In Kazakhstan, architectural heritage is a path into a forgotten future

In the former capital city of Almaty, the move to catalogue Soviet buildings is an attempt to create an alternative history of one’s own.

Owen Hatherley
14 March 2018


Almaty outdoor. Photo CC BY-NC-ND 2.0: Marco Fieber. Some rights reserved.

There are certain cliches about the architecture and urbanism of Central Asia. Of course, there are the historic cities of the Silk Road, mostly in Uzbekistan – the minarets and domes of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, long explored by Travellers to the Orient. But when it comes to anything later, the image is of an empty desert or steppe where despotic rulers have imposed a turbo-capitalist dystopia, best suited for Instagram accounts and photo-heavy travelogues. Here, the emblematic cities are Ashgabat and Astana, one transformed and one entirely new capital defined by grandiose axes around surreal, oversized monuments, frequently to the “Oriental Despots”. The World Expo in Astana last year conformed to type – one journalist was banned for referring to the central sphere where the event was held as a “Death Star”.

Between these images is the Soviet city, in which, one assumes, nothing much happened except the same thing that happened everywhere else – prefabricated housing estates, concrete squares, now obsolete factories. Where that leaves a city like Almaty is anyone's guess. The capital of Soviet Kazakhstan (and then independent Kazakhstan until the late 1990s) is still the largest city in the country, but it seldom features in these narratives. It has no “historic monuments”. It wasn’t on the Silk Road. It has no contemporary follies. Instead, as the financial centre of the country, it is the focus for something else: “modernisation”, with luxury flats, a central business district and a new Metro.

The notion that the city doesn't have “heritage”, and hence that what it does have is of little value, was seriously contested at a fringe event of the Astana World Expo, in Almaty itself. Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art organised a round table at the Hotel Almaty, a building that turned out to have its own significance. It was designed by the architect Nikolay Ripinsky in the early 1960s, in a chic modernist style that you could mistake for Miami or Cannes were it not for the mosaic of folk bands and workers and peasants at its entrance. The conference began with quite sober papers defining and charting the architectural developments in the former capital across the 20th century, until there were some harsh words said about the renovation of another building by the hotel’s architect: the Palace of the Republic (or as it was originally called and as everyone still calls it, the Lenin Palace). Photographs showed a precisely calculated Brutalist pavilion – disciplined and ordered, with a magical interior of coloured glass – that had been suddenly covered over with mirror-glass and fake classical columns. Then, the architect who redesigned the Lenin Palace stood up to defend himself.

At this point, there was a furore, as he made excuses for what had happened. First, he pointed out that he had proposed seven different plans, beginning with a simple restoration, to the building's owners, only for them to choose the most destructive of the original fabric. Clearly reluctantly, he justified the change with a comparison: “In Soviet times, we wore grey clothes, and now we wear colourful clothes.” The speaker, Elizabeth Malinovskaya of Almaty’s ARK gallery, was not impressed. “I do not have words for the emotions I feel when I look at the current facade.” I tried to follow the argument through a translator, but it soon got out of hand. (There were claims about the drinking habits of the original architect and counter-claims about who really designed it in the first place.) This public argument about the preservation of Almaty’s modern buildings seemed to stand for an entire complex of opinions about the city's history and its future.


World Expo 2017, Astana. Source: Owen Hatherley.

Not the least irony in these events was the fact that this was a side-event to a larger event in the planned capital that has supplanted Almaty as Kazakhstan’s administrative centre. An exhibition at the Expo site was centred around photographs by Yuri Palmin and quasi-architectural wooden models of these “utopian skeletons” by the Kazakh ZIP Arts Group. This exhibition proposed that the shift to Astana meant that, unlike in other Central Asian capitals like Tashkent or Ashgabat, the Soviet city was relatively untouched. This contrasted with the ferocious argument at the Hotel Almaty, and with how many people in the city describe their buildings and the spaces around them, often with a sense of loss, as an international “garden city”.

The most obvious quality of Almaty – especially compared with Astana – is its extraordinary integration of landscape, urbanism and vegetation. It sits at the foot of the Tien Shan mountain range, where it meets the Kazakh steppe, near the border with China. The intensity of the greenery on the city’s grid-planned streets is extraordinary. It grows onto the buildings, with creepers nearly covering limestone-clad Brutalist apartment complexes, and cafes on their ground floors spilling onto the two-level pavements, with fast-flowing irrigation canals rushing alongside raised pedestrian levels, usually audibly bubbling away while you sit outside and drink your tea. It is by some measure the greenest town I have ever seen.

