Halfway through 2014, the city on the steppe has a striking new vertical dimension – tall, thin cranes rising in its central districts and beyond. Astana has been growing since its establishment as Kazakhstan’s capital some 17 years ago, and now it’s growing something new: a cutting-edge new district that will house the ambitious, energy-innovative EXPO 2017 complex.
Astana won the bid to host the international exhibition in 2012, and in the two years since has prepared the documentation and legal foundation for the exhibition and held and judged a design competition that attracted architectural firms from around the world. Winners Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architects from the United States have proposed, defended and planned out their creation – 174 hectares containing 200 buildings, the centerpiece of which will be a 80-meter diameter sphere, the biggest in the world, that will house the Kazakhstan Pavilion.
At the end of February, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan approved the final design plan, and on April 25th he attended the official groundbreaking ceremony, marking the start of construction.
“Today we have launched construction of the EXPO 2017 exhibition facility, the most important venue,” he said at the ceremony during which he laid the first stone. “For many years, I have been privileged to officially start many projects in Astana, and the city is blooming. The 20th anniversary of our capital coincides with the opening of EXPO 2017. There has not been such a grand venue before [in Kazakhstan]. It will literally become a new center of Astana,” Nazarbayev said at the ceremony.
The complex will hold 4,000 apartments, a new hotel, a congress hall and a covered city, along with other facilities. In keeping with a firm rule about the expo’s design, none of the buildings will be demolished after the event. Instead, many are to be used as laboratories and research facilities for nearby Nazarbayev University. “[The new complex] will become backbone facilities for the Nazarbayev University, for its students and scientists to develop new technologies and make new discoveries,” the president said.
The complex is also to be energy positive. At a March 4 press conference ahead of the groundbreaking ceremony, Minister of Environment and Water Resources and Chairman of the Board of the Astana EXPO 2017 Company Nurlan Kapparov discussed updated plans for the expo pavilion and the work currently underway.
“The first-ever energy-positive city will appear in Kazakhstan. On sunny or windy days, Expo City will produce energy, accumulate its surplus and give it to Astana,” Kapparov said. Expo City, which will be run on a smart grid, also has a new capability: smart dust. “[Smart dust] is a vacuum system that sucks debris from each building and then sends it to a central processing plant. The unique enterprise will also conduct water treatment,” the minister said. “All homes, as well as the hotels, fitness centers, shops and schools in this city will be built on the principle of sustainable development and with the application of green technologies,” he said.
On June 11th, the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE) held its 155th general assembly and officially recognized EXPO 2017 in Astana, a decision marked by the ceremony of handing over the BIE flag to the expo representatives, in this case Foreign Minister of Kazakhstan Erlan Idrissov,First Deputy Foreign Minister of Kazakhstan and Commissioner of EXPO 2017 Rapil Zhoshibayev and Chairman of the Astana EXPO 2017 Company Talgat Yermegiyayev.
Speaking to Euronews after the handover, Idrissov said, “We are proud that Kazakhstan has been chosen as the place to hold this exhibition. This is the first time the exhibition takes place in the former post-Soviet space in Central Asia. That will bring global attention not only to the issues of growth in our part of the world but also to the issues of global energy challenges. We believe that EXPO 2017 will become a catalyst and a platform for brainstorming new ideas, new approaches to future energy.”
“Recognition of the exhibition and receiving the BIE flag is a memorable event for our country,” Zhoshibayev told the assembly at the ceremony. He noted that, like the “Future Energy” theme, EXPO 2017 isn’t seen as a one-time event, but a key step in developing a green economy in the energy-rich nation.
In a column for USA Today on June 10, Idrissov explained why this expo is so important for Kazakhstan.
“It would be easy to dismiss our expo as an exhibition which lasts just a few months or even dismiss ‘Future Energy’ as a fashionable theme for a major oil producer to trumpet. But the reality is that it is a symbol of our nation’s determination to pursue green development and play our full part in promoting sustainability around the world. … Internationally, we see EXPO 2017 as a key part of our Green Bridge initiative to bring together governments, international organizations and private business to find solutions to sustainable growth. We have to be ambitious in creating partnerships to share technology and best practice with countries throughout the world, no matter what their stage of development. We will only begin to tackle climate change successfully when it can be done without putting the brakes on economic growth and the prosperity it brings for our citizens.”
The country is expecting more than 100 countries and 10 major international organizations to take part in what it hopes will be a cauldron of innovation and the birthplace of new scientific and technological advances.
At a press conference upon their return to Astana with the official recognition and the flag, the expo organizers commented on some activities that were actually more than timely. Construction isn’t usually supposed to begin until the flag has been handed over – but for the unique and challenging climate in Astana, concessions had been made.
Yermegiyayev explained: “As per international exhibition rules, we could not start construction of expo facilities before we received the BIE flag. However, considering our severe climate – for example, building work in Europe and other warmer countries is possible all the year round – the BIE kindly allowed us to begin relevant work [ahead of schedule], and in April we began preparing the site for construction and doing reclamation work, fencing and installation of utilities, et cetera,” he said.
Given the harsh realities of Astana’s winters, Yermegiyayev said, “The construction schedule is tough, but realistic, and I’m confident of completing the task.”
With the flag in hand, construction can begin in earnest. Works will begin this year, and the bulk of major construction will happen over 2015. And with building comes jobs. At a press conference in Astana on June 13, Yermegiyayev said the expo would generate nearly 20,000 new jobs in the capital, both in construction and preparations beforehand and in operating the event itself.
Some 1,000 people, mostly builders, are already working at the expo complex near Nazarbayev University. The work that is being done now is largely clearing work – replanting trees, relocating utilities services and clearing the area. “We are about to complete the first preparatory stage,” he said.