Domes Far From Home

The Kolsai Geodesics in their woody flesh – this, and all other photos, Oliver Lowenstein

On a holiday trek in Kazakhstan’s new Kolsai Kolderi Biosphere Reserve, few might expect that most American of design innovation to be springing up out of the deep blue yonder. But, surprises of surprises, there they were, woody Geodesic Domes, in all their low-tech glory, under construction.

In the summer of 2022, I travelled to Almaty, Kazakhstan, to meet my son, who had been working there. As I’d never visited any part of the central Asian ‘Stans’ before, the experience was entirely new, and the country felt unlike any other part of the world I’ve been to. Though the large landlocked country is predominantly made up of huge, bare steppe plains, there are mountainous regions, some of which are Alpine in nature. At certain altitudes, trees and forests predominate. One of these is Trans-Ili Alatau, the western edges of the 1500-mile-long Tien Shan mountain range straddling Kazakhstan’s southern edges and acting as a natural border to its Stan neighbour, Kyrgyzstan. Look up towards the south from any part of Almaty — the financial hub, its old political capital, and still very much the country’s cultural capital — and you are greeted by yawning mountainous heights. And if you take a cable car up into the first foothills, as we did, the landscape quickly turns Alpine, with even replica Swiss chocolate box houses built along its lower ridges.

Putting Kolsai Kolderi Biosphere Reserve on the map

The upper reaches of Kolsai lower lake

This was surreal enough, though the visit was rich in strange encounters and experiences. Some 250 miles southeast of Almaty and once again you begin making your way into the northern approaches to the Tien Shan mountains. Remote and sparsely populated, the more accessible approaches to this range of the Kazakhstani Tien Shan, or in Chinese, the Celestial Mountain, part of the range, are popular tourist destinations, particularly various areas designated as protected natural reserves and national parks. This includes Kolsai Lakes National Park. It was here that my son had arranged for us to go trekking, and here that one of the more surreal, at least in terms of the built environment, encounters happened.

Left – Looking back (and right) looking out across the lower Kolsai lake

The first lower Kolsai lake sits 1880 metres above sea level, with steeply rising forest, dominated by dark-coniferous spruce, spreading along the far northern shoreline. There are patches of open Alpine meadow land, though once the lake ends, the forest closes in, becoming dense and dark, with water flowing out from the river Kolsai precipitously crashing and tumbling down through the forest from its rocky mountain spring source. Three miles upriver and another 400 metres further up in altitude is the middle, or Mynzholky (which means ‘a thousand years old’), lake. Another four miles and 600 metres, and the upper lake is reached. Here the forest thins, with open Alpine meadows touching the lake’s banks.

A path to the mountain and (right) a copse of Asian spruce, or as it is often titled, Schrenk’s spruce

The Kolsai Lake restaurant, all timber façade, and favourite holiday snap setting for Kazakhs

Like most other prototypical tourists, I knew nothing of this when my son declared he’d arranged for us to go trekking in the park. There were natural wonders that he told me about, and I was abuzz with anticipation as we made our way up from Saty, the last small village in the long valley leading to the lakes, where we’d stayed the previous night. Some few hundred metres above the first, the Lower Kolsai Lake, is the car park, and at the end of the valley head road are the accessible start and end points into the park and mountains. There were stalls and vendors, and the tourist trade was at its briskest here. It was clearly popular: descendants of ethnic Kazakh and Russians, and very occasionally a few Russians themselves, wandered around, many doing the circa 2023 universal tourist thing: taking selfies. A small road led from the car park past a modern, eco-looking (all timber façaded, though internally steel-limbed) restaurant with commanding views of the lake and mountains to a path descending towards the lake.

