Thousands attend dedication of ‘world’s largest tent’
By Hal Foster
Halfway up the slope of what looks like a cone-shaped, 150-tall spider web was a tiny dot moving slowly.
It was hard to tell what the construction worker was doing only an hour away fr om the nighttime dedication of Astana’s newest architectural masterpiece, the $220-million Khan Shatyr pleasure dome.
Perhaps smoothing out the semitransparent material that covers the residential and commercial complex, Central Asia Newswire reported.
But the scene was surreal, like something fr om a Spiderman movie, as the man lowered himself along a rope to the place on the web where he wanted to work.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev, seven other heads of state and thousands of Kazakhstanis turned out Monday night for the dedication of famed British architect Norman Foster’s second piece of the Kazakhstan capital’s rapidly changing landscape. Foster is already working on a third piece.
Nazarbayev took the controversial step of moving the capital from Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, to the wind-swept northern steppes in 1997. The official reason for the shift was that Almaty was earthquake-prone.
But “the real motivation for relocating the capital was more likely the need for Kazakhstan to stake a strong claim to its empty northern territories,” journalist Clare Nuttall has noted.
The area is largely populated by ethnic Russians, and the Nazarbayev administration was determined to make a pre-emptive move against Moscow making any claims to the land, Nuttall said.
Nazarbayev was aware that many government officials were grumbling about moving from the comfortable and urbane existence of Almaty to the boonies.
Perhaps with that in mind, he decided the new capital was going to be something to behold.
He asked renowned Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa to do a master plan for the capital, which is not actually a “new city” like Brasilia but rather a massive expansion of the once-sleepy town of Akmola.
Nazarbayev then asked Foster, Italy’s Manfredi Nicoletti and other world-class architects to design many of the structures in the capital. A lot of them have such distinctive designs that they carry nicknames like “the lighter” and “the wedding cake.”
Architects and contractors are putting Astana’s new pieces together at a blistering pace. Forty percent of all the construction in the country is occurring in the capital, government officials say – and that’s at a time when the government is spending $5.68 billion rebuilding the famed Silk Road highway between Russia and China.
The company that has nearly completed the Khan Shatyr, Turkey’s Sembol, has stoked public interest in it by calling it the largest tent in the world.
The tent, shaped liked a smooth-edged pyramid, is just the covering, however.
Inside are offices, a five-star hotel, tropical gardens, a small lake, beaches and water slides, an amusement park, concert halls, restaurants and cafes, beauty centers and medical facilities. There is also a monorail with seven stations.
The tent allows the 1.5-million-cubic-yard interior to be climate-controlled, a godsend in a city wh ere the temperature can reach 104 degrees Fahrenheit in summer and minus 40 in winter.
More than 400 Turkish high-altitude construction specialists built the tent, a task that involved building a skeleton of cable, then stretching the covering material over it.
It was a tough job – not just because of the height but because the work was done year-round, regardless of weather.
The crowd at Monday’s dedication listened to Italian opera and pop star Andrea Bocelli and watched folk dancers and a fireworks display.
But most weren’t allowed inside the Khan Shatyr, whose name means “royal marquee,” because Sembol has yet to wrap up the interior construction.
“We wanted to see the inside and, because that’s not possible, we decided not to hang around,” said a university student named Nikita, who was with two friends.
Sembol is also working on a sister project to the Khan Shatyr, two multistoried apartment buildings known as the Khan Shatyr Residences.
The 51,200-square-meter complex will have spectacular views of the Presidential Palace, the Pyramid of Peace, the Baiterek and other eye-catching structures and gardens. The Baiterek, a monument to the Kazakh people, looks like an egg on top of a high pedestal.
Foster and Sembol’s next collaboration in Astana will be a domed, climate-controlled city within a city that will include Venetian-style canals.
The 123,000-square-yard city will contain housing for 20,000 people plus shopping, dining, entertainment and recreational facilities, including a mini-golf course.
At 1.2 miles in diameter, the dome will be twice as large as the Millennium Dome in London, the site of an exhibition during the year 2000 marking the start of the third millennium.
Another indication of its size will be that it will cover 10 skyscrapers.
Italianate architectural embellishments will tie everything together.
The development’s covering will be made of material that absorbs sunlight to create the effect of year-round summer inside.
It will take a year to produce the dome, which will be 500 feet tall at its highest point.
The first Foster-Sembol collaboration in Astana was the Pyramid of Peace, a building that Nazarbayev cherishes because it symbolizes the message of interethnic and interreligious tolerance that he has long preached.
The Pyramid of Peace is wh ere the Congress of World Religions is held every three years. The gathering of leaders of dozens of faiths – a Nazarbayev idea -- is aimed at promoting international tolerance and harmony.
Nazarbayev opens each session with a major address identifying world flashpoints and suggesting how religious leaders can help defuse them.
The pyramid includes meeting and convention space, a museum and a 1,500-seat opera house.