Does a brighter future reflect on shiny glass? Architecture and identity in Almaty

Maurizio Totaro explores Kazakhstan’s former capital Almaty and finds a city caught between its pursuit for the ‘Kazakh dream’ and nostalgia.

On 6 July Kazakhstanis celebrate their capital city. But in Almaty, the former capital, the streets are quieter than usual. Its residents get up later today, feeling neither obligation to be at work on time nor excitement for celebrating the ‘usurper’s day’. Astana, the futuristic “Dubai of the steppe”, has overshadowed the old capital with its extravagant architecture: the blue petals of its Central Concert Hall, the glass Pyramid of Peace, the cone of its steel, yurt-shaped shopping mall, the blue roofs of a Chinese pagoda-style hotel. As continuously repeated by Nazarbayev, Astana symbolises the future, built day-by-day on the supposed tabula rasa of a former provincial, dusty Soviet town in the midst of the Eurasian steppe.

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View of the Alatau mountains from the southern edges of Almaty. Photo: Maurizio Totaro

Almaty could not be more different, and its residents never tire of pointing this out. The Alatau peaks, perennially whitened, stand out from the crossroads, towering over both the low and high-rise concrete blocks. Between them, boulevards cut the city geometrically, with trees along the sides offering shade from the summer heat and bending, heavy with snow, in winter. An outpost of Russian colonialism in Central Asia, the city was founded in the mid-19th century and named Verny (“loyal”), playing an important role in furthering the expansion of the empire in the oases of the South. Renamed Alma-Ata by the Bolsheviks, in a few decades the city was transformed from a “slummy little town”—as Trotsky described it in the 1920s—to a republican capital, complete with the full package of cultural, scientific and bureaucratic institutions, from the Opera House to the Academy of Sciences to the Gosplan.

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The former “House of Political Education” on Dostyk Avenue, formerly Lenin Avenue. Photo: Maurizio Totaro

“Almaty has a history, not like our new capital” is a line commonly heard from residents; an outburst of pride for former glories and subtle disappointment for the current downgrading. The Soviet aesthetic canon, “national in form, socialist in content”, is still ubiquitous in the landscape. However in the central “golden quarter” (zolotoy kvadrat), green with parks, the delicate pastels―cerulean, salmon, emerald—of the many Soviet classicist buildings and dvukhetazhniki give an appearance of harmonious homogeneity that starkly contrasts with the rest of the city. When Almatinians boast of the “Europeaness” of their city, it is to this area that they refer, where walking is pleasant among the green spaces of its concrete chessboard.

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Kazakh motifs on a block near Republic Square. Photo: Maurizio Totaro

The emotional attachment to the centre of the city, so full of meanings and memories, has long been the aching flank of developers and bureaucrats ready to capitalise on the housing ambitions and increased financial means of the emerging upper and middle classes born out of the economic boom of the 2000s. The modest sized Soviet-era flats did not meet their expectations of what a “modern”, comfortable residential space ought to be. Hence the “Kazakh dream” started to materialise on the south-east outskirts of the city, where pollution gradually gives way to the dark-green waves of the Alatau foothills: in cottages, fenced and wired, shielded from prying eyes. Heading towards the centre, many of those living in the cottages, like car-mounted knights, reach the fortress-like Nurly Tau business-centre. With the simplicity of their lines, like those of a medieval Norman castle, its towers and terraced buildings mock the mountains at their back. The new buildings are all glass, with blue tones, cold as if carved from a unique, giant piece of ice. Blue, in all its hues, is the colour defining the new Almaty.

