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Ak Orda Presidential Palace (Courtesy of Fabrice Fouillet)

Under Construction: Kazakhstan's Space-Age Capital

by Claire O'Neill
Mar 26, 2013

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Claire O'Neill

In 1997, Kazakhstan, recently freed from the Soviet Union, packed up its border-location capital, and moved it to the inhospitable steppe, smack in the middle of the country. That's where the country's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, thought it should be. It was named "Astana," which translates to ... "capital."

"Rich in oil and other mineral resources," reads a National Geographic article, "Kazakhstan has lavished billions on the new capital," inviting notable planners and architects from around the world to build a city from scratch.

It's one of the youngest capital cities in the world. And many have marveled at what has emerged. It's been described by National Geographic as "brash and grandiose," The Guardian as "the space station in the steppes."

Photographer Fabrice Fouillet was watching a documentary about architect Norman Foster when he first caught sight of Astana — and the structure Foster designed: the Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center, basically the world's biggest tent.

"I like architecture," Fouillet writes from France, "and the ostentatious monuments of Astana were fascinating me." Shortly thereafter, Fouillet found himself in the remote Central Asian city with a camera. He shot this series in July 2012.

"The new official buildings are sometimes colossal, bordering on disproportion, the skeletons of ill-assorted buildings rise from this suburban-like area, which vacillates between authenticity and artifice ..." he writes on his website, which has the full series.

Many of the photos coming from Astana reveal architectural achievements in all their completed splendor. Fouillet, though, has a slightly stranger take — a clinical view of modern monuments emerging from scaffolding and sand.

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