As a blizzard-y beast named Snowzilla descended upon the East Coast last weekend, many a city-dweller immediately grabbed a sled, yoga mat, garbage can lid and/or Rubbermaid laundry basket and high-tailed it to the nearest park boasting anything resembling a hill. Great … but wouldn’t it be lovely if urbanites had the luxury of sledding — or even downhill skiing — from atop their own apartment building?
That’s the idea behind Slalom House, a mixed-use apartment block where a traditional roof is replaced with a 1,000-foot ski slope winding down the top of the 21-story structure.
This actually isn’t the first building with a roof-cum-ski run to pop up in recent years. In Copenhagen, work is underway on the Amager Bakke Waste-To-Energy Plant, a massive municipal incinerator that doubles as a regional ski resort. That project, boasting a 333,700-square-foot (!) artificial ski slope, is designed by none other than well-coiffed Danish wunderkind Bjarke Ingels.
Slalom House, if completed, would be the world’s first residential building with an exterior ski slope.
Shortlisted at the 2015 World Architecture Festival in the Residential: Future Projects category, Slalom House was conceived by a consortium of Kazakh architects headed by Shokhan Mataibekov of the Union of Architects of Kazakhstan.
And it’s in the Kazakh capital city of Astana that Slalom House would be located.
Astana (the city was previously known as Akmola, Tslelinograd and a handful of other names before being named capital, literally, in 1997) is a fitting location for a 400-plus-unit housing complex with a shopping mall on the ground floor and a slalom course on its roof. With an annual average temperature that hovers just barely above the freezing mark and winters where minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit temps are par for the course, Astana is the second coldest capital city in the world behind Ulan Bator, Mongolia. (Ottawa previously held that second chilliest spot.)
Located smack dab in the middle of Kazakhstan amidst the vast Central Steppe, Astana is also exceptionally flat. Basically, it’s a city — a sports-obsessed one at that, with multiple ice hockey and soccer teams — boasting a winter sports-friendly climate but a winter sports-unfriendly terrain. As Mataibekov explained to CNN, it takes about four hours by car from Astana to reach the nearest ski slopes.
Nestled in the foothills of the Trans-lli Alatau mountains in the far southeast section of the country, Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city and former capital, sees most of the snow-centric sports action and has produced numerous champion skiers and winter sports athletes. Almaty was even in the running to host the 2022 Winter Olympics but narrowly lost the bid to Beijing.
With an estimated price tag of $70 million, Slalom House would bring year-round alpine skiing — snowboarding and likely sledding, too — to the heart of Astana while serving as a glistening new tourist attraction for a rapidly expanding economic hub located in the middle of nowhere.
And about that year-round part: While Astana’s long and brutal winters serve Slalom House well, the hill itself would be covered with Snowflex, “a synthetic material designed to simulate the slip and grip effects of real snow.” Thus, Slalom House’s slope would be skiable in the absence of precipitation and during the city's fleeting balmy-ish months.
While Mataibekov hints to CNN that there’s been serious interest in actually building Slalom House, it’s true that an apartment complex with a ski run up top may seem a stretch, if not excessively starry-eyed. Bonkers. Bananas. Not going to happen.
But have you seen Astana?
If not, allow me to introduce you …
Ak Orda Presidential Palace and the Golden Towers, Astana, Kazakhstan. (Photo: ninara/flickr)
Foster + Partners' Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center, Astana, Kazakhstan (Photo: ninara/flickr)
KazMunayGas headquarters Astana, Kazakhstan. (Photo: ninara/flickr)
Apartment towers in Astana, Kazakhstan. (Photo: ninara/flickr)
As you can see, Astana — a shiny post-Soviet Tomorrowland that resembles what would happen if one of the Teletubbies went to architecture school at Yale — is the best place to build an apartment complex with a ski run up top. Oil-rich, otherworldly and, most important, cold as hell, Astana couldn’t be more perfect if it tried.
Set to host the Expo 2017 with the theme of “Future Energy,” Astana is often regarded as the Dubai of Central Asia in that it’s insane-looking and dripping with cash. Like Dubai or even Las Vegas, the city’s aggressive, neo-futuristic skyline — a skyline dotted with sleek towers, glass pyramids, flying saucer-esque edifices and an observation tower that resembles an oversized lollipop — simply boggles the mind.
Writes the Guardian's Giles Fraser of this "flashy toy-city" in Central Asia: "… out of nowhere, Astana comes glistening into view, all shiny metal and glass, implausibly rising up from the Kazakh steppe like some post-modern Lego set that has stumbled into the opening sequence of ‘Dallas.’"
Formerly a provincial Soviet mining outpost with a notorious gulag prison camp on its outskirts, Astana — much like Brasilia, Canberra and Washington, D.C. — is a planned capital city. And given its isolated locale, it’s a planned capital city with ample room to grow. Since 1997, Astana has positively blown up with the population more than doubling and lavish — and huge — building projects going up left, right and everywhere in between. The city's population is expected to reach 1 million by 2030.
Speaking to CNN, local architect Serik Rustambekov explains the grand — and at times, daunting — scale that’s come to define Astana's architectural landscape:
You need to understand the Kazakh background to get a better picture of our world view. We're a nomadic civilization that developed over thousands of years in the vast expanse of Eurasia. Free space is more impressive to the Kazakh mindset than the type of congestion found in many European centers.
Architecture always represents the development of the state, of technology and of culture. As Astana is positioning itself as the center of Eurasia, a place where East meets West, a mixture of styles is quite appropriate.
And with so much cash being funneled into the construction of gargantuan structures influenced by the East, West and outer space, the Kazakh government has enlisted a who’s who of international starchitects to conceive these projects.
Most notable is Sir Norman Foster, whose titular London firm has overseen the design of some of Astana’s most rubberneck-inducing structures including the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, a hulking glass pyramid complete with 1,500-seat opera house that serves as “a global centre for religious understanding, the renunciation of violence and the promotion of faith and human equality.” And then there’s the Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center, a yurt-inspired shopping and leisure complex complete with an indoor tropical beach that stands as the world’s biggest tent with a floor area of over 1 million square feet.
In addition to Foster and other bold face names, Bjarke Ingels, certainly no stranger to audacious edifices that defy easy description, won an international design competition in 2009 for his vision of a new Astana National Library. Ingels' swooping design, in which “the circle, the rotunda, the arch and the yurt are merged into the form of a Moebius strip,” has yet to be completed.
While an impressive roster of celebrity architects imported from abroad have made their mark on Astana, a majority of the city's fanciful structures are, like Slalom House, indigenous designs. This includes the Stalinist-style Triumph of Astana apartment complex and Bayterek, a national monument/observation tower symbolizing a Khazak folktale in which Samruk, the magical bird of happiness, lays a whopper of a golden egg atop a poplar tree. Soaring over 300 feet above the center of Asanta like the overgrown lovechild of a backyard gazing ball and the Seattle Space Needle, Bayterek (aka "the Chupa Chups") was initially conceived by Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who, according to legend, first sketched out the idea on a cocktail napkin.
All of this considered, a housing developing with a roof that you can hot-dog down from the 21st floor wouldn't look at all out of place in the weird and wonderful Kazakh capital of Astana.