Expo 2017 Astana and the inauguration of a vibrant mixed-use community
Planning approaches can vary as much as architectural approaches, just like any process that aims for a controlled outcome. While urban design and urban planning are blanket terms for the strategic organisation and growth projection of complex urban entities like districts, neighbourhoods, cities, and countries, designing a plan for an Expo, and for its legacy, proves to be a distinct and elaborate endeavour.
Typical planning practices usually have a set of requirements and programmatic components that are often driven by governmental bodies and private developers with long-term implementation strategies; these plans are broad and general, aiming to guide the overall direction for development. In contrast, formulating the strategy for the development of an Expo also requires more immediate solutions, as well as a deep understanding of the immediate or short-term objectives for the exhibition phase, a fast-track schedule of construction and delivery, and most importantly the “afterlife” of the Expo itself, its legacy.
To optimise the successful implementation of a plan of this kind in the long term, it is essential to promote a planning framework that is tailored to the projected needs of the community in which it will be inserted, with a close eye on near- and mid-term goals.
The “jump start” that an Expo provides to urban plans and cities allows for a committed investment in a large area in need of development or renewal. The necessity for rapid implementation and construction of such plans often hinders the optimal planning and ultimately the optimal realisation of the plans for the long term.
Understanding the goals and the complex processes that pertain to the implementation of a legacy plan of an Expo is paramount for its success in the short, mid-, and long term.
"It is essential to promote a planning framework that is tailored to the long-term needs of the community"
In the case of Specialised Expo 2017 Astana, themed “Future Energy”, the planning process began early and consisted of a vision that focused on two distinct components, the Expo Site and the Expo City.
The Expo Site was the exhibition area consisting of a wide circular public right of way with buildings containing international pavilions on each side and thematic pavilions located toward the centre, as well as other venues for special events. At the core of the plan was the Kazakhstan pavilion within the Nur Alem sphere, which was to integrate and showcase various methods of alternative energy generation in its architecture.
The Expo City was the part of the Expo that was to be destined for purposes related to functional support during the opening period, and to facilitate a smooth transition from the exhibition phase to the legacy phase of the project, setting it up for success in the long term.
Spanning a larger area, the Expo City entirely surrounded the Expo Site, and included hotels, offices, temporary housing, retail, a Congress Center, a central utility plant, parks, and parking. The vision was to furnish the new district with a wide range of land uses and programmatic components that were to become functional assets to Astana.
More than a simple exhibition facility, the Expo City was planned as a functional part of the city, making a great physical transition component from the Expo Site to the existing fabric of the city of Astana.
This supporting role of the Expo City was broadly understood and promoted as an active part of the city itself. Therefore, its planning did not focus solely on the programmatic or logistical support, it also focused on the integration of the Expo Site into the projected urban fabric, on connectivity with existing key institutions and uses, and on the promotion of urban environments and ecosystems for the Expo Legacy to thrive in the long term.
This support encompassed planning for an intricate set of components that would work synergistically in a multi-faceted manner to improve the performance and outcome of the plan in the unique urban setting of an expanding Astana. The plan and its implementation aimed to promote a process of growth and development that was the result of leveraging the influx of activity to the Expo, capturing and allowing it to be potentialised and expanded.
"More than a simple exhibition facility, the Expo City was planned as a functional part of the city"
The planning for the legacy phase went beyond the physical attributes of a city, such as land use, density, transit, public space, etc. It also focused on the more qualitative and subjective attributes of a city, such as urban habitats, urban form, identity, exposure to culture, access to education, economic development, and more.
To meet this vision and the expectation for a vibrant new district within the city, that was not a standalone element but rather an integral part of it, it was important to recommend land uses, facilities, and infrastructure that were relevant to the current and planned conditions of the city.
Both components of the Expo district - the Expo City and the Expo Site - had two phases, the exhibition phase and legacy phase. The exhibition phase pertained to the few months of the duration of the Expo and the Legacy phase to the entire post-Expo period.
