I have seen a lot of Foster buildings in my time but none so curious as this 203-foot high platonic object. Set in the middle of a once virtually unknown former Soviet republic which happens to be the size of the whole of Western Europe, it is curious in all its aspects – the what, the where, the why, the how. The how is especially compelling. I saw it a week before it was meant to be finished. Were this a European or American building, you would have said it was three months off. But they do things differently in Central Asia. The swarming interior, all swirling smoke and deafening clamour shot through with torrents of sparks, was William Blake crossed with Piranesi, as imagined by fantastical film-makers Powell and Pressburger.
As well as the hundreds of Turkish and Kazakh workers, many of them women, they had drafted in the army to get things speeded up a bit. By the time you read this, it will be complete, after a fashion. The shrieking, fiery Pandemonium will have become a mysterious kind of heaven. This is the whole point of the place. It is all about peace, love and understanding. Oh, and it has an opera house in it, too.
You have to imagine a country where the ex-Soviet president, buoyed up by his country’s oil, gas and mineral wealth, first decides to move his capital city from the edge to the centre, and then instigates a triennial congress of the world’s religious leaders in an attempt to put the world to rights. Kazakhstan is roughly half Muslim, half Russian Orthodox. He then decides he needs an appropriate building to house this congress. It ought to be a pyramid, he thinks, and it should stand just across the river from his own palace. He then picks up the phone and calls Norman Foster.
There is a bit of a cult of personality around this powerful, well-connected and somewhat aloof figure. You could say the same about President Nursultan Nazarbayev. His official portrait is to be found hanging on walls everywhere. But usually quite small, and always indoors. Not huge and outdoors, which is when you have to start to worry. Opposition political parties don’t get very far here. But there’s a context to this kind of thing: in a volatile region, stability is prized. And as one seasoned Turkish observer put it: “They don’t put up golden statues to the president here.” True enough, though his handprint is set in gold at the top of the city’s observation tower, and newlyweds touch it for luck. Some say he intends the pyramid as his eventual mausoleum.
You also have to be aware of the Ottoman, Silk Road, aspect of all this. Foster and Partners have collaborated with their Turkish colleagues Tabanlioglu Architecture. Their clients are the Turkish development and construction company Sembol. It is said that Turkish interests were instrumental in encouraging Nazarbayev to build the new capital. In the site office at the base of the pyramid, the inevitable presidential portrait is flanked by one of Kemal Ataturk, the reforming yet similarly authoritarian founder of modern Turkey.
For all that, a surprising amount of the new architecture in Astana is post-Soviet classical stuff of a kind that would be familiar to Stalin. Much of the rest is a tragically misguided attempt at 1980s Western postmodernism, and all of it is dropped onto a grandiose masterplan originally drawn up by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa in 1998. Kamaz construction trucks, the indestructible vehicles beloved of the Russian military, are everywhere. But they share the broad highways with shiny new Mercs and BMWs and Lexuses. There is no shortage of stretch limos, as you’ll notice on Saturdays when the wedding parties, fresh out of mosque or cathedral, charge around town in them. There’s not much “there” there yet, not much sense of cohesion, but that may come: I’ve seen the plans for the next 15 years. This is Nazarbayev’s version of Brasilia or Canberra.
Why get involved in all this? Foster has described the pyramid as “dedicated to the renunciation of violence and the promotion of faith and human equality”. As Foster’s fellow-director David Nelson, charged with delivering the building, puts it: “It was one of those things that captures the imagination. We felt that if someone wants to bring together the world’s religions, that is something that is well worth doing at the moment. As a symbol, the pyramid is not really owned by any of today’s religions.”
Besides, Nelson points out, the Foster practice had done all kinds of buildings around the world, but nothing like this, in a climate that ranges from minus 40 degrees in winter to plus 40 in summer. “In a way, it’s a connoisseur’s building. Could we do something like that, very fast, in a more extreme situation than usual? There’s no point in just repeating things.”
The gamble has paid off. Foster now has at least one, even bigger follow-up project (a large year-round entertainment centre beneath a tented roof at the other end of town) and has set up an office in Istanbul to serve the region. The steel-framed, pale granite-clad, $70m pyramid with its apex of stained glass by artist Brian Clarke has been built at dizzying speed. It has risen from its man-made hill, inside which the 1500-seat opera house (a late addition by the president) is concealed. You enter via the side of the hill so as to leave the pyramid as a pure object in the manner of the visionary 18th century French visionary architect Boullée.
It is, however, steeper-sided than pyramids usually are. Instead of being an equilateral triangle in section, its height is the same as the width of the base, so pulling the apex upwards. This trick works best visually when you are close to the building, when its taller proportion counteracts the foreshortening effect of gazing up at it from below. It is unbroken by entrances though it is pierced by diamond-shaped windows that fit within its characteristically Fosterian latticework structure. You arrive in a cavernous black-granite foyer from which dramatic hanging staircases take you up into the heart of the building. Rather than interrupt this enormous open space with lift shafts, they have learned from the Eiffel tower and put slanting funicular lifts in the corners.
In this central space, you are standing on top of the opera house, walking over the triangular glass segments of its circular ceiling. The theatre consultant, architect Anne Minors, previously worked on both the Royal Opera House and Glyndebourne, and the experience shows: below your feet is a traditionally horseshoe-shaped room with two tiers of balconies, lined with warm wood inside and out. Although this was shoehorned into the project late – its flytower having to be staggered so as to fit inside the pyramid above – it feels anything but pinched.
Things get rather less traditional as you ascend the building. First you pass some relatively straightforward floors earmarked for offices and museums. Then you hit double-height Toblerone-shaped rooms for special events. Then the space flares out again and you walk up a ramp past walls festooned with hanging plants. Thus you arrive at the mystic chamber at the apex, light flooding in through the yellow and blue (Kazakh national colours) of Clarke’s coloured glass with its motif of giant fluttering doves. Quite a departure for an artist who used to be known for abstraction. In this space, representatives of 18 of the world’s religions will meet in a circle, arranged around an open oculus through which daylight floods into the atrium below. Once again, you think of filmic heaven, as seen in Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death. Say what you like about Foster, there’s no denying he’s the man for the big architectural set-piece.
As I left, all of this was rising from a moonscape of caked earth, whipped up into dust-storms in the wind by the huge tyres of the trucks. They were just starting to construct the road to the building. Within days they would whisk away the scaffolding inside and the tower crane outside. The landscaping – already advanced on the eastern approach side – would then be extended over the work site to the west. Whereupon Nursultan Nazarbayev would look out of the back of his palace and, like some modern-day Tamburlaine, see his religious vision on the steppes complete.
It is a strange story. The building looks surprisingly small in the endless landscape, though it will soon be surrounded as Astana continues to expand. It feels more Inca than Egyptian, with its steep sides and its sacred chamber at the top. Like a temple, it is not a thing you can warm to. It is a folly on a grand scale. But it is a place to wonder at.
Previous article on the Pyramid of Peace: http://www.hughpearman.com/articles5/pyramid.html
Foster and Partners: http://www.fosterandpartners.com
Tabanlioglu Architects: http://www.tabanlioglu.com.tr/
Text © Hugh Pearman. Dusktime photo © Nigel Young/Foster and Partners. Apex upview shot by Peter Ridley, Foster and Partners. Other photos © Hugh Pearman. A fuller version of the article first published in The Sunday Times, London, September 4 2006.