Text © Hugh Pearman. Cutaway graphic © Julian Osbaldstone/Sunday Times graphics. Cross-section and site model © Foster and Partners. Boullée drawing courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
A much expanded version of the news story first published exclusively in The Sunday Times, London, February 20 2005.
Lord Foster, 69, has designed some audacious buildings in his time, from the much-loved "Gherkin" tower in London to Beijing's new airport - right now the world's biggest construction site. He has designed - but never built - the world's tallest towers. He even survived London's "wobbly bridge" embarrassment. But nothing he has done to date compares with this latest job. Because nobody asks for buildings like this. Unless you happen to be President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan.
With a massive oil, gas and mineral industry behind him, investors falling over themselves to catch his eye, and not much by way of political opposition, Nazarbayev can build whatever he wants in his showpiece new capital of Astana, being built according to a monumentally axial 1998 Kisho Kurokawa masterplan. And what Nazarbayev wants is religious and ethnic reconciliation.
He also wants an opera house to rival Glyndebourne or Covent Garden, a national museum of culture, a new "university of civilisation", and a centre for Kazakhstan's ethnic and geographical groups. All these will be slotted into Foster's pyramid, which is 203 feet tall and 203 feet square at the base (62m by 62m). It is raised higher by being set on a broad podium (315 feet square or 96 by 96 metres) roughly 50 feet high surrounded by an earth berm. This podium contains the opera house.
So this is not just a talking-shop for clerics. Although with a population split 50:50 between Russian Orthodox and Muslim, and with extremism on the rise all round, you can see why it's on the president's mind. He hosted the first such congress of religious leaders in September 2003, and wants to make it a triennial event.
Made of a diamond-pattern latticework of tubular steel clad in pale silver-grey stone, the pyramid will climax in a great coloured apex of abstract modern stained glass, to be designed by British artist Brian Clarke - a long-time friend and collaborator of Foster's. Bathed in the golden and pale blue glow of the glass (colours taken from the Kazakhstan flag), 200 delegates from the world's main religions will meet every three years in a circular chamber - based on the United Nations Security Council in New York. The chamber is perched high beneath the point of the pyramid on four huge struts intended, says Foster, to "symbolise the hands of peace". A research centre into the world's religions, complete with a large library, occupies the floor below.
For the general public, things are no less spectacular. The pyramid is raised on a low artificial hill - making it even taller - inside which is the 1500-seat opera house. The auditorium has a circular glass oculus ceiling set into the floor of the pyramid's gargantuan central atrium. From the floor of the sunken opera house to the peak of the pyramid is nearly 250 feet. Lifts rising up the inwardly-leaning walls - rather like the legs of the Eiffel Tower - carry you up to a middle level.
At this point more drama begins as you enter what Foster's colleagues calls "the hanging gardens of Astana". The atrium walls suddenly flare outwards, vegetation cascades round on all sides from planters set into the walls. To get up to the unearthly light pouring down from the top of the pyramid, you must walk up zig-zag ramps through these airborne gardens as if ascending to heaven. Blimey.
Even Foster - not a demonstrative man - can hardly believe he has this job. "A few months ago, this didn't exist," he says as we stand in his Battersea studio in front of a six-foot tall working model of the pyramid. "It's the fastest thing that we've ever done. They've ordered the steel and it starts to be built next month. The scale of what is happening in Astana is incredible."
So rapid has it been that Foster has yet to meet the 64-year old President Nazarbayev, a former steel worker who has led the country since independence in 1991. When the job first arrived, says Foster, he was away in France, frantically faxing design ideas back to the office. Foster's fellow-directors Nigel Dancey and David Nelson have however presented the designs in Nazarbeyev's brand-new presidential palace, which the pyramid will face across the River Ishim on a new three-mile-long boulevard.
The president works surrounded by models of the new Astana, his personal Brasilia or Canberra. He is pouring billions of dollars into it - despite the reported reluctance of his ministers, and international airlines, to make the move there from the old capital of Almaty near the Chinese border. "At the moment it's fairly bleak and very new," says Dancey. "It's growing so quickly that it hasn't really found its own identity yet. I've never seen anything like it."
The climate is a problem. Temperatures in Astana range from minus 40 Celsius in winter to plus 40 Celsius in the heat of summer. It's not just a matter of insulating the building - it's coping with the yearly expansion and contraction of the huge steel and stone structure. It is being made in prefabricated sections during the winter, to be assembled in summer. Self-supporting as it rises, it will need no temporary props. Its cost is guarded as a state secret. Were it built in the UK, it would run into hundreds of millions of pounds.
The project is being managed by a Turkish construction company, Sembol Construction, with a Turkish associate architect, Tabanlioglu Architecture and Consulting. Both are in Istanbul, so most design meetings take place there. Structural engineers are Buro Happold of London and Arce of Istanbul.
Foster chose the pyramid shape because it is has no negative religious connotations. He has designed several concert halls, art galleries and museums, but says this has a greater importance. "It is primarily a cultural centre - but because it will host a peace congress of 18 religions, it becomes something else. It is about religion, peace and co-existence," he says. "It is dedicated to the renunciation of violence and the promotion of faith and human equality."
The pyramid - and the rendering of Foster's cross-section shown here - deliberately echoes some of the grand Utopian projects of 18th century French architects Etienne-Louis Boullée and Claude-Nicholas Ledoux shortly before the French Revolution. Boullée's pyramidal cenotaphs are the clear inspiration here. Some of these were square, several were cones, with circular plans. Foster's, with its square plan and circular internal elements, thus combines two of Boullée's geometric preoccupations.
Such visionary schemes of the Enlightenment were of course never built. Which might explain why President Nazarbayev is in such a tearing hurry. With his total grip on power he is not expected to lose the next election, due the year the "Palace of Peace" is finished - 2006. Whatever the outcome, he will have his monument. So will Foster. And so, extraordinarily, will Boullée.Foster website: www.fosterandpartners.com