in the Atameken park, a Lilliputian setting in which their object-ness can be truly appreciated. Only here can you take in the full majesty of the pot-shaped music hall and the egg-shaped national archive, or survey the bird motif inscribed in the pathways of the presidential park.

But, beyond showcasing the architectural marvels of Astana, this model village serves to bind the divergent ethnic groups together in Nazarbayev’s suffocating embrace. From the jelly mould mausoleum of Domalak Ana, a legendary mother of the Kazakhs, to Almaty’s orthodox cathedral, and the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the remaking of the country’s built heritage in miniature cements the president’s absolute control over this sprawling nation.

In this, Nazarbayev is continuing a rich tradition, following in the footsteps of centuries of despots. At the start of the third century BC, Imperial China’s First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, ordered the construction of copies of the major monuments of the territories he had defeated. The act of duplication embodied the capture and control of not only the enemy’s land and property, but its entire history and civilisation.


‘Replica palaces, passages and walled pavilions [were] filled with the women, bells, and drums that Qin had taken from them,’ wrote Sima Qian in the first century BC.

It is a tradition of imperial control that continues in Beijing in the Chinese Ethnic Culture Park, where the indigenous architecture of the country’s 56 ethnic groups has been recreated in a theme park of minority culture. Visitors are invited to wander between the Tujia’s stilt-houses and the Hui’s cave dwellings, the Li’s ship-shaped houses and the Mosuo’s wooden cabins. While the park is sold as a celebratory gesture of inclusion, the dominant Han Chinese of the official Communist Party is in fact affirming its absolute control.

So what should we make of Astana’s Expo 2017 site, a place where all the participating countries are arranged in a deferential circle around the great glass orb of the Kazakhstan pavilion – the biggest spherical building the world has ever seen? It’s the usual tedious jamboree of nations, in this case each selling their take on renewable energy, but the legacy plan for the site is much more telling.

It will play host to an International Financial Center, a free trade zone of sorts, where, just like the Atameken park, Nazarbayev can claim ownership over the global economy by remaking it in miniature.

Oliver Wainwright is architecture critic at the Guardian


‘The president of Kazakhstan wants a pyramid,’ came the email from Norman Foster to his staff in London. ‘Let your imaginations soar.’

They soared a little too high even for Nazarbayev’s grand plans, coming up with a scheme the size of the Great Pyramid at Giza, over 230m across. The final Palace of Peace stretches to just 62m.