“We had here all of the USSR’s intelligentsia during the Second World War. These people taught our teachers, they taught us”

Although you gradually notice the poor quality of much of the built fabric, the effect remains of a very well-planned city – especially when you've experienced Astana, where the vast distances and lack of tree cover or pedestrian shelter make it feel like one city’s unwinnable war against its own climate. But that’s not geographical luck on Almaty’s part. Beautiful as its mountains are, it is a highly inhospitable place to build a city, with strong winds, extremely hot summers and extremely cold winters, and frequent earthquakes. The difference is that its builders – in an era before air conditioning and mass car ownership – recognised this, and planned accordingly.

The Soviet city, renamed Alma-Ata in 1921 (after the Kazakh for “apple tree”) was initially a place where people were dumped, as much as where they came to create a new capital. Tens of thousands were exiled to eastern Kazakhstan in the 1930s; the entire Soviet film industry were relocated there during the war. Yuliya Sorokina, an Almaty-based curator, tells me that it's the combination of artists and prisoners (frequently, both) that defined the sort of place the Soviet Kazakh capital became. “We had here all of the USSR’s intelligentsia during the Second World War. These people taught our teachers, they taught us.”


Almaty TV tower. CC A-SA 3.0 Michael Gurau / Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.

The two names I heard most in conjunction with the Soviet garden city were Nikolay Ripinsky, architect of the Hotel Almaty and the Lenin Palace, and Dinmukhamed Kunayev, head of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan from 1964 to 1986. Kunayev, according to Anel Moldakhmetova, of the campaign and research group Archcode Almaty, was able “because of his close connections and good relationship with the centre, Moscow,” to “increase the budget for architecture development in Almaty and improve the quality of construction.” When Mikhail Gorbachev dismissed Kunayev i 1986 on grounds of corruption and replaced him with the Russian Gennady Kolbin, this led to violently suppressed protests. Among Kunayev’s proteges was the hard-working apparatchik Nursultan Nazarbayev, who succeeded Kolbin in 1989. He’s never left power since.

If Kunayev was a typical Soviet bureaucrat, able to pull strings for his people and for the edification of “his” republic, then Ripinsky was at the other end of the scale, a victim, then a beneficiary of the system. A student of the Constructivist Vesnin brothers in Moscow, he was deported to Kazakhstan in 1949. After Stalin’s death, Kunayev was made head of the state construction body Kazgorstroyproyekt, becoming the most important figure in the city’s planning and architecture, teaching a generation of Kazakh architects, and developing a distinct school of modern architecture, Internationalist with delicate local touches.

The low, long Lenin Palace and the city’s first high-rise, the Hotel Kazakhstan (which still features on Kazakh banknotes as an icon of Almaty), were intended as vertical and horizontal complements to each other. On the same street is the Three Knights residential complex, an aggressive Brutalist composition of three interlinked towers, softened and worn by residents’ insertion of new balconies and additions. The ensemble is completed by a silvery TV tower, placed on the Kok-Tebe mountain above the city. Later Soviet architecture, after Ripinsky, went further into a Communist-Islamic-Postmodernist “national style”.


Almaty's Hotel Kazakhstan was built over 1974-1977. Source: Hotel Kazakhstan.

The Almaty Circus has a twisted, yurt-like roof, while the Palace of Pioneers and the Arasan Baths combine domes and towers in what the architectural historian Boris Chukhovich calls the “made in Moscow national style”, especially common in Uzbekistan. Full of nostalgic and Orientalist motifs (golden domes, minarets, great marbled baths, ceremonial stairs), these buildings are highly atmospheric, but for Chukhovich, their visual cues to “The East” are often facile gestures, taken out of context, with little real connection to the actual needs and traditions of the cities in which they are placed. He argues that this has become particularly influential in post-Soviet capitals, a ready made sourcebook of how to make a new building look “local” and “national” – something that has evidently been influential on all the domes and yurts applied to the office blocks and malls of Astana.

Soviet Almaty was never an egalitarian city in which a worker could feel ill at ease

In that, the more abstract architecture sponsored by Ripinsky can seem like an alternative to nationalist kitsch. I asked the photographer Yuri Palmin, who documented the city’s Soviet architecture for the Garage exhibition, whether or not there was any nostalgia in his lovingly detailed depiction of the city Kunayev and Ripinsky built. “There never was, and I hope never will be, any nostalgic element in my work with the architecture of Soviet Modernism,” he replies. “I’m 51 now and was born and raised in the period of most obvious stagnation of the Soviet bureaucratic regime when its cynicism and hypocrisy were impossible to hide under the thin film of (mostly imported) modernity.” Instead, these images are a matter of showing the way that the buildings are changed as they are inhabited.


