Despite Lord Foster's amazing architecture, Kazakhstan's new capital city lacks life - because people don't like artificially grown settlements
I'm in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, this week and the first thing I have to tell you is that this is no Borat Land.
Skyscrapers dominate the city, which has essentially been rebuilt over the past decade. The place is more reminiscent of Dubai than the rural village depicted in the Sacha Baron Cohen comedy. And, boy, do the people love our boy Lord Foster.
A tour guide who took us around the architect's breathtaking Pyramid of Peace and Reconciliation - basically, it's a concert venue, but every building here has a grand title and symbolises some ideal - mentioned him half-a-dozen times, and in a very particular way: “The famous architect, Norman Robert Foster…”
She then showed us a picture of the great man, and I think we were expected to applaud.
Architecturally I can't believe that there is anything quite like this place. Buildings come in gold, copper and blue, and all are enormous. It's astonishingly impressive - but the place is empty
So enamoured of Foster is Kazakhstan that the government also hired him to design a massive entertainment centre - where people will be able to relax on a beach - at the opposite end of the city. It is another pyramid-type structure, and it too promises to be out of this world.
Architecturally I can't believe that there is anything quite like this place. Buildings come in gold, copper and blue, and all are enormous. It's astonishingly impressive - but the place is empty.
Although population estimates vary, the most solid figure is about 500,000. So where are they all? The city does not really have suburbs. It seems to have a very definite boundary, and flying in at night it is noticeable that the house and office lights start suddenly, clearly marking out Astana. With no urban sprawl, the people have got to be around here somewhere.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev made Astana the capital in 1997. Today it is the country's administrative and architectural hub, but the hearts of the people remain with the old capital, Almaty. Everyone here talks longingly of the place, which apparently is a hive of activity. In Astana, it is possible - drivers aside - to walk half-a-mile without seeing a soul. It can be quite dispiriting.
This is a warning to people involved in regeneration. Some places just aren't meant to be. There's a reason why the Thames Gateway took so long to get going: people wanted to live in London, not a nearby alternative.
There are obviously design issues related to this, such as the vast space between each building - acceptable here as there are only 15 million people in a country the size of Western Europe.
But mostly the reason is that people pine for, and go back to at weekends, Almaty. And I think this is a warning to people involved in regeneration. Some places just aren't meant to be. There's a reason why the Thames Gateway took so long to get going: people wanted to live in London, not a nearby alternative. Will the 2012 Games really leave a “regeneration legacy”? Probably, but certainly not to the extent that Seb Coe et al hope.
Astana is absolutely extraordinary, but there are times when it feels like a ghost town. And no number of pretty buildings can put paid to that.
Mark Leftly works on the business desk of the Independent on Sunday. Construction and commercial property are two of the beats he covers on the newspaper. Mark's views should not be confused as being those of the Independent on Sunday. Mark will be writing about Astana in this week’s Independent on Sunday.