Contemporary Architecture in the Caspian Region: Baku
Baku just keeps building world-beating new buildings. Image: MasyuraN/Shutterstock
Some of the glorious smorgasbord of architecture that graces the Azerbaijani capital has come to global notice thanks to the Baku Grand Prix, during which Formula 1 cars squeal around the streets of the city centre. But there’s plenty more to see.
Until the mid-19th-century, Baku was tiny – essentially confined within the sturdily fortified walls of what is now the Unesco-listed Old City. A new town grew outside this maze of low-rise homes, fine stone mansions becoming ever grander as the first oil boom brought Baku untold wealth in the 1890s and 1900’s – after all, the region was producing as much as half of the world’s oil. However, a second oil boom that started around 2006 has brought the newest wave of architectural endeavour. This wave has added a whole new layer to the cityscape - including several utterly world-class contemporary masterpieces.
Zaha Hadid’s design for Baku’s Heydar Aliyev Center is reckoned one of the 21st-century’s most memorable anywhere. Image: Evgeniyqw /Shutterstock
The one building more than any that attracts architecture students to the city is Zaha Hadid’s extraordinary Heydar Aliyev Center. Part museum, part concert venue, the unreal building won the London Design Museum’s ‘Design of the Year’ award in 2014, with jury panellist Piers Gough describing the “swooning fluid” structure as “intoxicatingly beautiful” and “as pure and sexy as Marilyn [Monroe]’s blown skirt.”
Video of the Heydar Aliyev Center being built.
There’s barely a straight line in the whole structure, which flows with an organic form yet has a white skin that looks distinctly alien.
Despite its brilliance and great size, the Heydar Aliyev Centre is a little hidden away, though you do drive past it as you zoom into town from the airport along a wide expressway. The airport-to-town journey is lined with an ever-growing series of contemporary skyscrapers, most notably the tear-shaped AzerSu Building and the tall, blue-glass Socar Tower with its stylishly ‘woven’ tip.
The tip of Socar Tower. Image: Evgeniyqw/Shutterstock
AzerSu and Socar Towers as seen in architects’ sketches.Image: Heerim Architects & Planners Technical Design Dept.
In a similar vein but far more prominent from the city centre are the Flame Towers, a trio of 30+ storey skyscrapers that also come to tapered points of blue glass – remarkably, taken as a gigantic ensemble, they really do look like flames.
Image: Boris Stroujko/Shutterstock
And that effect is made explicit at night when the LED light show plays out, making it look as though the city’s skyline might actually be on fire.
The Flame Towers in action.
The effect is not just clever technology – it also fits with Azerbaijan’s former promotional message in which it dubbed itself the ‘Land of Fire.’ That in itself reflects several naturally occurring fire phenomena and one of the most intriguing historical fire temples anywhere. One of the Flame Towers is now the Fairmont Hotel offering phenomenal views across the bay from many guest rooms, though there are plenty of more accessible viewpoints from the nearby Dağüstü Park.
Deniz Mall (right) surveys a fog-bound Baku Bay with the semi-complete Crescent Bay building visible amongst other modern skyscrapers on the mid-distance horizon. Image: MasyuraN/Shutterstock
Two more modernist constructions bracket the central sweep of Baku Bay. At the western end, the brand new Deniz Mall is a luxury shopping centre built like a giant lotus flower rising out of the Caspian. The front of a passenger plane appears to crash through the wall of Kinderland children’s play zone.
And, though you wouldn’t necessarily notice it, there’s a diving platform right at the top of its tall, central atrium. From here on October 16, 2021, the King Kahekili cliff-diving competitors will throw themselves into a 12m transparent acrylic pool - the first time in history that this contest has been disputed indoors!
Around 2008 it had been put forward that there would be futuristic ‘sun’ and ‘moon’ buildings facing off at either end of Baku’s central Caspian promenade area. Where we now have the Deniz Mall would have been the sun, a gigantic flattened sphere that was nicknamed the death star by architectural pundits. Though that building’s design later changed drastically, across the bay, the attempts went ahead to build a skyscraper shaped like a crescent moon with its tips pointing down. But, for several years, construction seemed to have stalled halfway with the skeleton of the verticals in place.
Crescent Bay in 2019, shortly before the ‘mega truss’ was lifted into position. The boat in the foreground helps to hint at the enormous scale of the building. Image: leshiy985/Shutterstock
However, things restarted when the massive 2600 tonne upper cross-piece (or ‘mega-truss’) was lifted gingerly into place in 2019. That was a remarkable feat of engineering. Now known as Crescent Bay, the building is expected to open as a luxury hotel within a year or two, or once the reduction of the Covid pandemic allows for a renewed international tourism boom.
As the glass is installed, the upside-down crescent shape - that gives the development its name – becomes ever clearer. The whole structure looks particularly intriguing in the sunrise of a foggy morning.
On top of the spectacular main attractions, a feature of Baku’s architectural boom is the sheer number of less prominent buildings that one can stumble across relatively un-heralded, including a carpet museum designed like a rolled-up rug, the sleek Baku Convention Centre, the upliftingly airy airport buildings and plenty of other less noteworthy buildings.
Park Mall is one of many lesser-known Baku structures that has plenty of contemporary architectural pizazz. Image: MasyuraN/Shutterstock