Washington was built on a swamp, Ottawa on an old sleepy lumber town, St. Petersburg on a swampy patch of Baltic seacoast. Imperial exercises in urban planning don't always go wrong, or at least not while the empires which sustain them persist. Dostoyevksy called St. Petersburg "the most theoretical and intentional town on the whole terrestrial globe." It was not meant to flatter.
National Geographic dedicated a beautiful spread in its latest issue to the new capital of Khazakstan, Astana, described as "brash and grandiose—and wildly attractive to young strivers seeking success." Lavished with billions of petrol power, the new capital lacks for none of the astounding achievements of modern civilization, including its central monument, the Baiterek. Baiterek, which means "tall poplar tree" in Kazakh, is a 318-foot tower buttressed by an exoskeleton of white-painted steel, designed by Nursultan Nazarbayev, a steelworker become strongman who has run the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union. On its observation deck, from which your 360-degree view is periodically refreshed by cold Turkish beer, sits a malachite pedestal capped by a 4.4-pound slab of solid gold, in the centre of which is an imprint of Nazarbayev's right hand. Absent, one imagines, is the faint echo carried off the Euphrates, "Is not this the Babylon I have built as my royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?"
Nazarbayev has ordered his architects to explore the possibility of building a huge complex that would shelter a climate-controlled "indoor city" of 15,000 people.
There is nothing intrinsically draconian about the instant super cities of oil empires. National Geographic's John Lancaster recounts the swell of pride that Kazakhs feel over this gleaming, modern marvel. One resident, Zharkeshov, laments that his country is often lumped in with its other unstable neighours. "There is a problem being a 'stan," he says. Worse yet is being ridiculed, as in the 2006 hit movie Borat.
But what it takes to sustain these marvels is another matter. After the crash of 2008, eyes gradually turned to the super-rich city-state of Dubai. "Once the manic burst of building has stopped and the whirlwind has slowed, the secrets of Dubai are slowly seeping out." It is a city, says Johann Hari, built in a few wild decades on nothing but credit and ecocide, suppression and slavery.
It all underlines the dark side of Dubai's breakneck, centralized, super-rich dream: the army of foreign slaves from India to the Philippines to Ethiopia, housed in concrete bunkers outside the boundaries of its gleaming malls; the sharp suppression of dissent; the fake smiles masking fake lifestyles; the environmental catastrophe sustaining the short-lived financial genius. Dubai describes itself as a flower of materialist hope blooming amidst the arid desserts of the Arabian peninsula. But what hope there was is being swallowed back by the sand, and by the caprice of financial currents that take more than they give. Slow may not be sexy—it may not get modernist, technophile centrefolds—but slow endures.
Astana is not Dubai. Its money comes directly from oil, and that oil promises to fund Kazakh experiments in identity and city building for generations to come. But what Paul Collier calls the resource curse, and what other economists call Dutch disease, faces Kazakhs still: their challenge will be exploiting Kazakh oil for not just a city to be proud of, an urban dream that points to hope, but something that realizes that hope in a sustained way. Building tall towers with golden eggs is probably the easy part.