Modernist Almaty

An architectural guide to 12 Soviet buildings in the southern capital of Kazakhstan.

Elements of the facade of the “Kazakhstan” hotel

Almaty became the capital of the Kazakh SSR in 1927, and massive construction began in the city at that moment. Two years later, the famous Russian architects Moisei Ginzburg and Ignatiy Milinis built the government house, which has been rebuilt multiple times, in the constructivism style. Today, the Zhurgenov Kazakh National Academy of Arts resides there. Then, the age of the Stalinist empire arrived, so all the buildings in the city center were constructed according to the criteria of that style: the Academy of Sciences, built by the architect Schusev, was one of the most fascinating constructions of that time; however, Schusev himself didn’t live to see the result of his work. Quite a few young architects came to Almaty in the 1950s-1960s, and it was a true architectural boom.

There were almost no movements for the protection of architectural heritage in Almaty until very recently. This allowed city officials to conduct an unsuccessful reconstruction of the Palace of the Republic in 2011 with almost no resistance coming from the public. However, four years later, a small group of city activists opposed the idea of demolishing the building at 115 Zheltoksan Street, which was constructed in the ‘50s in Almaty’s historical center. Today, a high-rise is being built in its place. Unfortunately, not a single case of activists actually managing to protect a building has been registered in Almaty to this day. Many of the constructions presented here may be lost at any moment, even though some of them have the status of architectural monuments. Strelka Magazine collected the most curious buildings in the city that were built in the 1960s-1980s.

THE ALMATY HOTEL

Address: Kabanbai Batyr street, 85
Architects: Nikolay Ripinskiy, Ivan Kartasi
Year of construction: 1967

Nikolay Ripinskiy was the founder of the Soviet Kazakh school of architecture. He worked in Russia a lot, especially in Moscow. For example, he was a member of a group that designed a residential building on Manezhnaya Square. The architect was repressed in 1949. Sent to Kazakhstan, he first worked in Ust-Kamenogorsk and then moved to Almaty in 1954, where he eventually headed Kazstroiproekt, now known as Kazgor. Ripinskiy led the complex construction of Lenin Avenue. He was also a member of the group that was working on the Palace of the Republic. He also was the author of the Almaty Hotel, a local architectural monument.

The eight-storey building is situated on two streets: Kabanbai Batyr Street and Panfilova Street. Rows of balconies made of light-blue glass highlight its unusual shape. The glass was replaced with blue alucobond at the beginning of the 2000s, and it still remains. The facade is decorated with a mosaic created by the artist Kenbaev and the monumentalist Tsivchinskiy and laid by Leningrad masters. Later, the work of another monumentalist, Vladimir Tverdokhlebov, appeared there. The team of architects received an award from the Council of Ministers of the USSR for the Almaty Hotel in 1967. In the 1960s this was the only hotel in the city that had all the conveniences, including hot water and heating. Incidentally, Rakhimzhan Qoshqarbaev, who was the first person to plant the Soviet flag by the main entrance of Reichstag building, later became the first head of the Almaty.

In 2006 the Astana Group bought the building in order to demolish it later, but the financial crisis prevented them from doing so. In 2016 Nurlan Smagulov, the head of the company, announced that, with time, he had come to understand the value of the construction, and promised to renovate it with the help of an international company, Chapman Taylor.

THE ARMAN CINEMA

Address: Dostyk Avenue, 104
Architects: Alexander Korzhempo, Innokentiy Slonov
Year of construction: 1968

The architect Alexander Korzhempo went to work in Bishkek after graduating from MArchI, and later moved to Almaty, which also desperately needed young professionals. The two-hall Arman Cinema was his first realized project in Kazakhstan, and was ordered by the Cinema Administration of the city. The architect recalled that in 1968, bulldozers, which were supposed to demolish the building in case it was not accepted, stood not far from the cinema when the design was being handed in. However, the administration liked the cinema.

A Kazakh historian of architecture, Almas Ordabaev, recalled how the architect’s colleagues were shocked by Korzhempo’s building at the time, and only years later realized that he was basically the first Almaty modernist. Alexander Korzhempo himself doesn’t like this division into different architectural styles. He thinks that there’s, “just the architecture and its author, who expresses himself and solves the problems that are presented to him”. In designing the Arman Cinema, Korzhempo wanted to achieve a unique atmosphere: entering the building, the viewer was supposed to enter a separate world and detach him or herself from the daily hustle and bustle.

