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2021  N5-6(194-195)
At the initiative of President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, the year 2021 was declared the Year of Architecture and Urban Planning in the CIS. This is a good opportunity not only for experts but also for the wider community to talk about history, modernity and future of architecture in the post-Soviet space, as well as patterns guiding the urban planning strategy and tactics in each individual country.
For example, let’s look at the capital cities of three neighboring countries – Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan (in these cities urban renewal tendencies are most pronounced). These countries came into existence as independent nation-states only 30 years ago, so it is quite natural that all these years they have been striving to find their own individuality, and they have already undergone considerable transformations along this path.
They have a lot in common, including language and folklore, mythology and religion, folk art and national traditions. Architectural monuments, especially memorial ones, represent perhaps the most striking evidence of the cultural closeness of the Turkmens, Azerbaijanis and Kazakhs. The surviving medieval mausoleums throughout the entire area from the Kazakh steppes to the foothill valleys in the west of the Caspian Sea are so similar in their forms and decorations that it may be concluded that there were the same sources of influence, borrowing and, obviously, artistic relations. Finally, they share the recent past of living within the boundaries of one state - the Soviet Union.
Those who happen to visit Ashgabat, Baku and Nur-Sultan will hardly confuse these cities. The point is not only in the specifics of buildings but also in the natural environment. Ashgabat is located at the foot of the Kopetdag ridge, which is visible from everywhere. Baku sits on the sea coast, while Nur-Sultan rises in the middle of the steppe plain, divided into two parts by the Ishim River. However, with all their differences, the historical destinies of these cities have many similarities, because the phases of development of urban planning, problems and prospects of urbanism are common throughout the world. This is very clear now, in the era of globalization.
Ashgabat is the youngest compared to Baku and Nur-Sultan. It turned 140 this year. At the same time, there is convincing archaeological and written evidence that more than two thousand years ago this place was not only inhabited but was also the cradle of the powerful Parthian state. Nowadays, there are the Parthian fortresses of Nisa within the boundaries of Ashgabat, which have been included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. It was a family nest and a sacred city of the Arshakid dynasty - the founders of one of the largest empires of the ancient world. In the current territory of the capital of Turkmenistan and around it, there are other historical monuments from different eras. Yet, they are not connected with the modern city by an uninterrupted chain of times. For too long, sometimes for centuries, there reigned complete desolation for various reasons.
Over 140 years, Ashgabat has radically changed more than once. After the 1948 earthquake, which led to numerous casualties and destruction, the city was built anew. 43 years after the tragedy, having become the capital of the newly independent state, it turned into a major political, industrial and cultural center.
Soon enough, the city acquired all the main metropolitan attributes: government complexes, congress palaces, foreign diplomatic missions and representations of international organizations, an Olympic town and large stadiums, large hotels, theaters, museums, universities, memorial ensembles and monuments related to national history, symbols of independence and neutrality. High-rise buildings of banks and offices of industrialists and entrepreneurs, business centers and hypermarkets have been built. Old streets have been modernized and high-speed highways with multi-level interchanges have appeared, and all underground communications have undergone major reconstruction.
A 211-meter high TV tower shaped like the eight-pointed star of Oguzkhan has been built in the southern outskirts of Ashgabat, adjacent to the mountains, at the top of one of the Kopetdag ridges. It is now Turkmenistan’s tallest architectural structure.
On May 25, 2021, the day of the celebration of the 140th anniversary of the capital, a solemn ceremony of laying the foundation for the grandiose project “Ashgabat City” took place on its northern outskirts. Turkmenistan’s first 35-storey skyscrapers will be built in this area, using the most advanced technologies in the field of earthquake-resistant construction. The mega-project, initiated by the President of the country, features about two hundred residential buildings. It will have all relevant social infrastructure – kindergartens, schools, medical and cultural institutions, shopping, sports and leisure centers and so on.
Referring to the implementation of his construction program, the Turkmen leader repeatedly noted the importance of the greater use of advanced international practices, as well as the scientific approach to development of architectural projects, ensuring their investment competitiveness.
