Different Sides of An Adaptive Mind. Anel Moldakhmetova

Anel Moldakhmetova, photo:  voxpopuli.kz

Anel Moldakhmetova, photo: voxpopuli.kz

Anel has a multidisciplinary background consisting of Oriental studies, Japanese history and language, philosophy, education and marketing. Thanks to international scholarships, she could travel to South and North America and before moving to Moscow, took part in a program at the Institute of Media, Architecture at Strelka. As she says, it was the first time when she looked at her activities in a holistic way – not as something divided into commercial work and non-profit activism or research - but rather something that can create a meaningful and financially stable lifestyle. During my short visit to Almaty, I met with this young leader in whose personality and work, all sorts of western and eastern thoughts and habits blended into a specific, nuanced individual. We spoke about architecture and planning culture in Kazakhstan, environmental changes, fears of the Kazakh people and the role of women in these processes.

Interview by: Milota Sidorová, edits: Michael Higgs

How do you feel as a non-architect leading the discussion about cities?

During the Strelka program, I was one of the non-architects, a minority, and I had to fight with rather big egos and the students didn’t trust that I actually knew something that they did not. Most of them don't really study sociology or anthropology and very rarely they know the reality of planning processes.

So, it is always good if somebody can shake their world views?

I agree but they have technology which, with their visual thinking, makes you feel weaker in their eyes.

Why did you move back?

After the program, I felt that Moscow was overloaded with activities and I was not adding more to it. I took a lot from the city, but I didn't have a personal bond to return to it. Almaty, on the other hand, felt different. I lived here before and this was the place to go. After a while, I started my own projects. They’re mostly funded by international projects, as they do not have the clients yet, but we are sourcing them.

We use research projects in architecture and this is how it can work. Most of the people in the city think we are doing research of architecture, but we use architecture as a tool to open discussions about issues such as environmental pollution, heritage and participatory planning. We say this is what can be valuable and it is your right to go and ask questions about it.

So it is the creation of public life. Is it part of a strategy, as it is difficult for people in Kazakhstan to take part in public life?

Yes. We hold discussions and lectures and through architecture, pollution and other aspects of cities we are discussing politics.

Do you think you are successful?

Yes, because we have a media presence. Recently, we organised a public hearing for the landmark building in Almaty. The building is of a Soviet style and on the list of potential heritage buildings, but this has not yet been confirmed officially. So, an investor started reconstruction but nobody knew what was happening. We organised a meeting where we asked what the destiny of the building would be. There were multiple parties from the government, city hall, the public, researchers and experts. It was a very important meeting because considerable feedback was provided by the people and developers realised that there is strong public pressure and people will not leave potential damage to the architectural image of the building unnoticed.

I can imagine a lot of negativity during that meeting.

It was good in a sense that people realised they can actually ask and the question of the future was raised.

Doesn't it hurt you as you may be criticising officials?

No, we are not criticising. We took the position of asking questions and providing a platform for it. We asked experts to give feedback on the project – people from heritage departments, etc. so it wasn't uncontrolled, emotional feedback.

Does the building law in Kazakhstan oblige investors to hold these public meetings?

We have that law but it is not followed. We are not inventing anything new; we just bring the focus on following rules and urge for public monitoring and participation in the process.

Let’s get to the planning culture in Almaty.

We have all sorts of architecture, recently peeking with this millennium’s glassy towers. You can see it happening all over Central Asia in cities where there’s money. I think it is an attempt to reinvent identities after the Soviet Union crumbled, with that architecture now considered outdated.

But the aesthetics are crazy. Do people really consider it beautiful?

Yes, it is. I don't know whether these clients travel a lot, but I know that this style is not necessarily a vision of local architects. Most of the times the client comes and says: I want something glassy in classical style. Dang! And we have a lot of columns on facades.

Sorry, this may be my European perception, but is anybody here raising the question of the aesthetics of these buildings?

Our platform Archcode Almaty is providing extracurricular education to people in the profession and the feedback I have from students is, that they have never received such knowledge from universities. The history of architecture is taught easier, we can see Soviet architecture, but when it comes to present, this part is missing.

