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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

38-Story Marriott to Rise Over Almaty

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- In a country overrun with construction cranes, where new buildings tend to look like Persian carpets with lobbies, a sleek high-concept building design has city boosters excited.

The building, which broke ground in March, is to be the tallest in Central Asia. But few people in this booming city of 1.2 million seem animated by its height.

Rather, Almaty is aglow over its good taste. The six-building mixed-use project, known locally as the Marriott building because the tallest tower, 38 stories, will house a luxury Almaty JW Marriott Hotel, is notable for its graceful modern lines, light steel and glass encasement, clever geometric corners, and a near total lack of kitsch.

The project is not slated for completion until next year, but already many have declared it a symbol of the city's coal-hot potential, an iconic structure that reflects Almaty's potential economic might.

"This project and the others that will follow it will prove the coming of age of Almaty and Kazakhstan as a global economic force," said Nick James of the Almaty office of Aedas, an architecture firm with principal offices in London and Hong Kong.

The Marriott project is a residential, office, retail and fitness complex (actually named Esentai Park), designed by the New York firm Skidmore Owings & Merrill and set on a prominent plateau near where Almaty ends and snowcapped mountains begin.

"This building is high class," said Magzhan Auezov, managing director of Kazkommertsbank, the local bank financing the project, with a rap of his knuckles on his desk. "This building is a New York building. Or it could be in Europe."

Just a few years ago, this city was drab and run down, and its skyline looked unpromising. In 1997, Kazakhstan moved its capital from Almaty to a grass field 1,600 kilometers to the north. The new capital, Astana, appeared to many as a city on the move and the likely beneficiary of Kazakhstan's potentially huge oil and gas revenues as the energy fields in the Caspian Sea develop.

Now, Almaty seems to be on its way to becoming a city whose ambitions deserve to be taken seriously.

Almaty's unlikely odyssey has been powered by the high price of oil, a government push to keep commerce centered in Almaty, and foreign investor interest. Kazakhstan could become one of the bigger oil exporters, and already sells 1.3 million barrels of oil per day.

Almaty also incubates a feisty service sector, while its highly capitalized banks are the biggest private financial institutions in the former Soviet Union.

As the major investor in neighboring countries, Kazakhstan has been increasingly asserting its growing economic clout around the region.

For some in Almaty, the design-driven Marriott project reflects something even grander: a new sophistication.

"It's hard to describe what it was like in Almaty just a couple of years ago," said Natalya Sludskaya, editor in chief of the Kazakhstan edition of Cosmopolitan magazine. "There's a new style here. Men are more ambitious. Women are getting married later, they have their own apartments. Attitudes about sex are changing very fast. People know how to dress. Everything is changing."