Astana, the new capital in Kazakhstan, represents more than just a new start; for architects and planners it became a means of symbolising the country’s movement away from centralised Soviet control
Author of the paper on which this article is based: Natalie Koch, Syracuse University, New York
Appeared in: Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers: Volume 39, Issue 3
Reference: Koch, N. (2014) Bordering on the modern: power, practice and exclusion in Astana, TIBG 39:3, p432-443
Kazakhstan became independent in 1991 following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the same year. President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who led the ruling Kazakh party from 1989, decided in 1994 to move the country’s capital from Almaty, near the Kyrgyzstan border, to Aqmola in the central north of the country. Later renamed Astana, the new capital represented more than just a new start for Kazakhstan; for architects and planners it became a means of symbolising the country’s movement away from centralised Soviet control. By undertaking this state-led regeneration, it can be argued that architects and planners also created a means by which some groups became socially excluded. While there has been previous research on how the ‘elite’ players within a population can socially exclude the ‘other’ (in this case, those who do not subscribe to a particular ‘modern‘ vision of Astana), this paper builds on research that investigates how non-elites may also participate in this practice.
The central vision for the regeneration of Astana was one of ‘modernity’ and a sharp movement away from the standardisation that dominated Soviet-era buildings (French, 1995). New construction work took on a variety of styles and shapes, something that was in stark contrast to the prevalent, regular five-storey buildings that already existed in Astana, which some observers described as ‘all looking the same’ (Nazarbayev, 2010). As well as having practical uses as a new administrative centre, Astana also aimed to symbolise a new regime in line with the rebuilding of a ‘modern’ nation. Substantial amounts of state funds were spent on the regeneration of the city and today many of the buildings, especially those in the city’s central administrative and business district, are opulent and palatial. Very little of the old city remains: some parts of the original settlement are now housed behind new facades but for the most part the older wooden, and traditional mud brick, houses have been demolished. Most were deemed unworthy of preservation and in some cases were viewed as unsanitary compared to modern equivalents, but it is strongly felt that for the most part these buildings were demolished as they did not fit with the city planners’ view of ultra-modernism.
Some Soviet-era rhetoric has remained, and its influence over planners’ decision-making is evident. The Soviets commonly saw cities as embodiments of progress (Kotkin, 1995), and this idea of celebrating the city above other regions has continued into post-Soviet Kazakhstan. Astana is not totally modern nor is it a rural outpost or indeed Soviet – it sits in an interesting position between all three ideas, and this in itself has allowed some forms of social exclusion to develop and persist. The way the residents of Chubary and samannyi (traditional mud brick buildings) dwellers were treated differently is one such example.
Chubary, a district of Astana, was one of the first areas to be constructed in the new capital. Located close to the city centre, the district occupies an area that would traditionally be littered with skyscrapers and monumental structures, yet these residences are low level and not connected to mains services such as water, electricity or wastewater. While, under the overarching theme of ‘modernity’, it might be expected that these houses would be demolished, their status has been protected somewhat by the fact that many of their owners have influence within the government, or very wealthy citizens (Dzhaksybekov, 2008). Developers chose to build a long row of three-storey commercial properties in order to block the view of, rather than demolish, the low rise houses. In contrast to Chubary, many samannyi were razed to make way for high rise buildings. These mud brick homes, which like the small storey homes in Chubary were designed in a way that did not reflect Nazarbayev’s vision of the ‘modern’ progressive city, are traditionally associated with very poor Kazakhs. These two examples help to demonstrate that the socio-economic class of the residents can influence whether city planners decide whether or not to demolish residential properties.
One could argue that the creation of Astana simultaneously defined a particular cultural and social order, which excluded, and continues to exclude, the ‘other’. Who this ‘other’ is can be answered in a few different ways. For example, Astana residents who resisted eviction in demolition zones were labelled ‘backward ‘and ‘irrational’, and were accused of attempting to ‘hold back’ modernity (Buchli, 2007; Neef, 2006). Equally, people originally from rural areas, regardless of how long they have resided in the city, are portrayed as villagers who have a lack of aspiration beyond their own migration, as well as being subjected to more prejudicial comments through negative labelling as ‘southerners’ and ‘rural dwellers’ who do not fit easily into the ‘modern’ vision for Astana.