Almaty, street design accommodating pedestrian, cycling, green and blue infrastructure. photo: Milota Sidorova

Almaty, street design accommodating pedestrian, cycling, green and blue infrastructure. photo: Milota Sidorova

When you speak of heritage - what I strongly perceive as the heritage of Almaty, is not so much buildings but the street grid, which is such a strong element. The widths, generous spaces and trees. This is something amazing that most cities around the world can only dream of. Your plan is your heritage. 

Almaty was designed as a garden city. We still have leftovers from this concept. But it has gone wild, because we don't know how to take care of trees. With recent reconstruction, drainage channels (so called aryks that are part of the streetscape), we have not kept the same technology. There is a water collector below channels for the trees to be irrigated but where they replaced incorrectly, with holes have being left out, and the trees die out. It is alarming issue that has to be raised as well.

Almaty translates as The City of Apples. There must be a strong connection between people and trees.

Oh, yes, definitely. Trees are the soul of this city. I was born here and I can’t imagine living in any other place where trees are not part of the city. During my studies in America in Arizona, my hosts prepared me for a cultural shock. When I got there, I was presented with this red, desert country with open, vast spaces with no trees. I was shocked, so shocked, not because of the people and their culture. It had a landscape shock, being thrown into a total opposite from the one I had adapted as mine.

This brings us to Kazakh capital Astana (newly Nur-Sultan) and the future.

Astana, newly Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan, photo: Wikipedia

Astana, newly Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan, photo: Wikipedia

The new capital is so different from Almaty, set in an arid climate where the glassy monumental starchitecture style is rising from the dry soil. As there are not many trees in the city, it feels truly futuristic. People from Urban Forum Kazakhstan told me they had a program change to work only in indoor public spaces as the climate and, from what I understand, also the political climate does not allow for any action or debate about outdoor public space. As somebody from a mild climate, I find it a dramatic switch from the common paradigm of a city. Nevertheless, it projects the future. Political authoritarianism, a financial capital and the will to dominate the Earth in places of harsh environmental conditions inevitably raises the question of costs. What will be the costs to keep Astana alive in the future as climate change gets worse?

There is an interesting book called The History of Future Cities by Daniel Brooks who brings up the cases of Shanghai, Dubai, Mumbai and St. Petersburg. It discusses how cities were built in places where, if you consider geography and climate, they were not supposed to be built. It follows the motivation of a leader to build a city completely ignoring any logic. St. Petersburg was not supposed to be there on the bay, but Peter the Great decided otherwise to create a window to Europe. Dubai went up only due to the oil money. I think Astana should be in this book too.

Astana is located near the place where wives of political prisoners lived in a concentration camp so-called Alzhir. These women were surviving the harsh climate doing all this hard work. Later on, it was called Virgin Land - Tselinograd, a place where immigrants from Russia came with their families within the framework of the Virgin Land campaign. They came here to work too. We have really interesting historical moments here. Then this new country, a new capital of Independence, a new city designed by a will of one person.

Maybe capitals can survive because they will always have more jobs than the others, but there may be cities that grow up fast and get abandoned.

Recently, we had a very interesting conversation with one student working on developing a collective memory of Astana before 1991. Reflected in architecture, there is a history not written in the official records. It has a memory before it was called Nur-sultan, before it was called Astana. This is really important. Astana is working hard to turn itself into a postcard picture to impress international visitors and businessmen. But some cities where resources have diminished simply became ghost towns.

Tell us about your work on The Future City (of Almaty) manifesto.

Almaty will have a new masterplan. Last year, I participated in a strategic session on this topic, but I was dissatisfied by the low quality due to absent facilitation. I tried to help the process by organising this project. Now we want to contribute to the process by engaging citizens in the discussion and by bringing more partners together from the City Hall along with researchers and international experts. This project aims to shed a light on city masterplanning – to tell people that a masterplan is really an important plan for the city and people should participate and care for it.

Seems to me that you are ideal for City Hall. How long do you want to stay on the outside

I don't know whether I would call myself an activist, I am a professional and I don't do things randomly . I work also with the people from the municipality – so why not? I am already doing it. And of course, some people I know say ‘are you crazy? If you go to them, you will become one of them’. I always reply that this is a municipality, there must be synergy somewhere and we must look upwards for it.

