Astana, Utopia, and the Utopian

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A continuation of the What Is Utopia? exhibition at the California College of the Arts, this paper was  a part of professor Irene Cheng‘s survey of architecture and utopia, looking at the post utopian utopia of Astana, Kazakhstan.

Astana, Utopia, and the Utopian

Jeff Maeshiro

One of the most difficult acts in design is to develop a project from tabula rasa. Innovation fructifies best when cultivated amidst obstacles; ideas flourish within constraints. A blank slate is also seductive, an opportunity without limits, a canvas on which to recreate the world in the image one sees fit.

This is the premise of Astana, Kazakhstan. The relocated capital of a fledgling nation, Astana was seeded amidst the barren desert atop a decaying Soviet-era infrastructure. Astana’s autocratic president Nursultan Nazarbayev took an opportunity to construct a utopia from the remnants of the failed utopia of communist Russia. Nazarbayev’s utopia, however, is an inverse of Karl Marx’s conception of a utopian society—one run by the elite, not the proletariat. This paper seeks to tease out the utopian qualities of the project of Astana and understand its meaning as a post-utopian utopia, first by clearly defining utopia within an architectural and urban planning sense and then exploring the application of this definition to socialism and the architectural products of Astana.

What is utopia?

In order to uncover Astana’s utopian qualities we must first calibrate our definition of utopia, as the common usage of the word is insufficient in understanding Astana within the context of this discussion.  In essence, we must be able to differentiate between what is utopian and what is simplyidealized.  At its point of origin “Utopia” (upper case “U”) literally means “no place,” as a fictional city first written of by Sir Thomas More.  However, the common usage of “utopia” (lower case) is illustrated in the how Merriam-Webster defines it:

uto·pia noun \yu̇-ˈtō-pē-ə\

1. an imaginary and indefinitely remote place
2. a place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions
3. an impractical scheme for social improvement[1]

Already, there is a sense of impossibility inherent to the concept of utopia, but also the flexibility to apply it to nearly any failed endeavor.  Within the realm of architectural theory there have been a number of attempts more concrete definition from within a designer’s purview.  Architectural writer Colin Rowe defines utopia as:

1. a carefully considered artistic theory or attitude towards art integrated with
2. a fully developed political and social structure conceived of as extant in
3. a locus independent of time, place, history or accident.[2]

To this baseline of criteria we will also consider of utopias what philosopher Michel Foucault wrote:

They present society itself in a perfected form, or else society turned upside down, but in any case these utopias are fundamentally unreal spaces.[3]

By extrapolating from Rowe’s more focused definition of utopia we begin to understand that utopias require: (1) an aesthetic vision, (2) a social vision, and (3) a breakaway from the norms of their time, but as Foucault points out they are ultimately (4) unreal. Thus, while utopia itself is unachievable, the utopian is a move towards such an achievement; utopia is the end game, an impossibly perfect place, and utopian is any effort to approach it.