A resilient approach to the planning for the legacy of Expo 2017 Astana required a multi-layered and fluid process that evolved on the go. The planning strategy itself allowed for an evolutionary approach within the planning phases to better serve the outcome. It was crucial to understand and evaluate the vision for the growth of Astana, the basic planning principles behind the overall city Master Plan, and trends for the use of the land. Within this context, a series of considerations were put forward for the development of the Expo. Formal and functional relationships with urban open space, transit, public institutions, universities, and housing, were established.
Based on this, a general framework for the programmatic arrangement of the various components surrounding the Expo Site was developed, aimed at being flexible enough to permit programmatic variation over time, including possible changes in the programming needs for the support of the Expo during construction, and the changes that may occur during the legacy. The result was a simple radial building configuration in the Expo Site and a rational urban grid in the Expo City, both with variable block sizes that were smaller than what was seen in Astana until then.
The streets featured wider rights of way to allow enough space for vehicular, pedestrian, and alternate methods of mobility yet to come. They allowed ample room for greenery and stormwater management, and ultimately provided a framework that would be modified over time in case building and population density were to increase.
A guiding principle of the project consisted of setting up a Master Plan that considered and aligned with current local markets and economic trends and advanced the interest of the private sector in and around the Expo, bringing investors and promoters to the mix with a long-term vision and therefore a long-term commitment for the success of the district. This approach also highlighted the public interest in the Expo 2017 Astana project in general, and further potentialised its economic impact at the city level.
The vision for economic development promoted the application of a varied set of uses that were to complement and potentialise each other’s success. It was therefore important to create an urban environment that would be a platform for the implementation of a programmatic mix, with a wide array of building types and activities, encouraging a diverse and vibrant community.
"It was important to create an urban environment with a wide array of building types and activities, encouraging a diverse and vibrant community"
The core of the Expo Site was planned to become a place of work in the legacy phase, with several uses pertaining to employment, complemented with valuable cultural programming like museums, a theatre, an arts centre, etc. The Expo City, in turn, was to focus on residential and commercial uses, including a mall, offices, hotels, schools, and civic facilities, all within walking distance from each other. This planning process involved understanding and balancing the relationship between several aspects of urban life including nature, economics, land use, energy, urban form, public spaces, walkability, mobility.
To better fit within the general Master Plan of the city and the planned expansion of Astana, the Expo planning embraced housing as a key component and allowed for the creation of residential neighbourhoods to be implemented at various stages of the plan.
The initial phase of the Expo City was to be constructed simultaneously with the Expo Site, while later phases were to be constructed as required per the market needs. The most valuable land next to the extension of the Astana Linear Park was to be developed first; the buildings would serve as accommodation for the different international delegations and temporary employees to support the Expo. The lands to the south of the Expo Site would remain undeveloped and serve as parking areas for visitors.
The projected demand for housing appeared to far exceed what could be constructed in time for the Expo, however, the investment of the private sector in the plan for the Expo made it possible. An ambitious set of parameters was developed to guide the development of the parcels surrounding the Expo Site. This was necessary due to the tight schedules, the need and interest of building a significant part of the city which was to ultimately be a residential neighbourhood, and the commitment from different constructions groups.
With the construction of the Expo already on its way, the planning of the Expo City and its legacy became a focused effort as it needed to serve the Expo itself, but also have the characteristics of a functional neighbourhood immediately afterwards. The planning of these areas involved local agencies, planning authorities, and the private sector. Land for parks, schools, and civic uses was incorporated into the plan and their construction was phased-in at different times before and after the Expo.
Because of the sheer size of the projects, several developers and construction companies became involved, and therefore there needed to be a tool to ensure that the plan was to be implemented in consistency with the vision set forth by the Master Plan in terms of physical form, environmental performance, architectural character, and public space character.
Establishing a set of parameters for the evolution allowed the vision of the Master Plan to be maintained and advanced in a way that was consistent with the original vision of the project. For this to be achieved, a set of guidelines were devised early in the design process. These guidelines applied to all parcels within the Expo project, including the Expo Site and the Expo City.