The facade of the Arman Cinema faces a square, and the cinema became a part of that square ensemble. There are no windows in the snow-white, rectangular cinema, which is framed by metal bars. According to the architect’s concept, the building was supposed to look like a layer of snow. Inside the Arman there used to be a patio with flowers, a fountain, and a statue of a girl, which was later given to Ulyanovsk. As a result of reconstruction, all of this disappeared in the 2000s. A new entrance ensemble was built then, and the metal bar disappeared from the roof. On the side facades, there are still the old bas-reliefs, as well as the phrase: “The path of our people is great, and its feat is great as well. It will be an eternal example for future generations, for everyone who chose the path of freedom”. The building got an extension with a fastfood restaurant in 2015.

THE PALACE OF THE REPUBLIC (FORMER LENIN PALACE)

Address: Dostyk Avenue, 56
Architects: Vladimir Kim, Yury Ratushniy, Vladimir Alle, Nikolay Ripinskiy, Lev Uhobotov and others
Year of construction: 1970

The Lenin Palace is a part of the square ensemble, along with the Kazakhstan Hotel, the House of Politprosvet, and the Arman Cinema. It was triumphantly opened for the centenary of the leader of the proletariat. The building’s authors received the USSR State Prize in 1971. The construction was designed as a 10,000 square meter wide soaring tent standing on eight ferroconcrete pillars. It’s a very light and airy building, very different from the neighboring, bulky House of Politprosvet. The facade was decorated with marble and pink coquina. There's only one audience hall in the building, which is in the shape of a trapezoid and fits 3000 people. There used to be a square with fountains in front of the palace, and the water from the fountains was used for air conditioning (almost all the administrative buildings of that time had technical pools).

According to the famous Kazakh architect Spiridon Kosmeridi, who provided the expertise for the design, the Palace of the Republic was built in a tectonic fault zone.

The Palace was completely reconstructed and underwent a seismic reinforcement in 2010-2011. There was no public discussion about the design. Kazgor worked on the reconstruction; it was employees of that company who had designed the palace in the 1970s. Kazgor suggested seven reconstruction options to the city administration. An architect who worked on the renovation project, Tokhtar Eraliev, recalls: “There were even attempts to change the external shape, but we said no, you can’t do that. The most important thing in the building is its famous massive, soaring cornice. And, obviously, the pylons, which hold the coating plate. This had to stay, so we had to firmly insist on it. There had to be no changes in the structure, but we had to change the casing (from Eraliev’s point of view, every building has a skeleton – the construction, and a casing – the exterior. – Editor’s note). The town-planning council considered all seven versions and chose the current, seventh one, which was negotiated by the head architect of the palace, Lev Uhobotov. For sure, we wanted to keep the first version out of nostalgia. When we began the reconstruction, I was researching what used to happen to 1970s buildings, buildings of the same generation as the Palace of the Republic. They all got renovated; the basic composite elements would remain, while the rest would change because new materials had been developed”.

In 1971 all the architects, except for Vladimir Alle, received the USSR State Prize. Alle wasn’t presented with one because he wasn’t an employee of Kazgorstroiproekt.

As a result of reconstruction, the new Palace, which still has the status of a monument of national importance, is a far cry from the former one. Its facade has turned into a display for ads, and one morning an adult film was shown on it by mistake.

THE KAZAKH STATE CIRCUS

A hotel near the circus
A hotel near the circus

Address: Abaya Avenue, 50
Architects: Vladimir Katsev, Innokentiy Slonov
Year of construction: 1970

There were no circus buildings in Almaty until 1970, and all the performances were held under circus tents. In the 1960s it became clear that this should be changed. Dinmukhamed Kunayev, the head of the republic, wanted the city to have its own face, its own architectural style, so one could often see murals and mosaics even on the facades of standard buildings. The Almaty circus was supposed to be a copy of the Ashgabat one, but Vladimir Katsev, one of the creators of the future Medeu highland skating rink, convinced Kunayev that they needed to make their own unique circus. There weren’t any uniform rules for constructing such buildings, which is why Katsev had to go to Soyuzgostsirk in order to learn the specifics. The design of the circus was created with an understanding of the terrain (mountains) and the national culture: the silhouettes of the buildings resemble nomads’ tents.