It became trendy for independent groups or experts to give recommendations to the City Hall but this is often not treated as a partner position. Partially, it is because of them not being on the inside of the system and also because of a rather close-minded vision of how the changes should be implemented. This is just a part of a systemic change that should be implemented. We have to rethink the tools for communication and collaboration, and this is a mutual process that entails hard work. It is, in reality, quite hard work. 

We are all in the same boat, in the same city. Here you can still sense this question: are you in politics or are you not? But when you discuss the city, it is politics. For some people this is quite a revelation.


Is there awareness about climate change in Kazakhstan?

Kazakhs have experience of environmental destruction – let’s take the case of the Aral Sea. This has been a significant blow for many of our people. But I would say that there isn’t widespread awareness about climate change on a global level - although more and more ecological discussions take place locally. Not many people know about Greta Thunberg. Here, our topics are more about the level of air pollution or why we should stop using plastic bags and recycle. One of my colleagues is working at an institution (Somerset House), where they use art and multidisciplinary approaches to tackle this topic. For example, last year at Somerset House, an installation by Michael Pinsky called Pollution Pods was exhibited –five geodesic domes filled with air from different big cities, like London, New Delhi, Beijing and São Paulo.

Wonderful, you need to make it physical.

Absolutely. Although we have a problem accessing data on air quality. Our ministry of healthcare has dropped out of the conversation on environmental problems and its damage to people’s health. There is no clear open data on the negative effect of pollution on the health of citizens and we have the right to know it. 

We are coming back to the start – the participation of Kazakh people in public discussions. Being in this very specific part of the world - surrounded by Russia and China, having multiple religions whilst being an atheistic country, having more than 130 nationalities - is there such a thing as the Kazakh mind?

Here we cannot talk about only a mentality but we have to talk about fear. I think there is a subconscious fear of people of being punished if they speak up publically. There is a great movie called Kolyma, which I really recommend. It is a place of very harsh conditions; a gulag. This name still resonates among people.

This fear was transmitted to us through our parents who told us stories of our neighbors spying on us and reporting each other for small things like tearing the newspaper with the portrait of Stalin or using it as a toilet paper in the bathroom. I also think it is a generational issue. Young Kazakhs grew without it and these are the people who drive change. Older people will be more afraid to raise these topics, so I think it must go to younger people who are without fear, more globalized and better educated.

I remember times when our fridge was empty in the 90s. Parents had to go to the bazaar to exchange things for food while all of these institutions were lapsing. Many people were left without a job and had to go and work at the markets to be able to put food on the table. It was a crazy period. Many people were lost and many never retreated psychologically from it. Some, who were able to keep their property from this time, really stick to it and do not want to change anything. There are many traumas and many tough survivors.

So now when people see we have more than 20 years of stability, although it is an illusion, they think they will no longer have to queue for bread and everything will be comfortable for them. Here they can at least enjoy their family lives. What kind of comfort that is is a difficult question.

What is the role of women in this transformation process?

Women in Kazakhstan, I can’t generalise totally, but I would say that they are very adaptive and resilient in order to meet all the demands, of which there are many from their family, society and work. There is not much support from the state, so it makes them even more resilient and strong.

What do you think about it?

Many international friends ask me how can I live within the context of such a society. I don’t know, I don't make a fuss about it. This is what I call adaptive power, women have this. My personal opinion is that if I were a man I would not have to be so adaptive, because there are so few demands on men when compared to women.

Do you think it is correct?

No, of course not.

So, it is like, your family is helping if women don't have support from the state?

Now many women work and they are financially independent. This is giving them more power to take certain actions. Many of them studied abroad, they keep this lifestyle. Even if they divorce, it gives them more freedom.

Are there many women who decide not to have kids?

I know a few of them around me but I met more of them in Moscow than here. I am also deciding this issue for myself, but I don't feel under pressure, as this is my body and I don't necessarily consider kids as the sole condition for a meaningful life.

What you consider good results from your work that you would like to see in the future?

When I meet young people they tell me that they project their lives to be lived somewhere else. Somehow, I don't know how that would be related to my work, but somehow, I would like to see more young people deciding not to leave Almaty. I want them to want to stay here and not choose Hong Kong, New York or Los Angeles. In twenty years, I would like for young people to be satisfied and be able to realise their potential in this city and to enjoy their lives here.

Thank you very much!