They pertained to the physical and performative characteristics of the blocks and building zones, with specific guidelines for each parcel of land. The National Company (the master developer) and AS+GG conducted workshops and interviews with the developers interested in contributing to the project to ensure a proper understanding and commitment to the guidelines to realise a consistent yet diverse outcome.
The guidelines comprised the topics of Public Realm, Parcel Controls, Architecture, and Sustainability, and provided guidance to the National Company and the design teams developing the architecture with valuable information for the design of the public spaces and buildings.
The guidelines included recommendations for both the exhibition phase and the legacy phase. They outlined the spatial and performative characteristics of the various components of the plan during the Expo months and how the parcels and the public realm were to be redeveloped or transformed for the legacy phase. This was especially important for the public realm within the Expo Site, as this was the area to undergo the most physical adjustments.
The Parcel Controls aimed to guide the bulk, orientation, and mass of the built environment, and to offer simple rules for accessibility and the proper functioning of the parcels and their interface with the public realm. The guidelines in this area outlined recommendations for aspects including density, height allocation, setbacks, access points, easements, parking areas, mechanical equipment locations, etc.
The architectural guidelines related to architectural character of the various building types that were to be developed during or after the Expo. This set of documents outlined requirements and recommendations and laid out rules on design features concerning materials, colour pallets, sustainability targets, lighting, and architectural articulation.
With the vision of a multi-programmatic district with much to offer to citizens, visitors, and the city, the organisation of the various buildings and programmes centred around creating a place to be, a destination.
Therefore, the design of the landscape and public space emphasised implementing proper spaces that mediated between distinct building uses while also promoting walkability and social interactions. The focus on open space yielded a variety of urban habitats unseen in Astana until the Expo. The hope with the plan was that open public spaces of different types, sizes, and typologies would allow users to find places for interaction and meaning at different scales. The Master Plan for the Expo City and Expo Site included broad extensions of land dedicated to green landscaped areas that linked to existing citywide systems. It also included smaller parks and natural buffer zones around the perimeter of the Expo City with the purpose of providing a continuous public space that would help define the Expo project, while providing access to natural public areas for the development parcels located at the perimeter.
The plan included various parks and plazas, greenways, and boulevards, as well as streets and avenues designed to provide users with a place to be, inhabit, and enjoy. Creating people-focused walkable environments meant challenging some of the widely implemented practices regarding traffic, parking, and the perceived behaviour and preferences of people up to that time in Astana.
Understanding the climate, wind patterns, and seasonal variations provided cues on how to make public spaces more usable throughout the year, with the aim of promoting a more walkable culture. Landscaping, street orientation, and building mass design all played a role in attaining these goals.
"The public realm was understood, developed, and implemented as a system that was essential for the proper functioning of the Expo City and Site"
The public realm was understood, developed, and implemented as a system that was essential for the proper functioning of the Expo City and Site, focusing not only on the physical and social attributes of the various spaces but also on environmental issues and the performance of the public realm, as related to sustainability.
In a similar fashion to the built environments, a set of detailed guidelines were developed to guide the design and performance of the public realm. These guidelines included recommendations for the right of way of streets within the Expo City, car zoning, pedestrian paths, planting zones, recommendations for planting species, bike lanes, paving materials, and paving colour recommendations.
The vision was completed with the implementation of a complete set of guidelines relating to urban furniture and the interface of the public realm with people. These guidelines included items related to the location of public art, bicycle racks, signage and way-finding, lighting, fences, shading structures, transit stations, digital displays, benches, tables and sitting elements.
The intention of the guidelines was to promote a welcoming urban habitat that would encompass the attributes that make a place unique to its context and that would perform at multiple levels.
Designing an Expo site constitutes a unique opportunity to advance the narrative of architecture and the public realm, with every Expo offering a chance to showcase a country's character, advancement, and qualities to share with the international community. It is important that the design and implementation of Expos are consistent with this message and contribute to its realisation.
In the case of Expo 2017 Astana, the design of the buildings and of the public space was based on performance, and how the built environment could contribute to this idea. The Expo was designed with this in mind, focusing on becoming an icon in many ways: a visual icon, a performative icon, a cultural icon, a formal icon.