The construction consists of two parts: a round building with the main arena, situated on Abaya Avenue, and a rectangular corpus with a hotel and utility rooms. The circus is famous for its white roof designed in the shape of a tent, which blends in with the snowy mountain tops. The dome is ribbed, and looks like scales: this protects the building from overheating. The design of the circus is unique because it has a few separate kitchens for animals, 9 modes of communication, restrooms for people with special needs, and 14 buffets. There has been talk of reconstruction for a few years now, but there has still been no final decision.

THE NATIONAL LIBRARY

Address: Abaya Avenue, 14
Architects: Vladimir Ischenko, Vladimir Kim
Years of construction: 1970

The building of the National Library, which is commonly known as “Pushkinskaya” (it used to have the name of Alexander Pushkin before the fall of the USSR), closes Ablai Khan Avenue. This library was built before the general plan for the city center was developed, which caused the New Square to appear slightly up the road. The three-storey building has two inner courtyards, which serve as light wells. The construction stands on a rise and looks like it was elevated over Abaya Avenue. The facade is very simple and uncluttered. There are book storages in the basements, administrative rooms in the North Building and reading halls in the South Building. The interior was as simple as the building itself: glass, wood, and marble were used there – all of this remains, in part.

According to the plan, there were supposed to be open-space areas for reading and verandas on the side of the building on the second and third floors, but this didn’t work out. A pool for air conditioning was built next to the construction and a rosarium was set in front of the entrance. This buildin, an architectural monument of national importance, was reconstructed after the fall of the USSR: an extension with a canteen was attached from the side, the adjacent territory was fenced, the rosarium was taken away, and everything got covered with paving slabs. During the Soviet era two underground passageways were created under the sidewalk by the building: in the 2000s they were covered with ugly roofs made of polycarbonate. As a result, the polycarbonate blocks the view of the library, so it’s hard for an unprepared person to set aside this visual rubbish and take in the whole beauty of the building. Not long ago, the directorship of the National Library presented a reconstruction and expansion project: high-rises are going to be erected from two sides, and the inner courtyards are going to be covered with pyramidal roofs.

THE WEDDING PALACE

Address: Abaya Avenue, 101a
Architects: Malbagar Mendikulov, Alexander Leppik
Year of construction: 1971

The first wedding palace in Kazakhstan was built on Abaya Avenue, on the bank of the Vesnovka River (now called the Esentay). A year before, the circus was placed on the opposite side, and in 1982, the Kazakh State Academic Drama Theater named after M. O. Auezov was built. A unified ensemble could easily be detected before the high-rise construction of that area began in the 2000s.

The wedding palace consists of two rings, a big one and a small one, which is even more noticeable if you look at the building from overhead. The facade is decorated with a duralumin sun-protection bar with a geometrical Kazakh ornament covering the whole area of full glass windows. Such sun-protection bars with various ornamentations would appear on many other modernist buildings, which still gives them a unique appearance and attracts the attention of visiting architect. The building was light and simple. Moldakhmet Kenbaev left a signature on the walls of the second floor, but it was destroyed just before the fall of the USSR.

Kenbaev and the monumentalist Tsivchinskiy created a mosaic panel with the image of a young couple in national costumes for the facade. In the 2000s, during the reconstruction, the young couple’s feet were cut off to open another entrance into the palace. The Wedding Palace gained the status of an architectural monument in 1979. Now, after a number of unsuccessful restorations, the palace is being reconstructed once again.

THE MEDEU HIGHLAND SKATING RINK

Address: Ile-Alatau National Park
Architects: Vladimir Katsev, Arystan Kaynarbaev
Year of construction: 1972

The architect Vladimir Katsev started working on reconstructing the highland skating rink right after the Almaty Circus was completed. An ordinary skating rink with natural ice, and benches instead of a grandstand, had functioned in Medeu, at the natural border, and located 14 kilometers from the center of Almaty, from 1951 to 1970.

The Alma-Atagiprogor institute took on the ambitious project of a new highland skating rink. The project turned out to be very expensive: it required 8.4 million rubles; the budget had to be negotiated in Moscow; and the funding had to be obtained there as well. Vladimir Katsev, the project’s author, has said that there was even a direct call from Kunayev to Brezhnev. One difficulty was that the road leading to the natural border had to be built with all the necessary service lines, such as water supply, electricity, sewage, etc. The skating rink was placed 1691 meters above sea level, and was made of concrete and wood. The size of the ice field is 10,500 square meters. The skating rink is multilayered: 170 kilometers of pipes with the refrigerant were laid with ferroconcrete plates on top. There was also a hotel and a few cafés, whichare all still functioning. Artists Nimets and Konstantinov made a bas-relief with the image of two skaters on the back panel. The grandstand could fit 10,500 people (8,500 now). During the design stage, there was an idea to make the skating rink an indoor one, but this was rejected. However, this idea is still suggested from time to time. Medeu was fully reconstructed twice: in the 2000s, and in 2011, before the Asian games. Katsev designed the building of the recently demolished Medeu Hotel not far from the skating rink. The Lastochka Café was placed a little up the road, at the middle of the “Health Stairs”. The café was also an observation deck that had a view not only on the rink, but on the city as well. The Lastochka is still there, but it’s not a café anymore.

