Vol. 5, No. 16-17 (September 01, 2012)

Architecture of Baku revisited

Robert Chenciner
Senior associate member, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford
Honorary member, Russian Academy of Sciences

I first visited Azerbaijan SSR in 1983 to participate in the First Azerbaijan Carpet Symposium, sponsored by UNESCO.  One thing led to another, and, as some readers may recall, in 1985 I put on the exhibition Architecture of Baku: Fabled capital of the Caspian at Heinz Gallery RIBA sponsored by inter alia UNESCO, which was warmly received in London.  The co-author of the catalogue was Emile Salmanov, a talented art historian, then based in Baku.  The designer was Michael Anikst, then the leading Moscow book designer.  I remember loading the plane by hand helped by Eldar Salayev who was Director of the Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijan SSR and Ramiz Abutalybov, then Foreign Minister and a senior member of the USSR National Commission for UNESCO.  He is still president of the Azerbaijan Commission for UNESCO.  Z. Baghirov, Minister of Culture, also gave support.  The exhibition was possible thanks to the magic of Sergei Klokov of MID, also of the USSR UNESCO Commission; and the generous support of Levi Kelaty of London, doyen of carpet merchants of Azerbaijan and USSR. 

Later in London, the foremost Soviet architect Academician Mikael Useinov appeared to relish his informal 80th jubilee at the Chelsea Arts Club where lunch stretched into dinner.  Among his vast work, he had built much of the Baku Metro and Nizami Square.  He was a keen supporter of the exhibition.  Richard Napier, Pierre Cardin’s designer, took some of the best photographs ever of Baku, especially the c.1500 Divan Khane; and Catherine Cooke, the Cambridge-educated foremost British authority on Constructivism, also helped on the history of those treasures of Baku, including the Penn Azernash building and the Armenikend Quarter.  Since then, I have been a nominator for Architecture of USSR and now Former Soviet states for Aga Khan Award for Architecture.  Sadly, there has been virtually nothing to nominate, with the stringent rules, for example, where a building has to have been in use for four years.  In Baku, a few years later Polad Bulbuloglu who at that stage was minister of culture, during dinner, half in jest, described me as a real Bakili and it is in that spirit that I write about the architecture of Baku today.  


Perhaps the essence of architecture of Baku today is the mixture of the Islamic and pre-Islamic architecture of the old city Icheri Sheher, with the capitalist international architecture of the late 19th century oil boom, Constructivist architecture of the 1920s-30s and Soviet architecture after the Great Patriotic War.  The second oil boom since independence has been marked by a mixture of some exciting architecture with unfortunately poor quality property development driven by profit at the expense of aesthetics.  The subtle problem is to maintain a balance, to enhance the treasures of Baku’s architectural history rather than to erase it.   

In the 1980s, Icheri Sheher contained its old mosques, as it does today, and the street plan of the medieval city.  Much of the walls were rebuilt around 1800.  Most of the buildings were two or three stories high, rebuilt during the oil boom of the late 1800s and early 1900s.  It was a traditional old-town that reflected its history.  It was inscribed on the UNESCO world heritage list in 2000, but the earthquake of 2003 when 70 per cent of the old city was damaged; and lack of planning regulation enforcement, led to its being placed on the “Danger List” in 2003.  It was re-instated in 2009.  

As a parallel in UK, since the 1960s medieval town centres were gutted to build new supermarkets and offices, in many ways similar to Icheri Sheher.  In response, UK English Heritage was created in 1983 as an independent commission, state-financed by law to look after about 400 historic sites, and to act as a filter for proposed high-rise developments in London.  It combined several existing organisations and therefore had more power.  In Azerbaijan, too, continual vigilance and serious funding is required to keep UNESCO world heritage site status for Icheri Sheher.  Poor controls were highlighted on 28 August 2007 by the fatal collapse of a newly built and still uninhabited 16-storey block of flats on Mukhtarov Street, right in the centre of Baku.  Perhaps Azerbaijan can create an equivalent independent single Heritage commission, properly funded by the state.  It could devise a program with UNESCO and other foreign architectural organisations to continue restoration of Icheri Sheher.  A model could be the meticulous restoration of old German cities such as Nurnberg, or the ArchNet studies by Elbai Kasim-Zade, which won an Aga Khan planning award. [1] This would complete Azerbaijan’s full return to the international architectural community, well deserved by the standards of the new flagship architecture.  

