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Designing in Kazakhstan

Building a sports center amid a jagged mountain range poses a unique set of structural challenges.

New York Architect Audrey Matlock made a 6,368-mile leap from designing condominiums in Manhattan to designing a $12 million sports center near Almaty, Kazakhstan.

The largest of the former Soviet republics with an area of roughly 1 million square miles, Kazakhstan boasts a healthy economy and GDP that grew by an estimated 8.7% in 2007, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.

A private developer hired Matlock to design the Medeu Sports Center in the foothills of the Tian Shan Mountains, a spectacular setting near Kazakhstan's eastern border amid peaks that stretch in some spots to 15,000 ft. The sports project has received local government approval, and construction is expected to begin in 2009, with completion in 2010.

“The main features of the design have to do with its site in the foothills of very beautiful mountains. The profile is a jagged line of silhouettes behind this building. We felt it was important to not compete with the majestic profile of these mountains,” Matlock says.

That's why she sank the building below grade, so athletes will walk down a ramp to enter the lower tennis courts. Other sections of the planned 60,000 sq. ft. building are at grade level. A striated roof tilts toward the ground at the sides to conform with the setting and glass walls bring in natural light and the panoramic view.

It wasn't easy getting approval, Matlock says. Officials at first objected to the cantilevered design. “We know it was very sound and the engineering calculations proved that it met all code regulations in [the U.S.] and was safe. It's an earthquake zone — it was safe in that zone.”

The project, which includes indoor and outdoor tennis courts, a gym and Turkish baths, won the Chicago Athenaeum 2008 American Architecture Award.

Matlock, a native of Olean, N.Y. and graduate of the Yale University architectural school, is no stranger to awards. Her creations range from a museum to an aquarium, and offices. Her design of the 12-story, $35 million Chelsea Modern condo building developed by Madison Equities in New York has won seven awards, including one from the American Institute of Architects. The condos are 99% completed, and some buyers are moving in while the remaining interiors are finished, Matlock says.

The Kazakhstan building could scarcely be more different from the condo tower, says Frank Seta, president of New York-based Frank Seta & Associates, a wall and roof consulting firm. “Each project of Audrey's is unique” — and challenging, adds Seta, who worked on both Chelsea Modern and the Medeu Sports Center.

The roof design was complicated. “Usually this type of sports center doesn't have this type of span. We had to anticipate a certain amount of movement between sections of the roof.”

The foothills site also posed a challenge, Seta notes. “Not only is there high wind, I assume there's going to be a lot of snow during the wintertime. With the weight of the snow in winter versus summertime you are going to have a different load on the roof so it will move differently. That was one of our challenges during this design.”

When winter comes, the building will be well-insulated because it will be below grade, says Matlock. And the slope of the roof will help it blend onto the horizon. “It's a powerful natural statement.”

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