Expo 2017: Astana Unveiled

The beautified Kazakh capital is ready for global attention.

The opening of Expo 2017 in Astana, Kazakhstan, marks the post-Soviet country’s coming out on the world stage. The fair is giving “Kazakhstan a face, a name, an image,” Hans Driesser, a Dutch diplomat, told the Astana Times this year.

An area of indoor beach resorts and oil money about equidistant from Moscow and New Delhi, the Astana region was best known as the site of a Gulag for the wives of Soviet traitors until Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who’s still in office, made it the capital in 1997. There in the semidesert, a futuristic city has blossomed over the past 20 years.

The Chicago-based firm Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture developed the striking expo master plan, which includes a conference center, mall, arts space, and international pavilions. The new buildings’ style continues Astana’s young tradition of brave experimentation, the legacy of Nazarbayev’s effort to put Kazakhstan on the map. In its first decade the city saw the construction of the Norman Foster–designed Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, a 203-foot-tall steel-and-glass pyramid. It sits on a hill overlooking the Shabyt Palace of Arts, a melting dog bowl of a building that houses concert halls, a library, and facilities for the Kazakh National University of Arts.

But the infrastructure underpinning the new fairgrounds may be still more impressive: A smart energy grid connects decentralized power sources to minimize emissions and waste. “Expos have evolved to become platforms for the international community to explore new solutions for the challenges that our planet faces,” Vicente G. Loscertales, secretary general of the Bureau International des Expositions, the regulatory body overseeing the expo, wrote in 2012. Technically speaking, the event is not a world’s fair writ large but a specialized expo. Under the title Future Energy, it will showcase innovations in the energy business, focusing on three areas: reducing CO2 emissions, energy efficiency, and energy for all. So much for the Gulag. Future Energy runs June 10–September 10; expo2017astana.com.