By HASSAN BUTT
Basking in its pale-green neoclassicism, Bodi Tower, east of Sukhbaatar Square and headquarters of Golomt Bank, darkens to a streaky, floodlit façade in the evening gloom. As the carved porticos clutch the Renaissance balconies, their baroque ornamentation is shrouded by the gaunt, forbidding brutalism of its posterior.
Completed in 1996 and tipping its hat to the sensationalism of Art Deco, the pastel structure sits among a procession of epochal styles, from the classicism of the Mongolian Stock Exchange to the colonial genre of the UB City Office.
Yet from palatial landmarks of liberty to derelict vestiges of Soviet influence, the multiplicity of Ulaanbaatar’s cityscape is perhaps one of its most essential features in an age of audacious vanity projects and vertical cities. Its architectural impression is distinct, deeply nuanced, and aligned with Mongolia’s agrarian heritage. It is anything but mundane.
But how does UB’s unique architectural imprint manifest itself? With most fast-paced, urban industrialization projects taking place in the last thirty years, the sacred spaces between old and new have quickly grown contemporary expressions. From commercial to residential, minimalism and open concepts have swarmed both exterior and interior design; windows are becoming larger, rooms are more flexible, and inside and outside become one. But as the fads of capitalism ravage UB’s civic landscape, the question of whether its increasing plurality should be celebrated or scorned is an important one.
One of Ulaanbaatar’s most recent projects, the United Family Intermed Hospital, opened its doors in September 2014. Sustainability-driven French firm Archetype Group (also responsible for an array of upcoming projects such as UB’s Porsche Center and the Nuudelchin Tower) administrated this glass-like, cubic building in the Khan-Uul District to facilitate “the first hospital built in Mongolia according to European standards.” The 90-bed health center boasted a 100 million MNT investment, with 200 subcontractors managing over 4,000 technicians and engineers. Less than 20 meters away, just over the road, the structure overlooks a collection of dilapidated Soviet buildings. If ever a contrast produced such immense entanglement between the historical revolutions of architecture, and in such close proximity, UB certainly holds standout examples. In similar ways all across the city, the everyday and the utopian oscillate in idiosyncratic arrangement.
Yet, Ulaanbaatar’s Soviet influence not only marked the most consistent period of its structural production, but also the efficacy of Mongolia’s twentieth century successes. Such successes were invariably tied to the ascendancy of the Soviet regime. UB’s Tengis Cinema and the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs were formerly heralded as the Yalalt Cinema and the Lenin Museum. Constructivism and rationalism swept through the nation, creating new measures of habitation that were strikingly different from traditional Mongolian housing.
Projects like Intermed Hospital are just another example of the blueprints of gentrification that sweep through many architectural trends, and although the fruits are progressive aesthetics, the question of how they relate to the domestic topography of Ulaanbaatar is crucial. With almost 70 percent of UB’s residents occupying the ger district that encircles much of the city, the framework for modal design might only be celebrated when abject poverty is acted upon first. The ger district certainly contributes to the realism of UB’s architecture; despite rural-to-urban migration being one of the most complex domestic challenges facing Mongolian ministers.
With its diverse range, Ulaanbaatar’s architecture flourishes in capacious dynamism, yet the challenge facing its future is a unique one. If portions of UB’s landscape continue to evolve with such frequency, then perhaps the distinct counterpoints of its structural foundations may become crippled in pastiche caricatures of cities unlike this one.