World-famous architects are shaping the face of the Azerbaijani capital with astonishing architectural masterpieces.
Eight monumental concrete shells rise from the shores of the Caspian Sea, each topped with a roof resembling a petal. At the center stands a tower about 70 meters tall, shaped like a bud and destined to house a restaurant. A circular pool in the gigantic hall at its feet will be the venue for water shows. Synchronized swimmers will entertain the visitors who are expected to throng Deniz Mall and its numerous luxury boutiques when it opens in February 2020. Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, will be gaining yet another stunning architectural showstopper.
At the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, the city, which has a population of roughly 2.3 million and is the biggest in the Caucasian region, started reinventing itself as a hot spot for international show and sporting events – and for ambitious architecture that breaks the mold. In 2012, Baku hosted the European Song Contest (ESC), followed in 2015 by the European Games, the Islamic Solidarity Games in 2017 and, most recently, in May, the Europa League soccer final. Formula One races have been held in Baku since 2016; this coming June, three group matches and the quarter-final of the European Soccer Championship will be played in the national stadium, built in 2015. A large proportion of Azerbaijan’s vast oil and gas revenue is used to fund jaw-dropping building projects, designed by the world’s best architects, commissioned to give the city a new and radiant face. Like Baku’s airport, which resembles a gigantic, triangular drone and was designed by London-based planners Arup, who helped to build Jørn Utzorn’s famous opera house in Sydney. Or the Crystal Hall arena, custom-built for the ESC and designed by Hamburg architects Gerkan, Marg und Partner, the creative minds behind Berlin’s main railway station. And Deniz Mall, which may resemble a flower, but which the British architects at Chapman Taylor based on Azerbaijan’s national emblem: an eight-pointed star with a flame at the center. Although still a building site, it already attracts thousands of locals, who come here in the evenings to stroll along the promenade.
“The architectural development is intended to boost the quality of life of inhabitants, but also to increase Baku’s appeal for tourists by creating new landmarks,” says Ilgar Isbatov, vice-chairman of the Azerbaijani State Committee for Urban Planning and Architecture, summing up the city’s vision. Visitors have compared Baku to Dubai or Singapore because of the sheer density of modern buildings. “That’s flattering,” says Isbatov, “but we don’t to copy blindly; we want to go our own way and create our own identity.”
While the glittering cities on the Persian Gulf were built where there was previously only sand, Baku’s challenge is to strike a balance between tradition and the 21st century. The city, including the earliest settlements, looks back on a history spanning thousands of years. In the 12th century, it was the center of the kingdom of Shirvan, and the most recent parts of the 30-meter-tall Maiden Tower in the city center date back to this period. Later, Persians, Turks and Russians shaped the face of the city. Many of the new buildings reference Azerbaijan’s culture and history, like the Carpet Museum designed by Austrian architect Franz Janz, which opened in 2014. The building looks like a vast, rolled-up carpet and contains a rich collection of historic and modern carpets, which occupy a central role in the nation’s cultural heritage.
The Flame Towers, completed in 2013, take their inspiration from Zoroastrianism, a widespread religion across Central Asia in pre-Christian times that considered fire to be sacred. The three stylized flames, designed by U.S. architects HOK and erected on a hill overlooking Deniz Mall, are defining points in the city’s skyline. The towers, which are almost 182 meters tall, contain deluxe apartments, the Fairmont Hotel, corporate offices and showrooms – including the Italian sports car maker Lamborghini, which has a showroom on the ground floor of the smallest tower.
At night, the towers are illuminated in washes of different colors, like flames licking at the stars. During the day, the minarets of the adjacent mosque are reflected in their blue facade. Not that there are many places of worship outside the city center. “Baku has always been a secular place,” says Akhundov and lists the things that make the city special in the Islamic world: “In 1901, the first school for Islamic girls opened here; in 1908, the first Muslim opera was performed here and the first Muslim ballet in 1940. And in 1918, during the First Republic, women were given the right to vote.”
The city styles itself as the meeting place of Orient and Occident: In Istanbul, some 2000 kilometers further west, Europe touches Asia; the easternmost tip of the European continent is roughly 1400 kilometers northeast of Baku, on the border between Russia and Kazakhstan. Baku is officially part of the Middle East, but it is also a liberal Little Istanbul. It celebrates Islamic customs and a Western lifestyle and wants to attract visitors from the Arab and the Western world with excellent European and Asian cuisine, extravagant clubs and bars. Women in niqaabs walk alongside those in miniskirts.
The locals love the modern architecture. “These are truly great buildings,” says the young architect Elmir Huseynov. “They match the setting perfectly and they make the city more attractive.” Outside his studio in the old center, tourists stroll along the narrow lanes that smell of freshly baked bread and exotic spices. The Flame Towers are visible from nearly everywhere, and are a popular photo motif. “For us, the foreign projects are like a crash course in modern architecture, showing us things we never learned,” says the 38-year-old. “They are a great incentive to try even harder.”
Baku’s most striking building is the futurist Heydar Aliyev center, completed in 2012. The vast white complex, commissioned by the autocratic president Ilham Aliyev in honor of his father and predecessor, was designed by the late British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid. Its swooping curves were inspired by the waves of the world’s largest inland sea that lap on the beaches of Baku. The gleaming concrete and plastic façade reflects the light, transforming the building into an in-situ artwork – as well as a very popular location for selfies and wedding photos.
Despite the cluster of spectacular buildings, there is still space for new projects – or it is made. In a former industrial area close to the center – once called “Black City” on account of the dirt and pollution – the city is creating a “White City.” Where elegant apartments designed by British architects Atkins are being built, for over a century oil was pumped, stored and transported. The incredible wealth of the Nobel and Rothschild families is rooted here; Baku’s oil barons moved into neo-Gothic palaces dreamed up by European planners. After nearly 70 years of Soviet drabness, the city wants to hark back to these glory days: in White City, on an area larger than Monaco, nearly 130 000 people will one day live and work. The first residents have already moved in.
1 Crystal Hall
2 Deniz Mall
3 Flame Towers
4 Old Town With Maiden Tower
5 Port Baku Complex
6 Heydar Aliyev Center
7 White City Project
To get a piece of the construction action in Baku, increasing numbers of international architecture firms are opening up branch offices here on the Caspian Sea, like PPA Architects from Vienna. “The demand for sophisticated architecture is vast,” says managing director Georg Hämmerle. His company has just put the finishing touches to the plans for an apartment complex on a 15 000 plot of land and work is due to commence soon. Hämmerle, who spent many years working in the United Arab Emirates, is very satisfied: “In Europe there are hardly any spaces left to build on.” Here, the prospects for planners remain excellent: Baku is considering a bid to host the 2032 Olympic Games. By the end of 2020, the Frankfurt architecture team AS+P is to present a new development masterplan.
Top tips for Baku
Marble bathrooms, the old town and the Caspian Sea on its doorstep: The Four Seasons offers a stylish stay.
The monumental Palace of the Shirvanshahs was the seat of the Persian rulers in the 15th century.
Catch films, art and avantgarde theater at the Yarat Center for Contemporary Art. yarat.az
Old town charm and oriental flavors: Qaynana restaurant serves treats like lamb pilaf with pomegranate.