A floating gangway traversed the lake’s southern shore with a gaggle of small paddle boats tied to makeshift moorings. A small number, like watery insects on the lake’s glistening surface, circumambulated around the lakes near end, distant whoops coming from those paddling these pleasure craft. The lake was incredibly scenic and dramatic, with steep if relatively open slopes, a smattering of Asian spruce scattered across its western face, while a denser, more forested spruce hillside carpeted the further eastern shore. Looking out to the far end of its long, watery finger, snow-capped mountains rose, the beginnings of the Tien Shan proper.

The path we had begun walking on took us over the floating gangway and into the tree-lined shore before opening into hillside pastures and a steepish climb up the side of the hill. And it was here that things briefly turned surreal. A few hundred yards in, we turned a ridge, and there, a hundred or so more yards above, was a hotel building. And below the hotel, there was a row of Geodesic domes in various stages of construction.

Boats on a lake

Geodesic domes

There were three in all, two were in the midst of being built. And a third is a short distance away, already complete and being used, next to some tents and other holiday accommodation. The two domes under construction were on raised scaffolding decks and sat a short distance beneath the hotel itself. One was already covered in a felt-like textile material; the other was still at the all-wood-stage, showing off triangular timber elements going to make the Geodesic. Each included timber entrance doorways, looking out over the magnificent landscape, and ventilation lanterns on their hemispherical roofs.

We stopped to take in the buildings. There were carpenters and builders at work in both. Stacks of timber rested between the two structures. Though it was unlikely anyone spoke English, and neither my son nor I had even the first rudiments of Kazakh phrases, we approached the carpenters. I began trying to talk with them. There were broad smiles, but beyond this, there was nothing in the way of conversation. The only hard information elicited was that the timber was Russian. A few photographs later, we thanked the workers and returned to the pathway to continue the hillside trek.

The domes, and in the mid-distance the other side of the valley, the Ger holiday village

I shouldn’t have been so surprised, of course. Geodesic domes, as an architect in Almaty said some days later, are well known and built, if sparingly, across Kazakhstan and across the steppe lands of central near East. Since their 1960s heyday, their dissemination has been almost total and pretty much worldwide. You can find them all over the planet, from Norway to South America, and indeed on the Alpine slopes above Almaty. Coming upon them outside the fittingly titled Nomadic Hotel, as accessories in glamping holidays may have stunned me for a minute or two, but this illustration of their uptake in Kazakhstan shows how closely, in this low-tech iteration, they connect to the country’s nomadic past and the lightweight structures that have been central to these cultures until relatively recently. Not far away, on the opposite hill across the valley, was another holiday site. Here, almost an entire village of Gers, the archetypal Asian steppe home, sat, welcoming Kazakhs who wanted to get back to their nomadic roots to stay and holiday. Just as Gers – or Yurts – have been colonised by the youthful new-age traveller scene – as well as others—for glamping, saunas, and the like, so this was an instance of, if you will, a counter-colonisation, taken from Captain America’s Design Scientist-in-chief, and made their own in the foothill reaches of the Tien Shan mountains. Their adaptation also illustrated how one future can connect almost seamlessly with another past: the Gers of Steppes with erstwhile hippie domes. It felt something like a living version of the dream convergence symbolised in that bible-tome of hippy construction culture, Lloyd Kahn’s Shelter. What remained intriguing was to wonder whether such new steps in 21st century Steppe vernacular will be taken further, both at the small scale (homes maybe, rather than glamping) or even the possibility of larger structures and buildings in Kazakhstan and the region. How long before Kazakhstan’s Buckminster Fuller, or Frei Otto, emerges? After this brief flurry of excitement, I stepped back from such castles in the sky speculation. More likely than not, I sensed, Geodesics informing possible Kazakhstani architectural futures pushed a fantasy a mite too far.

It may not have been the last, but as far as manmade structural surprises are concerned, coming upon this completely out-of-the-way project by chance was a particularly provocative extra to the Koldai Park trekking visit. Over the next few days, other wonders were to present themselves. By then, though, this man-made one had been and gone. I wondered how long it’d be before I came upon something else that spoke to 21st-century universality in what felt like such singular circumstances.