Astana's Khan Shatyr
Credit: Getty Images

Astana's Khan Shatyr

Astana looks like a city planned by a sixth grader with a bottomless collection of Lego starter kits. A replica Dutch windmill spins next to a replica Bukharan mosque rising like a pepper shaker in the shadow of one of the twisting skyscrapers Kazakhstan's government has constructed out of chrome and oil money. Local journalists have spent a good part of the last decade writing architectural criticism bemoaning the city's ostentatious development, but a strange thing is now happening. Thanks to a fever dream of a tower designed by Sir Norman Foster, the skyline is starting to cohere into a vision of Central Asia's future.

The Khan Shatyr is an odd rebuttal to the pyramidal Palace of Peace and Reconciliation and the cone-and-ball Bayterek Monument, two structures so plainly symbolic of Kazakh pride that they seem more like corporate icons and less like buildings. The 500-foot-tall, gray-purple, tilted elliptical tent is hardly subtle itself, but looks as completely at home on the steppe as the traditional yurts that inspired its form. Opened on the 70th birthday of autocratic President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the steel and glass masterpiece houses a luxury shopping center, a mini golf course, and an indoor beach. Astonishingly, the indoor coastline is more romantic than kitsch. The view calls to mind both dystopic films and postcards from the Bahamas or Belize.

At its most blunt and obvious, the Khan Shatyr is an echo back to the nomadic past of the Kazakhstani people, but the building is also profoundly futuristic. The sculpted carapace is covered in environmentally friendly and temperature-regulating ETFE-cushions, which massively reduce heating costs and allow natural light to envelope the building. That act of alchemy, picking up elements of the past and warping them into the future, is the story of Astana and of Kazakhstan itself.

In the 1960s, Soviet commanders forcefully reconfigured the 19th-century Russian Cossack outpost of Akmolinsk into Tselinograd, the headquarters of an agro-industrial project designed to turn the steppe into a giant wheat farm. The then U.S.S.R. crumbled and Tselinograd became known as Aqmola, meaning "White Tomb," a nod to its abandoned factories and blockhouses. Then, in 1998, Nazarbayev announced that the ailing city would be renamed "Astana," meaning capital, and serve as the seat of government. The news came as a bit of a surprise to everyone familiar with the ailing backwater.

That the city is not – in the manner of other planned metropolises – a skull-bashingly simplistic, underpopulated cultural wasteland is a tribute to a singular idealism of Central Asia, where cities are designed to break molds. Astana walks the tightrope between being playfully eclectic and being overstuffed in the manner of the Vegas strip. That why the Khan Shatyr is so important. It is not just a place for oil barons on holiday. It attracts locals and facilitates the mixing of people from all walks of life. The tower engages the local population in the imaginative process of believing in its capital while simultaneously building it from scratch.

Astana's other draws are almost all architectural and lesser-than. Still, there is something sublime about strolling through a city that exists more as an idea than as a space. A palpable sense of possibility hovers over the empty spots in the skyline and the towers that corkscrew heavenward are audacious. It makes sense that the centerpiece of this metallic garden is slightly askew.

More information: Flights from Vienna, Moscow, Beijing, Delhi, Seoul, Istanbul, London, and Amsterdam arrive daily at Astana International Airport.