“Three knights” housing complex on Dostyk Street.

According to Yuliya Sorokina, “Kunayev’s heritage is still valuable for the oppositional intelligentsia, but current state leaders would like to forget everything he did.” Partly this is a matter of taste: “It is not their style; they prefer Stalin's quasi-empire,” and in Astana’s flamboyant but cheap neo-Stalinist buildings, they’ve had a chance to realise it. She is scornful of the architectural aspirations of Kunayev’s protege. “Nazarbayev is talented leader, but he is a kind of primitive architect, let’s say. He uses architecture as a tool for showing his power.” At the heart of this, she tells me, is the fact that Nazarbayev, as a worker turned bureaucrat, was never fond of the city. “Almaty was and is a city of progressive intellectuals. Almaty and Astana are like two different universes. I guess Nazarbayev did not like Almaty. He felt like an alien here, and probably that was one of the reasons that he changed the capital. He wanted to build the city of his dreams and he did.”

However much it might seem to be a thing of the past for long-time residents of the city, the intelligence and elegance of the capital built between the 1960s and 1980s is still very striking to the visitor. It is so not only by comparison with the ruthlessly inhospitable and riotously kitsch new capital, but seen alongside other Soviet cities of the same era that were not able to resist Moscow’s pressure for standardisation and cost-cutting. Oddly enough, however, its recent buildings are distinctly post-Soviet, in a style which you can see in Moscow or Kyiv or Baku – concrete framed residential towers inserted into the green interstices of the garden city, clad in brightly coloured stone and mirror-glass, with no natural ventilation, and with the roofs given a profusion of domes so as to look “local”. Several are placed in the way of the carefully planned vistas of the 1970s.

“Campaigning for the Soviet historical heritage has a lot to do with rethinking history and identity of Kazakhstan after gaining independence”

So how to campaign to save the remnants of this city, as it is being gradually suppressed and supplanted? Anel Moldakhmetova tells me that the work of Archcode came initially from trying to create an “inventory” of the city, after which they “created a list of 100 objects which we published in the form of an online catalogue, to start a conversation with the public about the importance and value of these buildings.” So far this is proving to be a difficult task, “taking into account that architects and restoration professionals often have to compromise their values to their clients”, who are in her words “shaping the architectural landscape of the city based on their personal tastes and beliefs”. (Something obvious when the hapless architect of the restored Lenin Palace tried to defend himself by blaming the client.)

There was no public oversight over the rebuilding of the Lenin Palace, so “construction works started before anyone could realise what was happening”. It happened so fast that it “became an object of discussion and criticism only after all the works have been done.” For Moldakhmetova, “campaigning for the Soviet historical heritage has a lot to do with rethinking history and identity of Kazakhstan after gaining independence”, and that may be the problem.

In terms of approaches to architecture and planning, if not in personnel, there is little in the way of continuity between Kunayev’s rule and Nazarbayev. “After independence many useful traditions of Soviet construction and approaches to the formation of visual style of the buildings were forgotten, and new approaches are mostly dictated by the availability of cheap imported materials from China and Turkey and interest in the maximum profit from the most minimal investment.” There is a rush for “western” solutions in order to make the city look less “Soviet”, which have the paradoxical but common effect of making Almaty look not so much “normal” and “European”, as intended, but distinctly post-Soviet, with a rejection of long-term planning and architectural education that is common across the former USSR. Not only that, some of the new structures look not so much Soviet as Stalinist. The Almaty Metro is typical here, with its vast baroque marble halls and framed portraits of the leader, a peculiar post-modernist reproduction of Moscow in 1938. In that context, the Soviet modernist city stands out all the more.

By all means, Soviet Almaty was never an egalitarian city in which a worker could feel ill at ease. Buildings were never particularly well-built, and local democracy was irrelevant. However, all these are equally true of post-Soviet Almaty, along with other questions altogether – a carelessness about planning, ignorance of climate and the embrace of totally standardised, off-the-peg solutions (ironically something the centre of Soviet Almaty rejected). The research into, and campaigns around the Soviet capital are attempts to find a qualitatively better city, an artistically planned, holistic garden city of granite, greenery and geometry, rather than a globalised Eurasian outpost of adverts, mirror-glass and oligarchic financial power.

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