Last night Foster + Partners’ latest building in Astana, Khazhstan, the Khan Shatyry, opened in a fanfare of glory. This was no simple opening, as the event was carefully timed to coincide with the president of Kazakhstan’s 70th birthday and was attended by the great and the good of Kazakhstan as well as presidents of neighbouring countries.
The start of festivities was greeted by collective relief, since most people in the audience had been waiting over two hours. After all, this is a country where it takes half an hour to buy a train ticket. The event took place outside the building. Astana is located in a flat plain that stretches for hundreds of miles, and you could see the rain clouds ominously approaching.
Once festivities got going, there were traditional horseriding displays as well as traditional Kazakhstani music mixed up with opera, as Italian singer Andrea Bocelli had been jetted in for the occasion. The best bit was the explosive firework display with the new building as a backdrop. It is a giant tent-shaped building clad in EFTE and was illumined from inside, which added to the general effect.
Designed in collaboration with structural engineer Buro Happold, the building is elegantly simple, featuring a tripod-type structure that acts as a giant tent pole, with the triangulation enabling it to withstand the winds that sweep across the empty plains. The tripod supports a cablenet, which in turn supports the EFTE cladding. The tent itself sits on a concrete base.
What is the building for? Here the project resembles another tent-like structure, but one with a less than illustrious pedigree: the Millennium Dome in Greenwich. Similarly to the Millennium Experience, there is a theme park feel, with amusements including dodgems and a monorail that weaves around the structure. Sand imported from the Maldives surrounds water you can swim in or sit beside on a lounger. You can also buy food and go shopping in a big mall.
There is one big difference between this building and its failed cousins in the UK. Sitting on the beach when it is minus 40 degrees outside does have its attractions, but it is all down to the attitude of the people. In the UK we are very snooty about theme park-type attractions, but here they are grateful for something that they see as brightening up their lives.