Socialism and Utopia

Historically, projects branded as utopian have been based on socialist principles of “communal living arrangements” and “improvements in the working and living conditions of employees,”[4] as in the early utopian communities of Charles Fourier’s Phalanstères, Robert Owen’s New Lanark, and Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities. Held to our earlier definition, these projects, as well as socialism in general, fit the utopian profile.  The utopian ideas behind these communities were crystallized by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their Communist Manifesto and given a test bed on a national scale with the creation of the Soviet Union.  Supported by Marx and Engels’ insistence “of the city as rescuing the people from the idiocy of rural life”[5] unprecedented numbers of people began to move to urban centers, causing housing shortages across the Soviet Union, though regional differences to this urbanization were apparent. “East European socialist cities usually developed from pre-existing conurbations: patterns here were those of adaptation to the infrastructure and housing stock, territorial extension and a shift in allocation mechanisms,” while Astana and the former capital of Almaty were originally nothing but “small colonial towns in the early 1920s,”[6] the years when Kazakhstan was first colonized as a state of the Soviet Union.  Interestingly, this pattern of mass urbanization would reverse in 1991 with “the steady ruralization of many Soviet cities after the collapse of the Soviet Union”.[7]The majority of nations that arose from the breakup of the Soviet Union did not have the natural resources that were available to Kazakhstan[8] and this has served the country and her president Nursultan Nazarbayev well, since becoming the “biggest per capita recipient of foreign capital among the states of the former Soviet Union.”[9]  What’s most surprising with Kazakhstan is how quickly it embraced and succeeded under a capitalist economic model.  It followed the Russian and Chinese one: Kazakhstan’s “post-socialist entry into the capitalist market has taken the form of what has been called ‘state-led capitalism’, in which central governments maintain control of major resources and industries, while simultaneously touting involvement in the ‘free market’”[10].  This transition and differentiation from Soviet rule—the post-socialist condition—is even more starkly reflected in the class stratification that is played out in built space.

Built Space

Far from the communist ideals of proletariat rule Astana’s built spaces are strongly divided by class.  “Most of its population is still living in the old Soviet blocks, which are left to their slow deterioration,” these being “located on the right bank of the Ishim River,” while “the apartment prices on the left side are so high, that only a few can afford to move there”[11].  Amazingly this new space is created on the backbone of the old, as “many of the colorful new façades are literally just façades: one can walk around to the back of a building and see the old Soviet structure”.  And as Buchli notes:

High buildings do not make sense here with so much land around in the middle of the steppes.  Only the bureaucrats build this way because they feel that Astana should be like Hong Kong or New York with everyone forced to live in tall buildings while they themselves live in… large luxurious homes.[12]

Curiously, what binds the elite and poor spaces together in this Potemkin city is the way class layers become marginalized when faced with the awesome scale of the state’s open spaces and structures, which are a mix of Nazarbayev’s preferences and Kisho Kurokawa’s master plan.


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Figure 1: Arata Isozaki’s Cities in the Sky
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Figure 2: Kisho Kurokawa’s Capsule Tower

One of the most difficult aspects of the entire project to ascertain has been whether or not Kurokawa’s original master plan for the city can be considered utopian or not.[13]  Kurokawa “won” the international competition to design the master plan in 1997, though Nazarbayev handpicked Kurokawa over the actual winning entry selected by the judging committee.  This has to do with Kurokawa’s ideas of Symbiosis having a strong connection to Nazarbayev’s own hopes for a “Eurasian” image for the country.

This concept of Symbiosis evolved from Kurokawa’s work with the Metabolists in the mid-twentieth century.  The links between the work of the Metabolists and Marxism are strong, in fact the very moniker of the group was influenced by Marx.[14]  Historian Zhongjie Lin notes that:

It was thus no surprise that Metabolist projects often advocated the utopian ideals of putting land under public administration, eliminating the boundaries between city and country, and asserting absolute equality within the society.  Through their ideal plans, Metabolist architects tried to reconcile the collective and the individual, not only to create a new urban form, but also to establish a new social order.[15]

However, while the Metabolists’ work could be considered fantastic, in actuality the projects seemed to lack the political or social retooling necessary to fit our previously noted definition of utopian.  Projects such as Arata Isozaki’s Cities in the Sky (see Figure 1) or even Kurokawa’s own Capsule Tower (see Figure 2) did not come prescribed with the kind of in-depth socialist planning that characterized the efforts of Fourier or Howard.  The projects relied on the idea that “modern technology and design would promote social change,” which Lin notes “also betrayed a somewhat naïve technocratic notion that characterized all their urban proposals.”[16]  Perhaps tellingly, Kikutake recalled much later in his life that:

Marxism ultimately failed.  The Soviet Union became Russia.  A lot of artists and academics went to the Soviet Union with stars in their eyes, but their dreams were shattered.  I never thought communism would succeed.  At any rate, I never conceptualized any kind of social revolution[17].

