Kenneth Krushel | Essays

A Talisman of Prosperity

Almaty, Kazakhstan. Photograph by Kenneth Krushel, 2006

The design of the Edelweiss Ansel Residences, according to their sales brochure, is informed by many architectural and technical criteria, including esthetics, attraction and expansive modern amenities. These homes include such creature comforts as 24-hour security, back-up energy, automatic garden-watering, state-of-the-art athletic club, day care center, supermarket, car wash and bar. Residences range from 260- to 820-square meters and prices begin around $150,000. Promotional materials emphasize that the designers "took maximum pleasure and comfort as their main purpose." There is an emphasis upon a "peaceful life" — constructing a community where "you can establish a pleasant neighborhood relationship" and "rediscover the novelty of friendship."

If the novelty of rediscovered friendship isn't what you're after, just a few minutes' drive from the Edelweiss sits a gated community the size of Levittown. Here, you can find a vague replica of Versailles; a Tudor mansion; a Swiss Chalet; a Russian Gothic edifice (that could easily serve as the summer retreat for the Kremlin); a modest Parthenon with its own backyard yurt; and a Norman Chateau that only lacks the vineyard. Also noteworthy is a schizophrenic dacha that embodies architectural influences as various as Mediterranean, Polynesian and, a style I can only describe as Malibu Nouveau. Nearly every dwelling is enhanced with some variation of fountain, statue, portico, pergola, and/or utility shed (typically with Greek columns). In this neighborhood, the utility sheds dwarf most suburban split-levels capes.

The Edelweiss, and its architectural brethren down the road, might be found anywhere: from a Philadelphia suburb to the outskirts of Frankfurt. Eclectic and dense — and prone to decorative excess — this new international style is everywhere.

Even, it seems, in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Almaty, Kazakhstan. Photograph by Kenneth Krushel, 2006

Almaty is a former Russian provincial outpost founded in the mid-nineteenth century on the site of a Silk Road oasis. For some two millennia the Silk Road has been defined by exploration, interaction and conquest, a web of overland routes stretching from Turkey to China, piercing the impenetrable physical barriers of Central Asia. The myriad environments and civilizations have witnessed an intermingling of goods, ideas and language, as the Silk Road became the pre-eminent route for the trade of silk, spice, jewels, gun-powder, indigo, paper, and, ultimately, human migration. One other precious product was rhubarb: in the 1500s, its price in France was ten times that of cinnamon. According to historical accounts, rhubarb was greatly valued in Europe: its alleged medicinal qualities were used to combat constipation, indigestion and dysentery.

This part of the world has a history of commerce and wealth, beginning with the Silk Road and extending through the early years of the Twentieth Century to World War II, when factories were relocated from Nazi-threatened western USSR. Thousands of Slavs and Koreans came to work in these factories, melding into the intensely heterogeneous population of Kazakhs, Chinese, Tibetans, Mongolians, Uzbeks, and a cornucopia of other Central Asian ethnicities, and the resulting admixture of gene pools. Perhaps as result of this ethnic cauldron, Almaty experienced the first large-scale unrest unleashed in Central Asia during Gorbachov's era of glasnost.

When it was part of the USSR, Kazahstan — the largest "republic" at approximately the size of Western Europe — was the location for the Soviet space program, nuclear testing and fossil fuel exploitation. With a post-Soviet government emphasis on economic development (and the presence of some of the world's most abundant fossil fuel and mineral deposits), Almaty is now in the midst of a construction boom. It is neither exotic nor architecturally inspired, but the many new hotels, offices, apartment buildings, shopping centers and private residences indulge a crazed-assortment of architectural influences. The heart of the city, Republic Square, is defined by a central boulevard the width of a ten-lane interstate; it is bordered by textbook examples of Soviet bureaucratic design — monolithic government offices that resemble inert horizontal tombstones. Most of the surrounding city is populated with disturbingly dreary apartment complexes whose concrete exteriors are limited to a narrow palette of grey.

In 1991, Almaty was the site where the "Commonwealth of Independent States" formally pronounced the death of the USSR. Fifteen years later, it's prominence is the result of international economic colonization. Chevron became the first Western oil company to massively invest in this post-Soviet territory, soon followed by Mobil. In the 1990s, the U.S. demonstrated sudden and unbridled largesse, pouring aid into the fledgling republic (particularly post-Afghanistan War) and encouraging the construction of an oil pipeline that would ultimately reach Turkey, diminishing the "preeminent" stature of the Persian Gulf shipping lanes. Given Kazahstan's geopolitical value, its abundant oil (estimated to exceed North Sea reserves), and its holding of one-fifth of the planet's known uranium deposits, the Great Game of the 19th century has been revived with a vengeance. The antagonists are not Russia and England, but Russia, China, Iran and the United States, with India somewhere on the periphery. It is no accident that Vice President Dick Cheney was in Kazakhstan in early May, or that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield reportedly visits Central Asia on a regular basis.

