Astana: Champagne dreams and pyramid schemes

When I announced I was going to Kazakhstan in an attempt to persuade the Kazakhs not to build a giant glass pyramid, in a city with less than 500,000 inhabitants in the middle of nowhere, where temperatures range from -40 F in winter to 104 F in summer, at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds, people I knew were dumbfounded. It seems that many can’t believe that such a project is real. But it is.

The architect for the project is Norman Foster, the man responsible for this silly building. Foster claims his design for the pyramid was influenced by the work of Etienne-Louis Boullée and Claude-Nicholas Ledoux, a pair of 18th century Frenchman. Their building designs were even sillier than Lord Fosters, but no one in the 18th century was foolish enough to actually construct any of them (for a devastating critique of Boullée and Ledoux see Hans Sedlmayr’s Art in Crisis). Am I the only one who finds it depressing that nowhere can hideous modern architecture be escaped, not even in a remote, sparsely inhabited Central Asian wasteland?

I’ve been attempting to enjoy the party scene in Kazakhstan, but the people here are terribly vague and evasive. For example, there are no true nightclubs, but, as Kazakhstan’s megalomaniac leader N. Nazarbayev(tel (7-3172) 15-20-27) cheerfully notes:
There functions in the Republic a wide spread network of club-like establishments. They are represented by palaces and houses of culture, clubs by various industrial and agricultural enterprises along with state-owned city and district palaces palaces and houses of culture, rural houses of culture and clubs and car clubs (i.e. mobile cultural entities).
This confusion can lead to embarrassing situations. I stumbled into what I initially thought to be a Kazakh discothèque; it turned out to be a funeral. Or a rug shop. I'm not sure. Needless to say I didn’t get laid. I may also have been in one of the ‘mobile cultural entities’, or it may have been a van ride with some drunken coal miners. I'm not sure.

The Kazakhstan government also wants everyone to know "Of late quite widespread is establishing of optimum types of cultural entities in rural localities - a club-like library or library-type club".

I asked a Kazakh I knew if we could visit one of these, he recommended the library-type club if I wanted a combination of reading and nightlife, but if I wanted nightlife and reading, the best way to go was the club-like library.


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