The built environment has also excluded people in other ways: lower income groups are often unable to access all parts of the new city due to prohibitive entrance prices for leisure and entertainment complexes. Nonetheless, while residents recognise that developments such as the architecturally striking Khan Shatyr shopping mall are prohibitively expensive for all but the most wealthy in Astana, many low income residents remark on the beauty of the development’s architectural design and many feel proud to live in a city with such modern structures, even if the price or dress codes exclude them from using them.
At the same time, it is important to recognise that many of the new leisure and entertainment complexes do not always exclude lower income groups. Although it might be rare for many young people to visit the shops, cinemas or the rock climbing walls within shopping malls, these spaces have become popular destinations for young people in Kazakhstan to socialise with friends, in a ‘modern’ setting. In this sense it could be argued that non-elites are actively participating in the construction of a ‘modern’ Astana and the making and remaking of specific places.
The case of regeneration in Astana demonstrates that both ‘elites’ and ‘non-elites’ participate in constructing and performing ideas of ‘modernity’ that result in exclusionary practices. Elites play a key role in leading particular modernisation visions, but non-elites – ordinary citizens – have their own visions of ‘modernity’, and also actively participate in these projects (for example by taking pride in the ‘modern’ architecture and using these new developments in their own ways). The experience in Astana is representative of a common trend of large-scale urban development and regeneration throughout Asia. Across the world, it is important to take full account of how ordinary citizens (and not just elites) influence the ways in which cities development, and carefully consider who is excluded from the vision of the ‘modern’ city.
Buchli, V. (2007) Astana: materiality and the city in Alexander, C. Buchli, V. and Humphrey, C. (eds) Urban life in post-Soviet Asia, UCL Press, London, p40-69
Dirks, N. (1990) History as a sign of the modern, Public Culture 2, p25-32
Duncan, J. and Duncan, N. (2004) Landscapes of privilege: the politics of the aesthetic in an American suburb, Routledge, New York
Dzhaksybekov, A. (2008) Tak nachinalas’ Astana zapiski pervogo akima stolitsy, [So began Astana: notes of the capital’s first mayor], AH Sairina, Astana
French, R. (1995) Plans, pragmatism and people: the legacy of Soviet planning for today’s cities, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh PA
Koch, N. (2010) The monumental and the miniature: imagining ‘modernity’ in Astana, Social & Cultural Geography 11, p769-787
Koch, N. (2012) Urban ‘utopias’: the Disney stigma and discourses of ‘false modernity’, Environment and Planning A 44, p2445-2462
Kotkin, S. (1995) Magnetic mountain: Stalinism as a civilization, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
Nazarbayev, N. (2010) Future vision, interview with K magazine, The Republic of Kazakhstan, 1, p48-53
Neef, C. (2006) Bonanza in der Steppe, Der Spiegel 45, p148-154
A state of being that denotes the most modern and up to date aspects of life and aspirations.
Changes to the public perception of a place by structural and ideological renovation.
Changes to the structural fabric of an urban space in order to remove negative aspects such as run down areas.
Researching a location in the UK that has undergone regeneration or rebranding, (or a local location that could undergo such changes) students can identify the target social groups who would benefit from the changes as well as specifically those who could be excluded as a result of the changes.
Students should think about the pitfalls of regenerating a city to a vision of ‘modernity’. This should include both the short and long term impacts, and include environmental and economic impacts as well as the idea of social exclusion.
From old photographs students can compare the Almaty of Soviet times with the style and feel of Astana in the times of independence. Has the President realised his aims of a modernist city far removed from the Soviet ideals?
Natalie Koch’s original article
Animating public space: soft regeneration
Urbanisation and Migration KS4
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