The history of Baku is different. Of the three cities mentioned above, Baku is not only the largest in terms of population but also the most ancient one. At least one and a half thousand years of continuous development left an indelible mark in the form of numerous archaeological and architectural monuments in its territory. The city started to grow rapidly beginning 1872, following the oil and then construction boom. In the twentieth century, Baku was initially enriched by a number of fashionable palaces and villas built by local millionaires, as well as foreign oil industry businessmen. Later, under the Soviet rule, it got no less monumental public buildings, many of which are now architectural monuments. The era of independence was marked by an unprecedented scale of construction work in Baku.
Facilities such as the Heydar Aliyev International Cultural Center designed by the world famous architecture star Zaha Hadid, the Baku Crystal Hall multifunctional sports and concert complex, two thirty-storey hotels on Azadlig Square, the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum, “Eternal Flame” complex on the Alley of Martyrs are widely known beyond Azerbaijan. Three skyscrapers called Flame Towers that resemble three flames from afar are the main city dominant. One of them is a hotel, another one accommodates elite apartments and the third one is designed for offices. The highest of them reaches 182 meters. At night, all three towers are lit in the colors of the national flag of the country.
Having become the capitals of the newly independent states in 1991, Ashgabat and Baku developed approximately along the same trajectories, associated with their status. A little later, the construction of the new capital of Kazakhstan followed the same trajectory. This city has changed its name three times over the past 30 years (Tselinograd – Akmola – Astana – Nur-Sultan). It was founded 190 years ago, although, like in Ashgabat, archaeologists have found many traces of very ancient settlements in its territory.
Until 1997, it remained a small provincial town with regular buildings, far from the architectural gems of Ashgabat and Baku. However, the very next year after moving the capital from Almaty, an international closed tender was held for development of the master plan of the new city. The project was awarded to famous Japanese architect Kisho Kurakawa with great experience in urban and regional planning in his home country, as well as in China and Malaysia. For the Astana project, he proposed to abandon “static” planning and build a city capable of expanding with indefinite forms. In his opinion, the ideal city of the 21st century should be a flexible structure that will never stop growing.
Ashgabat and Nur-Sultan share the commitment to digital symbolism in landmark buildings that reflect their recent history. For example, the height of the Monument of Independence of Turkmenistan, 118 meters, is the sum of two numbers (27 + 91) indicating the day and year when the new independent state appeared on the world map. And in Nur-Sultan, the height of the 97-meter observation tower “Baiterek” (Poplar) crowned with an openwork ball is also not accidental. It symbolizes the year when this city took over as the capital city. The chief mosques of Ashgabat and Nur-Sultan are also similar. They both have a space-planning scheme close to the Ottoman tradition with a central dome and four minarets, and their dimensions are almost the same. The main theater buildings of these two cities are also alike, reminiscent of the buildings of European neoclassicism.
At the same time, all three capital cities have their own spiritually close futuristic facilities that are not like anything else, embodying a marvelous piece of engineering and, of course, not devoid of symbolic meaning. These are the Ashgabat Bagt Koshgi Palace and the Ashgabat shopping and entertainment center under construction, the Sokar Tower skyscraper with the height of 209 meters in Baku, and the Khan Shatyr shopping center in Nur-Sultan.
These examples are enough to draw a conclusion that the three capital cities clearly and expressively demonstrate the dynamics of economic development of their countries, the level of culture and spiritual life of societies, their intellectual potential and international authority. Almost 30 years have passed since the slogan of sustainable development was coined at the World Climate Conference in Rio de Janeiro. And nowadays, the political leaders of Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan demonstrate their adherence to this ideology by applying it to their capital cities.
Sustainable development supported by smart technologies, environmental safety and well-being of city dwellers is the common goal that brings Ashgabat, Baku and Nur-Sultan together. Sustainable development also implies the transfer of responsibility from the state to civilian structures. And if earlier the majority of construction projects in all three cities were financed from the state budget, now private entrepreneurs and investment are becoming more and more in demand. In fact, the procedure for the privatization of state-owned facilities and enterprises has been greatly simplified recently in Turkmenistan. This process has a strategic character as it aims at accelerating socio-economic reforms and, as a result, improving the quality of the environment in which we all live.


©Turkmenistan Analytic magazine, 2005