Around the world star architects (and others) have been transforming cities with breath-taking designs.  The cities with the most money to spend are the capitals of the new energy-rich states, such as Baku, Moscow, Astana, and Dubai, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi in the Gulf.  Hopefully, one objective is to build something that does not just look like a tall bar of gold.   

Indeed, Baku is putting on a remarkable modern face, with numerous head-turning projects towering above low-rise Soviet-era apartments and the medieval walled city.  It is premature to judge if the various landmark buildings and projects under construction will work well together.  They will hopefully form a coherent character, which will reflect the essences of the old and new Baku.  President Ilham Aliyev was at the opening ceremony for the London Olympics, so he will have had the opportunity to reflect if and how the associated new buildings fit in and work in London. 

Baku’s new landmark buildings initially may feel somewhat isolated, but the scale and quantity of the ongoing construction projects will mean that there is a unified statement to form a new focus of the Caspian Sea.  If you look at a map, there are too many new buildings marked to describe here, so I have chosen a few examples to provide a brief overview.  

First impressions are created on arrival.  The Heydar Aliyev International Airport has an almost finished new major façade designed by Arup, who states that the new terminal building will promote Baku and Azerbaijan to the wider world.  With projected demand of three million passengers per year, it is potentially a major hub for the whole of the Caucasus region.  The central complex is redolent of a Japanese Momoyama-dynasty castle, where, similarly, all details are individual, but integrated sculptural designs.  The Baku road system is far more than the usual airport boulevard.  It has clearly been appreciated how widespread urban road and parks architecture can create a feeling of well-being and set off the many new buildings.   

Crystal Hall, the 23,000 capacity multipurpose venue built on and into the Caspian, initially for the Eurovision song contest, was designed by architects Gerkan, Marg and Partners based in Hamburg, Germany, which also designed the Berlin Hauptbanhof.  Project Managers were Alpine Bau Deutschland AG, Nussli Group, and Basler & Hofmann AG and Main contractors SSF Ingenieure AG, Seele Austria GmbH & Co. KG.  There is nothing new about using foreign architects and contractors to build Baku.  The same happened during the first oil boom c.1900 and the post-revolution period when many of the great architects from Russia built in Baku.  Part of the oil-rich social life is the wish to host international events and the prestige, which this gives the hosts, considered as a flexing of “soft power.”  Baku has indeed become a location of choice in the region. 

Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre is redolent of the ancient windswept caves of Gobustan with their archetypal zoomorphic rock carvings, the snout and gills of a giant sturgeon and the shallow contours of the Caspian Sea.  “The Cultural Center houses a conference hall with three auditoriums, a library and a museum.  The project is intended to play an integral role in the intellectual life of the city.  Located close to the city center, the site plays a pivotal role in the redevelopment of Baku.  The neighboring area is designated for residential, offices, a hotel and commercial center, whilst the land between the Cultural Center and the city’s main thoroughfare will become the Cultural Plaza—an outdoor piazza for the Cultural Center as well as a welcoming space for the visitors.”