The Metabolists’ complicated desire to recreate the city has utopian leanings but fairly loose ideas of how to achieve any sort of societal shift.

Kurokawa’s own philosophy of Symbiosis has even less of an agenda when it comes to remaking society.  Within the text of the master plan itself, under the heading “Proposal of the Symbiotic City”, he calls for “enabling the Symbiosis of the History and the Future” and “the symbiosis of the river and the city”, “symbiosis between the forest and the city”, and “the symbiosis of the Local and the Universal within the city and its architecture”[18]. While he writes extensively on the oversimplification of duality and the complexities of the rhizome exactly how these ideas are carried out within the plan are vague. In his book “Intercultural Architecture, The Philosophy of Symbiosis” Kurokawa writes:

Isn’t the true and essential Japanese aesthetic one in which silence and loquacity, darkness and light, simplicity and complexity, spareness and decoration, monochrome and polychrome, the grass hut and the aristocrat’s palace exist in symbiosis?[19]

His is an agenda of a smoothing out of differentiation, not wholesale remaking. And it is this universal within the specific that Nazarbayev finds appealing about Kurokawa’s ideas.  As Buchli notes:

Nazarbaev’s adoption of the Kurokawa plan is not merely an attempt to gain international architectural prestige. Kurokawa himself trained in Moscow for a period during Khrushchev’s building boom…  Kurokowa’s architectural and cultural philosophy of symbiosis… shares many structural and philosophical points with Nazarbaev’s Eurasianist philosophy for cultural and national development… while simultaneously reproducing an ideology reminiscent of Soviet internationalism…  This was a reversal of Soviet internationalism with a Russian face to post-socialist internationalism with a Kazakh face.[20]

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Figure 3
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Figure 4
During the period following the break up of the Soviet Union the ethnic diversity of Kazakhstan had become tenuous, where one analyst describing how “[ethnically connected social differences] have become a source of explosive polarization and social disunity.”[21]  “Securing the loyalty of ethnic Russians was a complicated task… [and] the move to Astana was a part of that strategy.”[22]  The other important component of this strategy was “Eurasianism,” where Nazarbayev suggested “that all Kazakhstanis—whether of Kazakh, Russian, or other cultural background—were Eurasian, a similar and phantasmic amalgam of peoples located at the heart of a super-continent.”[23] The social binding and institution making ideology of the USSR is now being reinterpreted through an internationally famed architect to accomplish the same feat under the auspices of an autocrat, by replacing communism with eurasianism.All that being said, in the end Kurokawa’s master plan “was heavily reworked and the definitive version presented in 2001 is actually based on the master plan that has been developed by the Saudi Binladin Group”[24]. The removal of the project from Kurokawa’s hands is typical for the president’s micro-management style of rule. In one poignant analysis of Nazarbayev’s architectural whims and their unknowing contradictions Kassymkhan Ulykbanov, a Kazakhstani native and student at the Architectural Association, wrote about theTriumph of Astana, a skyscraper in Astana that is a direct copy of the Seven Sisters of Moscow.  Confused as to why Nazarbayev would ask for a “replica of Stalinist Architecture in Astana”[25] Ulykbanov interviews one of the architects on the project, who relates the story that the president was on a visit to Russia and “indicated his liking of the original [Seven Sisters] in Moscow and has asked [the CEO of the architecture firm] to come up with something similar in Astana,”[26] simple as that. What Nazarbayev wants he gets, no questions asked. And if one compares the current layout of Astana (see Figure 3) with Kurokawa’s original plan (see Figure 4) one can see they basically align , though the details are most likely being determined by Nazarbayev himself.

Planning Utopia from Above

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Figure 5: Intricately detailed and lifeless models of the city.