THE KAZAKHSTAN HOTEL

Address: Dostyk Avenue, 52
Architects: Yuri Ratushniy, Lev Uhobotov, Arkadiy Deev
Year of construction: 1977

In the 1970s, a complex construction of Dostyk Avenue, which then carried the name of Vladimir Lenin and was one of the city’s main streets, was taking place. The design of the hotel was developed by the architects of Kazgorstroiproekt. The honored architect of the Kazakh SSR, Yuri Ratushniy, thought that this had to be a high-rise building (by that time the Palace of the Republic, also designed by Kazgorstroiproekt, had already been built right next to the future hotel) because otherwise a low-rise building would just look lost. However, because of the threat of earthquakes, construction of buildings higher than 12 floors wasn’t allowed (the city was destroyed twice, in 1887 and 1911), which is why the construction had to be negotiated with Gosstroy (the State Committee for Construction in the USSR). Thus, this 25-storey building became the highest of those that were built in seismically dangerous areas of the USSR.

The building has an elliptical shape and resembles a spike from afar. A monolith-stiffening ferroconcrete core with transverse ferroconcrete diaphragms is the structural basis of the building. The facade was revetted with coquina: for the first few years the building was white, but now looks gray.

There was no crown in the design in the beginning: this appeared because the elevator shaft turned out to be higher than the building and the crew decided to cover it with an aluminum cap. As a result, the building turned out to be 102 meters high. It was the highest building in Almaty for 31 years, until 2008. After construction was complete, the building was tested for seismic stability: it passed. The engineers were sure that the Kazakhstan Hotel could survive an earthquake of 9-10 points.

The interiors were lost long ago, the owners have changed multiple times, and the building has been auctioned and mortgaged. There were a few projects for renovation of the Kazakhstan Hotel: one of them included setting a pool on the roof and revetting the facade with glass. This building is still a dominant architectural feature of the city center.

ARMY HOUSE

Address: Zenkova Street, 24
Architects: Yuri Ratushniy, Oleg Balykbaev, Tokhtar Eraliev
Year of construction: 1978

Army House is situated in Panfilov’s 28 Guardsmen Park. A Kazakh historian of architecture, Almas Ordabaev, considers this building to be a piece of fascist architecture: it’s a grand building that suppresses the human. The House of Politprosvet, which is being reconstructed at the moment, seems to have similar qualities. The project for Army House was ordered by the Ministry of Defense of the Kazakh SSR, and the building is still under its authority. The facade is decorated with a massive hollow bas-relief. If you look at the building from Kaldayakova Street, you will only see pieces of iron sticking out. The bas-relief was supposed to be placed on both sides, but there wasn’t enough money. The mounting goes through the facade, so it can’t be removed. If it’s taken down, the bas-relief will fall apart.

At the beginning, there was supposed to be an operetta theatre next to the building, but its construction was frozen. There even used to be a foundation for it, but now there’s just a small park where it used to be. The building is 11,609 square meters in size. In one wing of Army House, there is the Military-Historical Museum, the Panfilov’s Division Museum, and a concert hall, and all of them look almost the same as they did in the 1980s. Even the large Czech chandeliers remain. The other wing of Army House is given up for rent: there’s a CrossFit gym, restaurants, and bars.

THE ALMATY AKIMAT BUILDING

Address: Respubliki Square, 4
Architect: Kaldybay Montakhaev
Year of construction: 1980

It is fascinating that all three government building – the first built by Ginzburg and Milinis in the end of the 1920s, the second erected in the 1950s, and the third, which appeared in the 1980s, – are all situated on the same street. And if you walk down Bayseitovoy Street from the Square of the Republic, you can see all three main government buildings, and get a picture of Constructivism, the Stalinist empire, and Soviet modernism, all at the same time.