The design process was guided by the idea of creating something unique, derived from the basic principles of the “Future Energy” theme, and the topics of energy generation, energy conservation, and promoting a sustainable environment that performs, not only in terms of energy but also environmentally, functionally, and socially. This resulted in what we see today: architecture that is visually striking and that carries a message that sparks curiosity and that has something to teach.
"An icon has the power to spark interest and curiosity"
For the user, the forms may appear to be futuristic, fluid, and perhaps thought-provoking, but it is important to note that the shapes of the buildings are guided by science and principles. The iconic nature of the Expo has contributed to its success in the years since, as it became an instant landmark in the city and in the country, a benchmark, and a point of reference in many aspects.
The programmatic approach of a mixed-use district focused on cultural activities and spaces that allow for recreation, education, and leisure activities, with the backdrop of a safe, comfortable, and iconic environment that has a striking look. Overall, this provides a platform contributing, among other things, to the cultural development of the country.
An icon has the power to spark interest and curiosity. It draws people and investment; it catalyses and channels energy that might otherwise be diluted. This implies significant responsibility, which is why creating an icon that carries a message and that can serve a community in the long term was so important.
As a Specialised Expo, Expo 2017 Astana had a size-limited area dedicated to exhibition buildings, allowing for a more controlled outcome, and therefore a more focused and clear vision for the legacy phase. This allowed the design team to propose a set of buildings dedicated to the Expo that were to remain in the legacy phase, resulting in a practical approach that both minimised the transition time and provided for more sustainable approach.
The most iconic buildings, such as the Nur Alem sphere, the Energy Hall, and the Congress Center, were to remain architecturally and programmatically virtually unchanged, securing a set of buildings and programmes that were to be consistent from the Expo to the legacy.
Other significant structures that were built to support the Expo and as assets for the city, such as the hotel, Expo offices, and the Mega Silk Way Mall, were to remain in operation from day one and into the legacy. This consistency made the transition seamless from phase to phase and provided important cultural and programmatic diversity early in the legacy phase, helping the rest of the transitioning buildings and programmes to fit in to an already functioning context.
The spatial requirements for the exhibition areas (the Expo pavilions) were different in the legacy phase, with the Expo use requiring larger open areas and higher ceilings, while the target use for the legacy phase being office and workplace spaces that required more floorspace and lower ceiling heights.
The focus of the design, other than creating spaces that were iconic, functional and adequate for Expo, was to develop a family of buildings with a framework that allowed for the quick transition and near doubling of the floor area. A logical solution for this challenge was to create a modular set of infill floors and pre-construct the receiving elements into the structure for a quick retrofit.
Similarly, the public realm was designed with the objective of a quick and seamless transition, focusing on landscaping strategies that allow retrofitting the space by increasing the number of landscaped areas, increasing plant variety, and a clear allocation of pedestrian, bike, and vehicular paths.
As the Expo Site required changes to the physical, functional, and programmatic characteristics of the space and buildings, the modifications for the legacy phase were more extensive and tangible. In the Expo City, the changes required for the legacy pertained to the change in programme and the construction of new buildings, within an urban framework that was already in place. The Expo City was therefore ready to go on day one.
Expo 2017 Astana closed on 10 September 2017, and the retrofit work began almost immediately. As the retrofit progressed and the Expo City became a focal point within the context of Astana, the iconic nature of the Expo buildings, the quality of the public realm, and the mix of programmes that remained in operation after the Expo sparked public interest in the district. The residential buildings that were built to house the support staff and international participants were quickly transitioned to market-rate housing and sold out.
The programmatic vision for the Expo Site was initially envisioned as a mixed-use district with workforce programming and a heavy mix of educational and cultural venues, with Nur Alem becoming a permanent museum. The auditorium – the Energy Hall - was to remain in place to serve this programme and the international pavilions were set to follow by accommodating spaces for education, research, art galleries, and experimental workspaces. However, there was a programmatic shift due to market conditions, with a renewed interest in the Expo City as a vibrant, and well-connected district in the new capital city.
