BRANDED ARTICLE: Architects Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Design Astana Expo's Unique Sphere

CNN • Shana Ting Lipton


The eye-catching sphere at the heart of the Expo site, and permanent Astana Expo City, is more than just a symbol of the world coming together to shine a light on future energy.


When Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev first asked award-winning Chicago firm Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture to make an orb the central feature of the exhibition complex, it set the creative wheels in motion for an experiential piece of sustainable architecture, intended to imprint deep memories on its visitors.


“We talked about a little kid lying on their back and just staring at the sphere from the underside,” says founding partner Gordon Gill, adding, “Hopefully that kid... under that sphere, feels that and sees that and will remember that forever.”


He references his own nostalgia for the expo and Olympic sites of his youth— some of which have also featured globes — albeit three quarter structures. The architects instead imagined something far more unusual and — from a materials standpoint — challenging, for Astana Expo City: a “genuine sphere,” curved from top to bottom.



‘Smith + Gill’ — known for its impressive work with sustainable architecture and supertall buildings — is hardly the sort of firm to be daunted by seemingly pie-in-the-sky creative visions. Its architects were famously behind the design of the tallest building in the world, Dubai’s 2,716.5-foot Burj Khalifa.



'There's something very compelling, very striking about pure geometry in a city of towers'



Not to be outdone, at 100 m tall and boasting an 80 m diameter, Nur Alem, is now the largest spherical building in the world, and a working example of energy-efficient architecture. After Expo 2017 concludes, it will become Astana’s permanent Museum of Future.


The ‘complete orb’ is raised up off the ground on a 5,000 square meter platform and supported by a central elevator core, enabling visitors to walk beneath it and experience its underbelly. It is made of double-curved glass — a behemoth ‘version’ of the rounded material commonly seen on car windshields. Insulated and fritted (ceramic-patterned to provide shading), Nur Alem is decked out with photovoltaic panels and topped by a pair of soft-running 20 kW-capacity wind turbines.


The first port of call in the unique building is its Kazakhstan Pavilion, which showcases the host country’s achievements, traditions, history and culture. Floors two through eight house the Museum of Future Energy — complete with interactive and multimedia displays of water, kinetic, biomass, wind, solar and space energies. An exhilarating glass elevator ride to the eighth floor — site of the Future Astana exhibit — leaves visitors to soak in breathtaking views of the expo site and the city itself.


“There’s something very compelling, very striking about pure geometry in a city of towers,” says Gill, referring to the authentic globe’s connection to some of the surrounding landscape of Kazakhstan’s capital, “It’s quite compelling to put that exclamation or that little dot on the city.”