In the 1970s, the Alma-Atagiprogor Institute began creating a new general plan for the capital. The decision was made to move the center of the city to Bayseitovoy Street, up from Abaya Street, and to build a new square, and residential and administrative buildings there. The construction began in 1973. The Central Committee building wasn’t in the approved plan: it appeared on paper only in 1975. There were several versions of the House of the Government, but eventually the design created by a 25-year old architect, Kaldybay Montakhaev, was accepted. The building was constructed in 1980 on a high point. It rises above the square, and there is a good view of the city from its windows. Today, the Almaty Akimat (city hall) resides there. The building is seven floors high, and was made of precast ferroconcrete structures with ceramsite concrete wall panels. The face of the building was implemented with coquina and some marble. The facades’ architecture is based on the order pylon system, with a high attic floor. This was the biggest building in Kazakhstan in 1980 at 35,000 square meters. It gained the status of an architectural monument in 1982. In 2012, it was repaired for the first time: the heating system and the wiring were replaced, while the marble, parquet, and solid pine doors remained untouched. A park with fountains was set in front of the building and by its sides. There used to be a grandstand that was a little lower than the building, but it was replaced in 2007.

THE CHILDREN’S PALACE

Address: Dostyk Avenue, 124
Architects: Vladimir Kim, Tolegen Abilda and others
Year of construction: 1983

The Children’s Palace is often included in a unified architectural ensemble with the square of the Republic, even though it is quite far from it and is much closer to the Samal microdistrict. The latter was being built in the 1980s and was supposed to be groundbreaking, but Perestroika and the fall of the USSR prevented that from happening.

According to legend, the head of the Kazakh SSR, Dinmukhamed Kunayev, once saw a children’s palace during a trip abroad in the 1970s and came up with the idea of creating the same thing in Kazakhstan. The ministry of education of the Kazakh SSR and the city executives ordered the project. The architects began working on the design in 1976. The plan was to create an amusement park in the neighborhood, but there wasn’t enough money. The palace was built just seven years later.

The building is a clear representative of modernism with Eastern elements. The latter are represented by a 25-meters high wave-like dome placed above the round ceremonial hall. The dome is revetted with golden plates, resembling scales. There’s also a separate 40-meter high observatory tower rising above the palace. Following tradition, a sun protection system was set up for the building. If you look at it from above, it resembles a snail.

As a result of reconstruction, the entrance group went through the largest amount of changes, while the main interiors – the hall, ceremonial hall, small ceremonial hall, concert hall – remained untouched. The chandeliers, made of brass and copper tubes, were produced in the Gidromash military plant exclusively for the palace. One of them, placed in the ceremonial hall, weighs seven tons and is still in great condition. Its smaller copies serve as decorations for the palace hall. A large park was created in front of the palace, so now high pines partly block the view of the facade.

HARDWARE STUDIO COMPLEX

Address: Zheltoksan Avenue, 185
Architects: Alexander Korzhempo, Nikolai Ezau
Year of construction: 1983

This is one of example of the successful implementation of Eastern architectural traditions in modern architecture. HSC is located next to the main square of the city, the Square of the Republic and the Akimat building (city hall), and from it begins (or ends, depending on the viewpoint) Zheltoksan Avenue.

Architect Alexander Korzhempo: “HSC was being developed at the same time as the Moscow Communications Institute, and it was so economical, as well as capable of satisfying all the needs the clients expressed, that it was copied in several countries: obviously not the architecture itself, but its technological and planning structure”. According to the original idea, the building was supposed to be revetted with light blue glass. Korzhempo wanted it to seem like a person is walking into a shining sky. But materials of such quality weren’t available at the time, so he had to work with what he had. That building is unique because it was the first case of the facade being made entirely out of glass.

The building is decorated with huge “stalactites” on top. There’s a national ligature at the entrance. The facade of HSC has barely changed: the building still hasn’t undergone a major repair, while its interior is not in a good state. There used to be fountains in front of the HSC: they were poorly renovated a few years ago and now they don’t work. It is strange, but the unique and original Hardware Studio Complex building has never been included in the list of architectural monuments.

The material was prepared with support from “Archcode Almaty” project.

Text: Svetlana Pomashkina (“Vlast” Magazine)
Translation: Olga Baltsatu
Photo: Zhanara Karimova, Kanata Beysekeeva, Zarina Gaynullina, the foundation of Central State Multimedia Archive of Kazakhstan Republic