The newly available space was occupied by a financial centre and several business groups, turning the district into a financial centre with some cultural activities. Although unplanned, this programmatic shift was accommodated seamlessly into the framework that the buildings provided. Today, the Expo Site, with the buildings that comprise it, is fully occupied and functional.
As the construction of the Expo progressed and schedules tightened, there were some building components that needed to be omitted due to time constraints. It was determined that in the interest of the cohesiveness of the Expo Site, some of the buildings containing cultural programming, specifically the Arts Center, were to be replaced with temporary structures and open spaces for itinerary functions.
This approach allowed some of the land in the immediate vicinity to remain vacant for the Expo and permitted a more flexible utilisation of the area for uses and events that were later developed as and when required. Because the Arts Center was not built as planned, it allowed for a larger space for major events and gatherings during the Expo; this space besides gave prominence to the centrepiece of the Expo, Nur Alem.
The Arts Center, however, was a key component for the cultural focus that was desired for the legacy phase, as it was located on the same axis as Nur Alem and the Congress Center and was directly connected with and accessible to the residential neighbourhoods to the north and west of the site. The idea was to build it later, as a legacy component after the Expo, but to date, this has not happened. Instead, the land remains unoccupied and has been adapted to form an extension of the Astana Linear Park, which connects to a larger area surrounding the Baiterek monument in the city centre.
This area still serves as a grand space for spectacles, large gatherings, and important events. The Expo Square, for instance, was chosen as the location for the Holy Mass presided over by Pope Francis in September 2022, nearly five years after it hosted the Expo’s closing ceremony. Such an event, among many others, attests to the success of the Expo and its legacy.
Currently, the Expo district continues to thrive as a fully mixed-use district that continues to attract more investments, users, and residents to the area. In the south district where the Expo parking lots were located, the successful residential neighbourhoods are continuing to grow and expand at higher densities than originally planned. Some of the new developments include mixed use projects, such as the Diamond Center, Nexpo Union and Nexpo City.
The Mega Silk Way Mall, a large-scale shopping centre that draws a significant amount of people to the district year-round, serves as a connector between the centre of the Expo City and the Nazarbayev University campus.
"The Expo was a celebration of the birth of a new part of the city"
A venue for events and conferences, the Congress Center is now fully programmed all year round, contributing to the vibrancy of the district. The adjacent Hilton Hotel continues its successful activities, with its strategic location next to the Congress Center.
On the former Expo site, a number of important institutions have established themselves in the former international pavilions, including the Astana International Financial Centre (AIFC), government agency offices, higher education institutions such as the Astana IT university and the Nur-Sultan Education Hub. The former site is also host to cultural programming such as the Nur-Sultan Art Hub, the Energy Hall – which continues to function as a performance venue-, and the Museum of the Future within Nur Alem.
Because of the current and continued success and vitality of the Expo district, as well as the continuous public, governmental, and private sector interest in this area, there is a strong focus on the land that remains vacant. Although not originally planned this way, there are conversations on how to further enhance the district by leveraging the newfound value of the vacant land. The energy of the programming and the projected number of visitors to the district in the coming years is calling for a more intensive development of the land than was previously anticipated.
There is a desire to further expand the capacity of the Expo district to “complete it” and to increase the diversity of its programming by bringing complementary programmes into the mix that could include research facilities, commercial space, botanical gardens or interactive experiences. This is all possible because of a flexible framework and a solid foundation for the healthy integration of the new district into the city, and the strong synergy that occurs in between the different programmes.
With the past and ongoing evolution of the Expo district, we are witnessing in real time the importance of smart planning that is rooted on the needs of a community and on principles of sustainability and circular economies. More than five years after the closing of Expo 2017 Astana, it is clear that the Expo itself was a celebration of the birth of a new part of the city, and we hope that the funding framework that contributed to this success can continue to serve as a platform for further evolution.
Luis F. Palacio AIA is Design Director at AS+GG Architecture and was part of the senior design team responsible for the planning and development of Expo 2017 Astana.