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Part of the Nurly Tau business complex. Photo: Maurizio Totaro

Blue-green are the Rakhat Towers, a multifunctional complex co-owned by the President’s daughter and son-in-law. Blue is the flag of Kazakhstan. Blue is the Park View tower, another business centre located in the heart of the city, overlooking Panfilovtsev Park. Its facade is corrugated, like a flag touched by a gentle wind; along it, on a white, long, concrete strip, are replicated the abstract ornamental patterns of the national banner. There are no eagles, but the sun reflects on the surface. The government has struggled to define a new national identity, stressing the syncretism of Kazakh culture, the centrality of its geography, and the ethnic diversity—printed on passports—of the population, bridging the East and the West in the “Eurasia” brand. The new high-rise towers seem to reflect the simultaneous quest of the country’s elites and upper-middle classes for a particular Kazakh/Kazakhstani identity and an adoration for Western styles; a struggle between the reinvention of a simulated tradition and cosmopolitan aspirations, between the local and the global.

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The Nurly Tau complex rises high behind 1960s’ houses . Photo: Maurizio Totaro

As these new buildings bloom, Almaty residents are divided. For some they physically express the modernity of their living environment, and the prosperity of their country so highly propagandised by the government. For others their construction is tearing apart the image of the city: “If we continue destroying old buildings and build new ones in the centre, nothing of the city that we love, the one our fathers loved too, will remain”, says Alexey. Holding a degree in International Law he is a calm, thoughtful character in his mid-twenties, with a nod of melancholy in his eyes. A few days before he had seen a post on Facebook claiming that yet another building in the kvadrat was doomed for demolition: a gracious three-storey edifice, dating back to the 1950s; a blue and white example of Soviet classicism, formerly housing the Gosplan of the Kazakh SSR. “I have heard a new multi-functional complex will be built in its place, but it’s just rumours. I will call the Akimat (the city administration) tomorrow; hopefully they will give me an answer”.

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Zheltoksan n.115: the former Gosplan building. Photo: Maurizio Totaro

The following day comes the answer: true, the building will be demolished. Alexey, outraged, decides to take action. Underemployed, he has some spare time. He starts posting on social media, calling and contacting his vast network of friends. “There is so much space for building, why here? And for what, another multi-functional centre? Almaty is not the most beautiful city, but this square is a nice spot; it is where we like to walk, relax and sit down for a chat”, he tells me while we take pictures of the building, on the corner between Zheltoksan Street and Bogenbay Batyr Street (or Mir Street and Kirov Street as he calls them with their Soviet/Russian names).

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The former House of Government in the “Golden quarter”; built in 1951-57. Photo: Maurizio Totaro

The company that holds the development rights, Bay Shatyr Group, has just issued a press release clarifying that the building is not included in the list of architectural monuments of historical relevance, neither for the state nor the city. For the activists, the company is speaking another language: “Does it not have any cultural or historical value? Well, in reality we could say the same about most buildings in central Almaty”. What is to be preserved is the centre with its atmosphere, and the petitioners’ aim is to protect the entire “golden quarter” from further regeneration. Laws are cited, and lists and press releases taken as evidence that everything is conforming to the law, and it is. In a press conference with the activists, the chief architect rejects the claim that the city administration does not care about the kvadrat: a few projects have been turned down; they did not fit with the surrounding urban environment. And the style of the old building, he says, is a patchwork itself, unworthy of preservation. The new, final project is eventually released: low-rise, white chalk, Imperial-style. It seems like the activists’ nostalgia could be finally, morbidly satisfied.

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The final project for the building on Zheltoksan n.115. Credits: Bay Shatyr Group

One of Alexey’s last posts says: “The Almaty club of vintage car lovers Old Times (in English) against the demolition”. Below it is a photo of a Soviet limousine from the 1940s, the ZIS-110, next to the old building. A user comments: “Nice, and where are the pioneers?” Diggers and bulldozers are ready. Some imagine a past they have never lived, others dream of a future that might be distant and illusory; it happens at times that one is built onto the other, and nostalgia is only another pillar on which the deceitful hopes for a “brighter future” rest. Marco Polo whispered to the Khan: “futures not achieved are only branches of the past: dead branches”. Engines start to groan.

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