Imagine living and working in a futuristic metropolis, capable of producing as much energy as it uses. This so-called ‘Net Zero’ dream is poised to become a reality, as the Expo 2017 Astana complex approaches its next phase.
The end of Kazakhstan’s world fair is just the beginning for Expo City — which debuts once the event site is transformed and adapted for its new and permanent use.
Chicago’s Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture had this stunning, sleek and sustainable urban hub in mind from the start — when they set out to beat over 100 of their international peers in a competition for the coveted Astana bid.
“Many times, an expo is designed and they try to figure out how to use it — afterwards,” says Gordon Gill, founding partner of the award-winning firm. “We said, let’s think of the end use [first].”
Looking ahead, they structured the eight meter-high spaces, which would house international exhibition pavilions, and set up a related mechanical system to ultimately accommodate offices — with flooring easily slotted in at four meters. The Nur Alem globe, the nucleus of the three-month event, would become a permanent science center.
“As a mixed use community we looked at it holistically,” explains Smith + Gill partner Robert Forest. The resulting ‘first Third Industrial Revolution’ city within a city boasts photovoltaic (PV) and wind-charged buildings which function as giant generators — pumping renewable power through a smart grid.
Designing the innovative complex wasn’t however without challenges — the local climate, chief among them. “Astana was unique because of the extreme temperatures,” says Forest, citing sub-freezing -40°C winter conditions. So they had to look beyond the summer Expo event months and equip buildings with rugged concrete and durable steel — capable of weathering many winters’ worth of snow piles.
Much thought went into how the structures should be oriented in order to maximize heat gain. And a specialized wind tunnel team worked with the architects to develop an on-demand transit system that would reduce outdoor wait times for public transport, in the cold.
“We look at the winds, at the solar, we look at anything in that environment that can help us bring down the need for energy,” says Gill, outlining their basic design process. But to go further, and target Net Zero (energy consumption equal to production), they then integrate geothermal, solar and wind tech. “We designed these buildings and this entire city to be highly efficient.”
Such carbon footprint reduction clearly has positive energy cost implications. Likewise, the concept of repurposing the exhibition locale for long-term use, increases the return on Kazakhstan’s investment in the expo design. But beyond the bottom line, it was important for Expo City to be an attractive addition to the capital’s landscape, and to “respond to environmental issues in a beautiful way,” notes Gill.
The community will be home to a hotel, as well as the parkland and some 700 residential units — which Astana locals will undoubtedly soon be snapping up. Junior members of the expo company staff were so excited about the plans that they told the architects they couldn’t wait to buy apartments and move into the visionary development. “That was a good sign,” says Gill, “You really want people to be excited about living in a place and having a great life.”
While the grounds will always be a monument to Expo 2017, the state-of-the-art area has all the makings of an enduring world-class financial base. It is ideally positioned between Downtown and Astana International Airport, and is adjacent to Nazarbayev University.
Expo City is set to accommodate domestic banks as well. And, in 2018, it will welcome the new Astana International Financial Centre — a business belt for the Middle East, Eurasian Economic Union, Caucasus, Central Asia, Europe, Western China and Mongolia.
A beacon of future finance and energy, Expo City is primed for landmark status, joining the likes other worldwide architectural destinations — among them so-called ‘supertalls’ like Shanghai Tower in China and Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. The latter, extends 2,716.5 feet into the sky and was also designed by Smith + Gill, who have a pedigree in the creation of such mega-skyscrapers.
Yet Forest believes Expo City and its emblematic globe will scale equally great heights. He concludes: “When you see the sphere in Astana from across the city, it has the power and a design vision that taller buildings have.”
Not to be outdone, the Kazakhstan Pavilion at Expo City is now the largest spherical building in the world. The truly round structure has been raised up off the ground and supported by a central elevator core, enabling visitors to walk beneath it and experience its underbelly. It is made of double-curved glass, a behemoth ‘version’ of the rounded material commonly seen on car windshields. Insulated and fritted (specially ceramic-patterned to provide shading), the orb is decked out with solar panels and topped with wind turbines.
“There’s something very compelling, very striking about pure geometry in a city of towers,” says Gill, referring to the authentic globe’s connection to some of the surrounding landscape of Kazakhstan’s capital, “It’s quite compelling to put that exclamation or that little dot on the city.”