Another cultural creation, the strange, humorous and deeply satisfying unrolling carpet-shaped carpet museum, was designed by Austrian architects Hoffmann-Janz ZT GmbH and overlooks the coast.  It is near the International Mugham Center with an intimate concert hall that fits 350 people.  The design of the building was based on elements and shapes of the evoluted figure-of-eight tar, the Azeri musical instrument played in performing Mugham.  As with the carpet museum and several of the buildings described here, it takes a figurative or naturalistic curved shape.  Traditional music continues to be very popular in Azerbaijan with much exposure on television, and it is hoped that carpet weaving will be inspired to have a similar revival.  Well before my first visit to Baku in 1983, I was interested in Azerbaijan’s carpets, historical culture and Mugam music.  I am therefore delighted that a central part of the new architecture is devoted to both museums and the continuation of living traditions.  For example, the carpet center under Roya Taghieva will encourage weavers, embroiderers, natural dyers, hand-spinners, designers and all the arts of silk and wool that are central to Azerbaijan’s history and family architecture.   

The topological limitations of the Baku site are the coast, the existing city and the shape of the arid Absheron peninsula, with local oil fields.  One solution is to clear away parts of the city avoiding historical landmarks, and another is to build into the shallow sea near the former oil field road.  One ground-breaking work is known as White City—in contrast to Baku’s old name Black City, related to its oil pollution.  A 220-hectare former industrial site will accommodate offices, hotels, homes and facilities for 50,000 Baku residents and 48,000 workers.  It statedly may take decades to complete and may be less radical in its design.  The several Baku White City projects involve not only the British company “Atkins” that specializes in engineering designs, and Azerbaijani specialists, but also such luminary architect firms as Foster+Partners and F+A Architects. 
Already dominating the skyline are the iconic Flame Towers and the Baku TV Tower.  The Flame Towers look down like three mythological ancestors of the historic mysterious Sassanian Maiden’s Tower, imitating its unexplained, but characteristic and recognizable horizontal fins like a giant stone radiator.  Flames obviously reflect the local auto-combusting oil pools that made ancient Baku a centre of fire-worshippers and reappeared in the emblem of Azerbaijan.
Building started on the TV Tower in 1979 and completion was scheduled for 1985, but was delayed.  After the return of Heydar Aliyev to power in 1993, the construction of the tower was continued, and was opened in 1996, which makes it probably the last Soviet era building.  It is reminiscent of the equally iconic Berlin TV tower designed by the GDR architect Hermann Henselmann and opened in 1969.
Joining these soaring landmarks are some even more eye-popping structures: the towers of Crescent Place and the Hotel Crescent, designed by South Korean architects, Heerim, also the 39-story Crescent City and 38-floor future headquarters for the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR), won by international competition.  When completed in 2015, Hotel Crescent will stand on the banks of the Caspian Sea, its 33-stories housed in a vast, down-turned crescent.  A sister project was proposed, called the Full Moon Hotel, that would have brought something resembling the Death Star from “Star Wars” to the Caspian coastline. [2]

It all makes Baku an exciting place for the student of modern design.  It is a grand experiment in the future.  It appears to be designed to welcome, impress and enchant the visitor and the growing number of ex-pats who work in Azerbaijan, as a symbol of traditional Caucasian hospitality.  As in 1900, Baku has never been afraid of change, and it has always enjoyed its own individual eclectic style.  Baku’s population is now estimated at ~2.1 millions.  Hopefully these landmark buildings will inspire similar progress with social housing and solving the long-term water shortage, that will make Baku even more of a model for post-Soviet countries.  

From a consumer’s point of view, it seems to be working as well.  My friends in Daghestan—without prompting—have told me that there are an increased number of visitors to Baku from Daghestan and elsewhere in the Caucasus.  They enjoy the new grand boulevards and the opportunities to go on holiday-shopping trips.  They found that accommodation is modestly priced, for example at the new hotel near the low-level Swiss Embassy, near Icheri Sheher.  They are amazed by the changes, especially the thinking that has gone into renewal of the infrastructure of roads, walkways and parks.  Caspian Caucasians have long enjoyed their evening promenade in the cool, after a hot day.  It is a traditional family leisure activity, which has been built into the new architecture. 


[1] See http://archnet.org/library/sites/one-site.jsp?site_id=1630 (accessed 5 August 2012).

[2] Color images of all these buildings and many more can be accessed by searching  “Baku architecture” on Google Images.