The sudden infusion of petro and commodity dollars in Kazahstan allowed President Nursultan Nazarbaev to acquire trifles like a Gulfstream jet, a tennis court at his residence, and trucks with satellite uplinks for his daughter's television-station operations, as well as billions of dollars transferred to Switzerland. In 2002, Nazabaev admitted that he had stashed over $1 billion dollars in private Swiss bank accounts, but only for his countrymen's safe keeping — much like Norway's safeguarding proceeds from North Sea oil in a national trust. In the last Kazakhstan election, Nazarbayev received 91% of the vote. (The head of the opposition party was assassinated earlier this spring.)

Almaty, Kazakhstan. Photograph by Kenneth Krushel, 2006

Almaty, Kazakhstan. Photograph by Kenneth Krushel, 2006

The pursuit of capitalist culture has become a fact of life in Almaty. Along the main road from the international airport to the city, every luxury-brand automobile has a thriving dealership. Downtown, several streets are lined with a runway of haute couture boutiques. Versace jeans cost $200, and Armani, Miu Miu, Bottega Veneta and Paul Smith merchandise carry the same price tags as Paris or New York.

Which brings us back to the Edelweiss. Why the name? "Edelweiss has been considered a legendary flower for its inaccessibility. Edelweiss is also recognized as a symbol of nobleness ... some cultures use it as a talisman of prosperity." When I asked a sales representative, Sabyr Issanov, who the likely buyers might be, he explained that while the market is international, they expected it to mostly appeal to Russians and businessmen in Kazahkstan.

He addded that he had recently returned from visiting relatives in the U.S. and it was clear that Edelweiss embodied the best of American design — such as he witnessed when watching "O.C." and "Desperate Housewives."

"It's like Newport Beach, don't you think?" he asked proudly.

Kenneth Krushel is the chief executive officer of Proteus, a leading provider of wireless applications. He is a former journalist.

Comments [5]

It seems so strange that there are seem to be only two possible architectural alternatives in the frantic gold rush we see today in Central Asia, China, and the Mideast: either the otherworldly, surreal skyscaper parks of Shanghai and Dubai and this picturesque-gone-mad world of Almaty.

Is it not possible to build in any kind of authentic, coherent way once vast amounts of money are involved?
G. Skuta

Why should the citizens of Almaty settle for any less than a hedge fund manager in Greenwich, Connecticut?
Michael Bierut

Why indeed, when they could have so much more?

The menu of styles is not exclusive to Almaty as anybody who has been in the Gulf states recently can attest. In Arabia, you get to choose from a more limited yet equally electic collection of styles tending towards variants of Mediterranean, anything including favorities such as Spanish, Moroccan and Italian. You have to remember that the Gulf Arabs as with the Kazakh and other Central Asian societies hyperspaced from the Middle Ages to Modernism in one generation from the end of the 19th century to after WWII. You had people living nomadic lifestyles in the desert or steppe, herding sheep and camels, and the next thing you know these people's grandchildren are leaving sedentary lives in a detached villa with two cars and a TV. Value systems were left way behind while traditional practices remained marginally applicable if not completely inappropriate.

Here in Turkey we have a unique window on the Kazakhstan situation as many Turkish architects young and old are getting work specifically in Almaty. The reaction from many of them is that what you see there (and in the Arab states) is the lack of a cultural and aesthetic ethos or value system guiding choice. In the place of a social basis of design, it's the hall of mirrors of 21st century capitalism and consumerism and it's production of simulacra....

(BTW...FYI...Norman Foster has a project out there in the shape of a pyramid...even the great man is caught up in the game..)
Gökhan Karakuş

Sure, stuff like this is easy to pick on. But what are you proposing, Mr. Krushel? Because part of the problem is that the architecture profession has been so ideological, dogmatic and spare in its offerings.

Zaha and Rem are an esoteric novelty for a very small international group. Even Dwell is primarily for the American east coast, west coast and a few urban centers in between. Most of the world, including most Americans, want traditional architecture, and the architecture establishment and the architectural academy refuse to offer that. So we have only ourselves to blame for being unable to offer good traditional architecture.

We also have ourselves to blame for making this about style. Global warming is one of our most important political issues, and that means not spreading oil-dependent American sprawl. It doesn't matter that Kazakhstan has their oil: when they burn it, it still pollutes just as much.

Rem, Zaha and Foster have little to offer here too. Rem holds sprawling Atlanta up as a model for what to do, and sells that model to China.

So it's easy to criticize Kazakhstan, but what are we offering them as an alternative? The issue is a lot more important than style.
john massengale

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