There are plenty of parks and trees. Called Astana, it is the world's latest example of a rare but persistent type, the capital from zero. It is in a line that includes St Petersburg, Washington DC, Canberra, Ankara and Brasilia and like them it provokes a question: can a city, in all its teeming complexity, really be planned? Or does the attempt lead only to a synthetic simulacrum, a kind-of city that is not quite the real thing?
To look at, Astana is so strange that it has one grasping for images. It's a space station, marooned in an ungraspable expanse of level steppe, its name (to English speakers) having the invented sound of a science fiction writer's creation. It's a city of fable or dream, as recounted by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan. Except it's not quite so magical: it's also like a battery-operated plastic toy, all whirring noises and flashing colours, of a kind sold by the city's street vendors.
-- “Astana, Kazakhstan: the space station in the steppes”
PLUS: The lady in her dotage: “Margaret Thatcher has written a foreword to [Kazakhstan president Nursultan] Nazarbayev's book 'The Kazakhstan Way,' praising him for throwing off 'the Soviet yolk [sic].'” A true Borat line, that.
Also, from another British-authored tome, Nazarbayev and the Making of Kazakhstan, by the UK former minister Jonathan Aitken (what is it with British politicians and the Kazakh strongman? My guess: oil.]--“Among its gems is a description of the romance between the president and his future wife, which flourished after an accident at a steel works: 'While the flames of the blast furnace were damped down, the fires of love ignited.'”
Tacky think, tacky do. And that's how you get plastic and metal trees that glow at night in hot pink [below], while Louis Armstrong songs are piped from bushes. Wait, who am I to smirk? Manila's ugly, overpriced street lamps, hello. At least these artificial... thingies look sorta kinda pretty.
[Photo 1/Antoine Lambroschini--AFP/Getty Images; Photo 2/Rowan Moore. Both from The Observer.]