Visitors enter the 2017 World Expo in Astana.
Courtesy Blaine Brownell Visitors enter the 2017 World Expo in Astana.

What is the future of energy in the built environment? This (very broad) topic is the central theme presented at the 2017 World Expo, held this summer in Astana, Kazakhstan. Like other world’s fairs, the Astana Expo serves as an international showcase for new ideas about technology, society, and the planet. As expected at such an event, the host nation, participating countries, and corporate partners all present positive visions of lives made better by improved science and design—an enticing, if highly edited, set of ideas. Yet the success of this exposition is less about its answers than it is about questions proposed, particularly in light of its physical context.

Astana, Kazakhstan's breathtakingly young capital, established in 1997 with an inventive master plan designed by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, effectively functions as its own testing ground for concepts about future energy use in cities. Yet, as the fastest-growing city in this petroleum-rich country, Astana epitomizes the problems of car-dominated infrastructure and discrete zoning—carryovers of 20th-century planning that now challenge Astana’s capacity to operate in an environmentally and socially sustainable way. The 2017 World Expo, therefore, represents a bold endeavor to address these issues on an international stage, even at the expense of elucidating this contrast. Given the fact that most cities face similar problems, the Astana event raises global awareness about fundamental, universally applicable questions.

Inside one of the 8-story tall voids in the the Nur Alem sphere.
Courtesy Blaine Brownell Inside one of the 8-story tall voids in the the Nur Alem sphere.

On display for just over three months, from June 29 to Sept. 10, the 2017 world’s fair occupies a massive 430 acres of land directly south of central Astana, with exhibitions across 62 acres. The manifestation of a winning master plan by Chicago-based Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture (AS+GG), the radially configured site has an eight-story spherical building—called the Nur Alem—at its center. This impressive structure and its 53,819-square-foot base house the Museum of Future Energy and national pavilion of Kazakhstan, respectively. The inner ring of buildings consists of thematic and corporate pavilions, while the outer ring houses the international pavilions—with 110 participating countries. Beyond these, new hotels, residential buildings, a conference center, a media center, a shopping mall, and a park make up the rest of the greater expo master plan. In keeping with the expectations for a minor exposition, international pavilions share space within provided structures (as opposed to major expos, such as Milan 2015, in which each nation is invited to occupy a stand-alone building).

An anticipated 2 million visitors will visit the site, featuring the “Future Energy” theme broken down into three subthemes: reducing carbon dioxide emissions, efficient energy use, and energy for all. Together, these topics are intended to address energy consumption from the perspectives of environmental responsibility and social equity. These themes are not only present in the international and themed pavilions, but also in the Future Energy Forum in which various scientists, energy experts, and government officials hold ongoing debates and panels.

For a member of the general public, a comprehensive tour of the expo requires two to three days. Although the site can become crowded, the queues are much shorter than those in Milan (2015) and Shanghai (2010), allowing visitors to see most of the exhibits in this time frame. Predictably, the international and thematic pavilions repeat many of the same messages related to energy sustainability. Solar panels, wind farms, and electric cars seem to have been prerequisites for entry, and they quickly become clichés in the absence of differentiation. However, several exhibits make successful contributions based on their focused and innovative approaches to the general theme.

The Austrian Pavilion is a fitness funhouse that encourages visitors to generate their own energy.
Courtesy Blaine Brownell The Austrian Pavilion is a fitness funhouse that encourages visitors to generate their own energy.

One of these is the Austrian pavilion, the “Austria Power Machine,” which enthusiastically declares that “future energy is you!” Designed by architect Johann Moser in collaboration with scenographer Julia Landsiedl and graphic designer Gerhard Bauer, the 9,365-square-foot space is a fun house of human-powered devices. An open two-story scaffold supports colorful pulleys, seesaws, cycles, crankshafts, and pinwheels that invite users to expend calories while generating sound, light, airflow, and other physical effects.

The UK Pavilion consists of an interactive structure that triggers evolutionary changes in a CGI landscape.
Courtesy Blaine Brownell The UK Pavilion consists of an interactive structure that triggers evolutionary changes in a CGI landscape.

A more subdued example is the United Kingdom pavilion, designed by Asif Khan with musician Brian Eno, entitled “We Are Energy.” The main exhibit consists of a diaphanous, flattened dome surrounded by a 360-degree panorama of video screens, all contained within a dark void. Colored by Eno’s resonant soundtrack, the project attempts to tackle the deep history of energy, projecting images of a detailed, virtual landscape that evolves in relation to visitor interaction. When people touch the individual acrylic spines that comprise the ribs of the dome, they illuminate internally as foliage within the virtual scenery blooms. “I wanted to find a way to express this relationship to our visitors and explore how energy is being continually harnessed and balanced around us,” Khan says.

The Energy of Water pavilion by Sergey Nebotov.
Courtesy Blaine Brownell The Energy of Water pavilion by Sergey Nebotov.

Additional highlights include a series of stand-alone, open-air pavilions designed by Sergey Nebotov, which are vaulted structures clad in wind vanes, sunshades, or transparent fabric to convey water—as well as the fair's Nur Alem centerpiece. AS+GG's 861-foot-diameter sphere features vast multistory spaces of dizzying height where the interior floors pull away from the exterior cladding. A glass-bottomed walkway on the top floor provides visitors with a vertiginous view of one of these voids. The building is powered by solar cells and wind turbines, although the photovoltaics are not conspicuous, nor were the turbines active when I visited. The future energy focus is rather embraced within the content of the extensive collection of intriguing exhibits, such as EcologicStudio’s microalgae-powered H.O.R.T.U.S. installation.

As the 2017 Expo suggests, the emphasis on future energy cannot come too soon. A recent New York magazine opens with the threatening statement about climate change: “It is, I promise, worse than you think,” and the U.S. pullout of the 2015 Paris Climate Accord will only hasten the process towards climate-induced calamities like “heat death,” widespread famine, and “climate plagues.” Yet in the context of automobile-centric Astana, with its vast multi-lane roads, gas-guzzling vehicles, and limited public transportation options, first-time visitors to the 2017 World Expo may wonder which energy future is being promoted. According to Kairat Abdrakhmanov, Kazakhstan’s minister for foreign affairs, international audiences have been understandably puzzled “as to why a nation with huge oil and gas reserves decided that future energy should be the theme for the exhibition.” Yet this petroleum-supported country is now committed to renewable resources, with plans to use green energy to supply half of domestic power needs by 2050. Kazakhstan’s proposal to host the 2017 Expo on the 20th anniversary of Astana’s founding was not based on a desire to demonstrate prior accomplishments, but rather to invite a global community to debate, test, and otherwise explore ideas about how best to move forward—a catalyst for accelerating positive change.

Where the sidewalk begins? Vast areas of Astana remain under construction, and superscaled blocks make pedestrian life challenging.
Courtesy Blaine Brownell Where the sidewalk begins? Vast areas of Astana remain under construction, and superscaled blocks make pedestrian life challenging.