An oddity of Astana that frequently recurs is the proliferation of miniature scale versions of the city.  Architect Jeffrey Inaba[27] commented on this in a recent visit. Natalie Koch, a professor of Geography at the University of Colorado, developed a compelling argument for the use of the propaganda of “the miniature” as a means of social control.  Going back to the premise of creating a capital city from scratch, perhaps understanding and viewing it from a bird’s eye perspective is the simplest way to grasp the scale of such machinations.  These abundant city models are highly complex, so much so that “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”[28] (see Figure 5).  These models are as much about advertising (“miniature images of the cityscape are ubiquitous – on billboards, inside the buildings they model, in shopping malls, the airport, museums, and hundreds fill the city’s 2.5 sq km miniature ‘map of Kazakhstan’”[29]) as they are about transforming public space “from sites of political contestation into sites of fetishization of elite-defined modernity – and also instruments of ideological inculcation.”[30]  Nazarbayev’s chosen tool for articulating his plan for nation building is the architectural model.

President Nazarbayev shares the features of many early utopian thinkers, in that they developed cults of personality connected to their created utopias, so much so that without their guiding influence the utopias dissipated.[31]  In fact, some assume that once Nazarbayev leaves office, his vision for Astana will be abandoned and the capital will be moved back to Almaty. When examining the proliferation of shoddy construction in Astana Buchli notes:

These new structures emerging here take advantage of a strategic moment, as some locals suspect, to make as much money as possible and build quickly and cheaply to last just long enough until the capital moves back to Almaty after Nazarbaev leaves office. But with Nazarbaev’s successful re-election this is not likely to happen soon and construction presses on. There is the sense that it could all fall down at any second.[32]

And as utopian thinkers also did, Nazarbayev is in control of the aesthetic vision.  When it comes to built structures he “personally approves every project”[33] and their designs. Even powerful architects like Norman Foster are forced to bend the knee, as Talimini points out:

At some point the artistic autonomy invoked by these world-famous architects has to submit and adapt to a symbolic language that is ready-made and controlled by a political elite.[34]

Perhaps by reconciling this with the abundance of small-scale imagery we can understand the social vision of Astana.

Astana is a growing city.  It is on track to reach the city plan’s stated goal of a million residents by 2030.[35]  And yet the city’s pervasive image is one of emptiness.  As Jeffrey Inaba[36] notes: “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.”  By removing the layer of people from the physical design the model relies on the massive scale of the structures to determine the city’s purpose, the architectural model as a utopian interface.  Interestingly, while the monumental scale of the government buildings may seem to be of Nazarbayev’s choosing they were originally a part of Kurokawa’s design intent (see Figure 6).  In Kurokawa’s plan the major institutions “have geometric forms simplified to their greatest extent, but at the same time, each form has all the significance of Kazakhstan’s historical symbols.”[37] Though how the forms of the period and tower relate historically the ideas resonate with Nazarbayev’s plans for a Eurasian society.  He utilizes the massive structures to simultaneously create a place where “the nation could advertise its exemptions as market enticements cloaked as national pride and regional imagery”[38] and “demonstrate a multicultural Eurasian modern capital free of interethnic conflict.”[39] Ultimately it’s this effort to recast an entire nation of diverse ethnicities as one people that defines Nazarbayev’s social vision for his subjects.

In this way the capital becomes a utopian project.  Not in the sense of the dictionary definition but through its aesthetic vision, social vision, and break from the previous norm.  By sculpting a meticulously manicured city form, President Nazarbayev has been able to successfully lead his post-socialist nation, in a time when ethnic and economic divisions are rife.  As Talamini[40] points out, for bureaucrats “architecture becomes a tool, an instrument in the hands of power.”  In Kazakhstan, Astana is a utopian tool, though it’s intended use is not Utopia but one man’s 21st century post-modern, post-colonial, post-socialist internationalized autocratic state.


