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Kazakhstan has been inhabited since the Stone Age, but these days the skyline of its capital city, Astana, is considerably more Space Age.
Bjarke Ingels’ BIG Architects is the latest marquee name to have the chance to leave its mark on the city. One of five architectural firms invited to compete in a design competition, the agency beat Lord Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid, among 16 others, to earn the right to create the country’s first national library. The 300,000-square-foot futuristic circular building is expected to be wrapped up by the end of 2012 and will be named for president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who is credited with attracting big-name architects to dress up the country’s buildings. He also commissioned the library, which will house his administration’s archives, among other things. But residents and visitors will no doubt be drawn in by the unusual, circular, latticelike structure.
Inspired in part by the yurts the country’s nomadic farmers set up and disassemble in the plains when herding goats, the National Library will look as though it is interwoven. The building’s circular interior will spiral in similar fashion to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York. More than modernism, this continuous loop is meant to replicate the vastness of the Dewey Decimal System, the library classification system developed by Melvil Dewey in 1876, by allowing library goers to follow on a pathway browsing stacks without climbing stairs or facing other interruptions, according to BIG’s director of international development, Kai-Uwe Bergmann. The building will be two interlocking structures — a circle and a spiral inspired by the Möbius strip, a surface with one side and one boundary that derives from the mathematical equation discovered by Germans August Ferdinand Möbius and Johann Benedict Listing in 1858.
Having only become an independent country in December 1991 — and the last Soviet republic to do so — Kazakhstan has largely advanced its economy especially through the hydrocarbon industry. Luxury brands have been rushing into the market over the last few years to tap into its growing wealth. In recent years, some political leaders have recognized how having monumental libraries can attract visitors and attention to their respective countries. New brand name architecture is seen as a sign of international prestige.
Bergmann said, “What once was mausoleums in Lenin’s time then became monuments with [former French] President [François] Mitterrand. Now after almost 15 years, the attention has turned to libraries.”
Noting that Foster and Robert Stern have designed buildings and subsequently shaken up Kazakhstan’s pastoral image, Bergmann said, “Astana is filled with iconic buildings that were built from nothing in the past 15 years or so. Young countries need to inspire confidence.”
The architectural movement underfoot in Kazakhstan isn’t all that different from how Washington came to be. “When you look at what [Pierre Charles] L’Enfant did in Washington, D.C., back in the day, that was pretty audacious,” Bergmann. “He built the White House, the Senate and the Capitol, which is like a Roman temple. He was also responsible for the mall and to think no one actually lives in the center of the city. It’s only offices, ministries and museums.”