Just a little more than two decades ago, Kazakhstan regained its independence as the Soviet Union was collapsing and took its first steps into the uncharted territory as a newly independent state. The new country inherited vast landscapes of mostly steppe, with little vegetation but rich in oil, gas and almost the entire periodic table of resources.
While there are still people in the West who can’t find Kazakhstan on a map today—despite how much room it takes up on said map—the country has slowly been making a global name for itself. The 2006 feature film, “Borat,” brought infamy and outrage at first, but then, as the nation shrugged its shoulders and got in on the joke, it became a point to expand from. Now, more and more, Kazakhstan is identified with its leading role in international nuclear nonproliferation movements—it renounced the world’s fourth largest nuclear arsenal in 1991—its seemingly bottomless oil and gas reserves, its brand-new, futuristic capital, Astana and its successful hosting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Summit in 2010 and the Asian Winter Games in 2011.
Now, there’s a new international event to prepare for: the international exposition EXPO 2017, to be held from June 10 to Sept. 10, 2017.
Since winning the bid to host EXPO 2017 in November 2012, the whole country has been preparing for the event in Astana. Hotels are being constructed, hospitality services are being modernized, new businesses are opening—in short, the city is bustling.
But what is expo, and why is it so important for Kazakhstan? What is now known as expo began life as the World’s Fair, an international exposition that began in 1851 at London’s new Crystal Palace, designed by Sir Joseph Paxton, an architect and member of Parliament.
The scale of the event was royal—it was organized by Britain’s Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. The first World’s Fair was attended by notables including Charles Darwin, and writers Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, George Eliot, Alfred Tennyson and others.
Since its glittering birth, expo has traveled the globe. In the following decades, the World’s Fair has visited many world capitals and cities: Paris, Vienna, Brussels, New York, Montreal, Seoul and others, attracting millions and millions of attendees and hundreds of companies. EXPO 2010 in Shanghai attracted some 73 million people; 192 companies participated in the event.
For Kazakhstan, proving itself a successful expo venue is a huge responsibility, but will also be more solid proof, along with the Asian Winter Games and the OSCE summit, that the country is up to hosting the Olympic Winter Games in 2022 in Almaty, for which it is currently bidding.
Worldwide expo venues are signified by one standout feature—the construction of a remarkable exhibition facility. The Eiffel Tower in Paris was built for just that purpose in 1887 and has become a symbol of Paris and one of the world’s major tourist attractions. The Atomium, built for EXPO 1958 in Brussels, is also a city symbol and destination.
The young Kazakh capital has put the design of its expo facilities in the hands of architectural firm Adrian Smith+Gordon Gill, based in Chicago. The company was founded by Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill, who own and run it with managing partner Robert Forest. They have projects around the world.
Gordon Gill, one of the company’s CEOs, spoke with EdgeKz about building Astana’s newest marvel.
“I would say we are known best for our sustainable approach to master plan and building design, which includes a range of tall to super-tall buildings,” said Gill. “When I say super-tall, I mean anything over 300 meters. For instance, in Wuhan, China, the project named Wuhan Greenland Center is 606 meters; in Chengdu the project is over 450 meters. And we had the privilege to work on the world’s tallest building in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia: the Kingdom Tower that’s still under construction.”
Smith+Gill’s portfolio and experience in thoughtful design were key to its victory in the contest to design Astana’s expo facilities. Astana’s expo symbol, however, won’t be a tower, but an 80-meter-diameter sphere, built to harness and use renewable energy.
“We entered the competition and were lucky enough to be shortlisted in that competition. There were about five or so shortlisted companies and the final selection was made by a jury and the President himself, and we were fortunate enough to win,” Gill said.
“We knew that the theme was future energy, so when we designed the project, EXPO 2017, we designed it not just for the expo but for the city, so that even after the expo, there would remain something of value, an investment made by the city and the people and the country that could have that value returned over time. So we designed a neighborhood that is highly sustainable, that is well integrated in terms of its program with schools, daycare, shopping malls, offices and cultural programs, art museums, theaters, a beautiful park for expo, [which] will remain as a park after the venue. Behind all of this, there will be a backbone of infrastructure that we hope will establish a smart city concept for efficient energy use and for a better quality of life, as far as transit is concerned. And all of that is connected to an Internet system within all the buildings in the entire neighborhood. We hope that it will be an intelligent community and the housing will be of really good quality and we are hoping that this will become a good platform for other neighborhoods in Astana.”
The company adheres to a philosophy of looking deeply into the context for any new project, according to Gill. Astana is the world’s second-coldest capital, where temperatures fluctuate from minus 40 C in winter to 40 C in summer and needs facilities that are up to the challenge of its climate.
“We have a core philosophy in our firm that the architecture that we produce stands for a deep understanding of the environment we are working in and the purposes behind the buildings, so that they perform in certain ways in a certain environment. In Kazakhstan, for example, we know that it can get very cold, we know that snow and ice and wind are an issue, so what we are doing is we are designing these buildings to absorb as much heat as possible in the winter time and convert that heat to power and at the same time protect themselves in the summer time when it gets too hot, to provide shade for themselves [to protect them from overheating]. At the same time, we are doing wind analysis studies to make sure that snow drifts are not accruing in public spaces and that it becomes a very easy environment to walk in, in terms of protected areas and covered areas for pedestrians to move from one building to another,” Gill explained.
Astana has a sphere instead of a tower for a reason, the architect says. “The language of the architecture comes from performance. I call it ‘form follows performance.’ We have a form that is coming from an understanding of how the building needs to perform and so the building looks that way for a reason, and not just because we are trying to look cool or something like that,” he said, laughing.
“I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Astana now about four or five times and the architecture in Astana reminds me of all the fantastic moments in history. It is clearly new, but obviously very visionary in terms of some of its icons. It has a character to it; we definitely know that over time that character will become more robust as the city gets more dense, so I think it’s kind of an exciting time to be a part of that history of Astana. We’re definitely hoping to bring a quality level of architecture to become a part of the city. We hope also to bring a new level of construction standards that is very high, so that the buildings are very safe and very comfortable and efficient in terms of heating and cooling. We are definitely focused on the quality of the construction. And we are very honored to be selected for this project, because this is a unique project for the world and we are thrilled to be a part of it.”
After years of bidding and preparation and review, construction is finally set to begin in May on the buildings that the young capital hopes to showcase in 2017.
“I think it’s going to be a fantastic two and a half years. I hope that the city will be patient with the construction and everything else that is happening. I would love to thank everybody who is involved in the project at all levels, because we are now meeting so many officials at so many different levels and we are so impressed with the city and its organization and we want to ensure that we will do everything we can to make this a great project. We look forward to its completion and we know it’s going to be an amazing, amazing two years.”