Assel Yeszhanova, founder and creative force behind the Urban Forum almaty (now Urban Forum Kazakhstan), discusses the urban agenda as well as the comprehensive approach and role of the Soros Foundation-Kazakhstan.
In 2015, a decision was taken to demolish the building of the State Planning Committee of the Kazakh SSR, located at the intersection of Mira and Kirov Streets in Almaty (now the intersection of Zheltoksan and Bogenbay Batyr). City activists attempted to protect the historic city center from modern development: they signed an online petition, organized flash mobs, held a rally and a sit-in, but… we all know what happened next.
The old building in the historic city center, where there is now a new shopping and office complex, is not the only case when an urban-planning decision hit a raw nerve that led to indignation among Almaty residents. That event actually became a turning point: to a large extent citizens’ minds were freed, people became bolder, more informed, and began to care about the appearance and life of the city.
At that time we came up with the idea of bringing together all those concerned and giving them an opportunity to speak their minds. We decided a dialogue was necessary: an opportunity to meet at an official forum with professional moderation where everyone would have a chance to express their point of view, thereby allowing residents and experts to make a difference in the city. Failing this, irritation would only grow and the situation would escalate.
Truth be told, our desire to create a culture in which government, business, and society could openly speak their minds did not immediately find a receptive audience. The Soros Foundation-Kazakhstan was the first to offer to look into the situation comprehensively. At that time we did not immediately understand what this meant. Now it is funny to recall how I came in and said: “Hello. My name is Assel Yeszhanova. We need to talk about architecture. We would like to organize an architecture conference.”
Thanks to the Foundation’s support, we have systematically moved toward our goal. We gradually grew from a “lowly” initiative into a public foundation. Only three years later, we were known as the Urban Forum Kazakhstan. From Almaty the movement has expanded to other Kazakhstani cities: Nur-Sultan, Atyrau, Shymkent, and Oskemen.
It was only after having looked into the issue thoroughly that we realized that although architecture is part of the urban fabric, it is not the only reason our cities are not as comfortable as they could be. Now we are concerned not only about our historical heritage, but also about transportation, ecology, infrastructure, and urban development. What is next? Together with the Foundation, we are holding a competition for social projects. In the years from 2015 to2018 urban projects from Almaty participated, including those focused on the development of non-central districts. Last year, all Kazakhstani cities with the exception of Almaty took part in the competition. One of the competition’s winners was a very interesting collaborative project on designing a school that is based on one in the city of Issyk. A group of architects is trying to rethink the school-design process: students, teachers, and other users of the space are voicing their expectations and needs during the concept-creation stage.
Another of the competition’s finalists was a wonderful project in Nur-Sultan. It was submitted by the architect Temirtas Iskakov. The Fading.TSE project explores the issue of “memory of place.” It addresses the history of the city using photographs and recollections of its residents to show how the capital’s appearance has changed and to emphasize the value of architecturally significant buildings. The city has been renamed several times, but has its heritage been preserved? The Foundation has played a crucial role in our country’s urban agenda, having placed its faith in the initiative of a group of architects who have grown from enthusiasts into a sustainable institution.