[1] Merriam-Webster, accessed April 6, 2013, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/utopia?show=0&t=1365325409.
[2] Colin Rowe, “The Architecture of Utopia”, in The Mathematical of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays (Boston, 1985), 213.
[3] Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” trans. Jay Miskowiec, Diacritics, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Spring, 1986): 24.
[4] Catherine Alexander, Victor Buchli, and Caroline Humphrey, Urban Life in Post-Soviet Asia (New York: University College London Press, 2007), 7-8.
[5] Ibid., 8.
[6] Ibid., 9.
[7] Ibid., 8.
[8] Gianni Talamini, “Spatial Appartatuses in Central Asia.  The Case of Astana,” Science – Future of Lithuania (2011): 53, accessed May 12, 2013, dpi: 10.3846/mla.2011.051.
[9] Ibid., 53.
[10] Natalie Koch, “The Monumental and the Miniature: Imagining ‘Modernity’ in Astana,” Social & Cultural Geography 11.8 (2010): 6.
[11]  Talamini, “Spatial Apparatuses in Central Asia.  The Case of Astana,” 55.
[12] Alexander, Buchli, and Humphrey, Urban Life in Post-Soviet Asia, 59.
[13] Unfortunately, there is a distinct lack of precise information about Kurokawa’s master plan, outside of a few drawings and the text available on his firm’s website.
[14] One of the Metabolists, Kiyonori Kikutake, recalled, “The catalyst was, once again, Marx.  I was talking a lot about shinchintaisha at the time, which means “regeneration” or “replacement of the old with the new.”  I was looking for something new we could put forth at the design conference.  In Japanese, the same term is used in biology for “metabolism…”  In the Japanese edition of Friedrich Engles’s Dialectics of Nature there’s a line that says something to the effect of “one of the most essential features of living this is shinchintaisha.”  That’s where I got the term” (Rem Koolhaas, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Kayoko Ota, and James Westcott, Project Japan: Metabolism talks. (Köln: Taschen, 2011), 234.).
[15] Zhongjie Lin, Kenzo Tange and the Metabolist Movement: Urban Utopias of Modern Japan (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010): 79.
[16] Ibid., 22.
[17] Koolhaas, Obrist, Ota, and Westcott, Project Japan: Metabolism talks, 135.
[18] “International Competition for the Master Plan and Design of Astana, Kazakhstan,” Kisho Kurokawa Architect & Associates, accessed February 10, 2013, http://www.kisho.co.jp/page.php/222.
[19] Kisho Kurokawa, Intercultural Architecture: The Philosophy of Symbiosis (Washington D.C.: The American Institute of Architects Press, 1991), 19.
[20] Alexander, Buchli, and Humphrey, Urban Life in Post-Soviet Asia, 45.
[21] Edward Schatz, “When Capital Cities Move: The Political Geography of Nation and State Building,” The Kellog Institute for International Studies, February 2003: 17.
[22] Schatz, “When Capital Cities Move: The Political Geography of Nation and State Building,” 17.
[23] Schatz, “When Capital Cities Move: The Political Geography of Nation and State Building,” 19.
[24] Talamini, “Spatial Apparatuses in Central Asia.  The Case of Astana,” 54.
[25] Kassymkhan Ulybanov, “Triumph of Astana. Identity crisis of post colonial Kazakhstan” (Architectural Association, 2012).
[26] Ibid.
[27] Jeffrey Inaba, “Kazakhstan All Over Again,” C-LAB, May, 2008, accessed February 10, 2013, http://c-lab.columbia.edu/0078.html.
[28] Inaba, “Kazakhstan All Over Again.”
[29] Koch, “The Monumental and the Miniature: Imagining ‘Modernity’ in Astana,” 14.
[30] Ibid., 15.
[31] For example, Charles Weeks’ desertion of Runnymede in California in the 1920s (see Alan Michelson and Katherine Solomonson, “Remnants of a Failed Utopia: Reconstructing Runnymede’s Agricultural Landscape,” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, Vol. 6, Shaping Communities (1997): 10.)
[32] Alexander, Buchli, and Humphrey, Urban Life in Post-Soviet Asia, 50.
[33] Talamini, “Spatial Apparatuses in Central Asia.  The Case of Astana,” 54.
[34] Ibid., 54.
[35] Steven Lee Myers, “Kazakhstan’s Futuristic Capital, Complete With Pyramid,” The New York Times, October 13, 2006, accessed February 10, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/13/world/asia/13astana.html.
[36] Inaba, “Kazakhstan All Over Again.”
[37] “International Competition for the Master Plan and Design of Astana, Kazakhstan.”
[38] Keller Easterling, “Hyperscale,” Domus, October 2, 2008, accessed February 10, 2013, http://www.domusweb.it/en/architecture/hyperscale/.
[39] Alexander, Buchli, and Humphrey, Urban Life in Post-Soviet Asia, 31.
[40] Talamini, “Spatial Apparatuses in Central Asia.  The Case of Astana,” 56.

