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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

XANADU FOR A NEW AGE

The Kazakhstan capital gets the 21st-century touch from a Japanese planner

By Murakami Mutsuko / Tokyo


CAN ASTANA BE TO Kazakhstan president Nursultan Narzabayev what the mythical Xanadu might have been to Kublai Khan? Two years ago, Narzabayev decreed that his capital would be moved to Astana from leafy Almaty, partly because it is in an earthquake zone. In the middle of the Steppes, Astana is atmospherically more fitting for a national identity based on Islam and a romantic image of nomadic horsemen. But it is a dusty, wind-swept outpost. Astana endures extremes: temperatures range between 40 degrees Celsius in summer and minus-40 in winter. Physically, it still recalls the dull, Soviet provincial town that it was in the 1950s. With the new status, gleaming tower blocks have sprung up to accommodate relocated bureaucrats. But the government is set on even more radical transformation to mark Kazakh independence from the collapsed Soviet Union. Astana is to become a city of the future, with superhighways, high-tech industrial parks and modern housing. And helping to shape that vision is Japanese architectural guru Kurokawa Kisho.

Kurokawa's mission began with an e-mail message from the Kazakh government last April - an invitation to take part in a competition to design the country's new capital. He had never been to Kazakhstan. But the life of nomadic peoples has long fascinated the 64-year-old (he even wrote a book on them), as has the history of the Silk Route, which winds through the country. Staff were quickly despatched to scout out the site. In any case, Kurokawa felt specially inspired. Six months later, his vision won out over 26 others submitted.

"Kazakhstan was a perfect stage to apply my ideas," says Kurokawa. Made up of many ethnic groups, the nation sandwiched between the Russian Federation and China presented a special challenge. "I can show how my principles on symbiosis are applied, so that different cultures can exist together in the new capital," explains the architect. The concept is an amalgamation of his Buddhist beliefs and interest in biology. Something of a philosopher and futurist, Kurokawa argues that new perspectives are emerging to meet the needs of the new millennium. Bigger-is-better, Darwinian evolution and monolithic values are out, he says. They represent the spirit of the machine age. The new century is about diversity and change - in both natural and man-made environments. Hence his idea for "metabolic" designs that will allow buildings and cities to constantly adapt and grow. "It is the ideas that make the city, and these are modified as they are passed on to subsequent generations," he says. "A city is never really complete."

Astana should be "a city of the future, yet built on its past," says Kurokawa. Besides redeveloping the old town, his plan calls for the creation of a new center to the south of the Ishim river, which runs through Astana. Dubbed River City, the settlement is to encompass residential and diplomatic quarters. A presidential residence, national guest house, legislative buildings and the courts will cluster around a capitol complex. The area around the current railway station is to be redeveloped into a business district. A belt of woodland, extending from this "Train City" to an existing park, will form the central axis of the capital.

Instead of having development fan out radially from an urban core, Kurokawa proposes a linear zoning system, with further expansion proceeding in an east-west direction. But growth is likely to be gradual - despite the advantage of Kazakhstan's oil income. The population of Astana, currently a modest 300,000, is expected to rise to one million only by 2030. Even so, the ecology-conscious architect has introduced measures to ensure environmental sustainability. His plan calls for comprehensive recycling of garbage and rainwater runoffs from buildings. By reusing waste gas from heating systems, he also expects to achieve considerable energy savings. A dual-purpose "forest" is to be planted on the southern fringes: the trees will not only protect against strong seasonal winds, they will feed projected biotechnology industries.

Such development refines the symbiotic concepts already drafted for Shenzhen, the Chinese boom town just north of Hong Kong, and Malaysia's Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC), where he is a consultant. He was also the architect behind the much-admired design of Kuala Lumpur's new airport. In fact, he envisages the MSC as an "ecological corridor." Tropical jungle would thin seamlessly into green belts and parks that separate building complexes. The idea, Kurokawa explains, is to allow space and passage for various wildlife that might otherwise become extinct. Astana will evolve along similar lines. "This is a very Asian approach and it provides the perfect solution for the next century, " he says.

Kurokawa will soon base a team in the Kazakhstan capital to work with local experts on phase one of the new Astana. Can they realize his futuristic vision? The city has had poor experiences with leaders' grand plans. As Tselinograd, or Virgin Lands City, it was the center of Soviet president Nikita Khruschev's drive to turn the bleak steppes into vast wheat fields. Wind-driven soil erosion soon laid waste to that campaign. Perhaps that's why Narzabayev renamed the city Astana. Its original name, Akmola, means White Tomb.


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