References

Alexander, Catherine, Victor Buchli, and Caroline Humphrey. Urban Life in Post-Soviet Asia. New York, NY: University College London Press, 2007.

Easterling, Keller. “Hyperscale.” Domus, October 2, 2008. Accessed February 10, 2013. http://www.domusweb.it/en/architecture/hyperscale/.

Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces.” Translated by Jay Miskowiec. Diacritics, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Spring, 1986): 22-27.

Inaba, Jeffrey. “Kazakhstan All Over Again.” C-LAB, May, 2008. Accessed February 10, 2013. http://c-lab.columbia.edu/0078.html.

Kisho Kurokawa architect & associates, Works and Projects. “International Competition for the Master Plan and Design of Astana, Kazakhstan.” Accessed February 10, 2013. http://www.kisho.co.jp/page.php/222.

Koch, Natalie. “The Monumental and the Miniature: Imagining ‘Modernity’ in Astana.” Social & Cultural Geography. 11.8 (2010): 769-787.

Koolhaas, Rem, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Kayoko Ota, and James Westcott. Project Japan: Metabolism talks–.  Köln: Taschen, 2011.

Kurokawa, Kisho. Intercultural Architecture: The Philosophy of Symbiosis. Washington, D.C.: The American Institute of Architects Press, 1991.

Kurokawa, Kisho. Kisho Kurokawa: Architect and Associates, Selected and Current Works. Victoria, Australia: Images Publishing Group, 2006.

Lin, Zhongjie. Kenzo Tange and the Metabolist Movement: Urban Utopias of Modern Japan. Abingdon: Routledge, 2010.

Merriam-Webster. Accessed April 6, 2013. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/utopia?show=0&t=1365325409.

Michelson, Alan, Katherine Solomonson. “Remnants of a Failed Utopia: Reconstructing Runnymede’s Agricultural Landscape.” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture. Vol. 6, Shaping Communities (1997): 3-20.

Myers, Steven Lee. “Kazakhstan’s Futuristic Capital, Complete With Pyramid.” The New York Times, October 13, 2006. Accessed February 10, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/13/world/asia/13astana.html.

Robinson, Jill. “The Post-Soviet City: Identity and Community Development.”  Vanderbilt University.

Rowe, Colin. “The Architecture of Utopia.” In The Mathematical of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays, 206-223. Boston, 1985.

Schatz, Edward. “When Capital Cities Move: The Political Geography of Nation and State Building.” The Kellog Institute for International Studies, February 2003.

Talamini, Gianni. “Spatial Apparatuses in Central Asia. The Case of Astana.” Science – Future of Lithuania. 3.3 (2011): 53-58. Accessed May 12, 2013, dpi: 10.3846/mla.2011.051.

Ulykbanov, Kassymkhan. “Triumph of Astana. Identity crisis of post colonial Kazakhstan.” Architectural Association, 2012.

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