Azerbaijan International

Winter 1998 (6.4)
Pages 24-28


The Metamorphosis of Architecture
and Urban Development in Azerbaijan

by Pirouz Khanlou

Baku ArchitectureThe state of architecture in Azerbaijan today is one of dramatic change and transition. Here architect Pirouz Khanlou describes the path that architecture has taken throughout this past century and where it is headed. The purpose of this article is not to elaborate the history of Azerbaijan's architecture, but rather to discuss its transformation and define some of its current needs and problems.

How do you embrace the future without discarding the past? This question brings to mind the figure of the Roman god Janus, an astute personage who is always pictured with two faces, looking forward and backward at the same time. The month of January was named after this god because he was identified with beginnings. Newly independent countries like Azerbaijan need to adopt both profiles just like Janus, as they look ahead to the prospect of the future while at the same time not forgetting their past. The question is how to transition to a free market economy while remaining integrated within the cultural and historical framework of the past.

As an architect, I wonder how Azerbaijan will face the future and its challenges and yet protect its own rich cultural and architectural heritage. For instance, will it be able to preserve the exotic medieval Inner City (Ichari Shahar) and Baku's 19th- and early 20th-century center, which fuse a variety of European styles (Neo-classical, German and Italian Renaissance Revival, French Gothic, Art Nouveau) with Eastern styles (Safavid, Persian, Cairo, Ottoman and Magrebi)?

Being the capital city, it is Baku that becomes the model for the rest of Azerbaijan. Baku is perhaps the only true Eurasian city on the world map, not only geographically but in its unique ability to synthesize both European and Asian architectural styles which are indicative of the mental synthesis that has taken place in cultural and social realms as well. This uniqueness must be maintained and fostered.

Baku Architecture

Baku Architecture

The residence of the Sadigov Brothers is one of many eclectic buildings based on an eclectic style in central Baku. Here a French Islamic Magrebi style presents an interesting design solution for a corner building. Architect: Ter Mikelov (1911).

Right: Perspective of Kirov Monument at Baku's summit (1951). It resembles an ambitious Stalinist Fascist architecture with its grandiose scale overlooking the city. Kirov's statue was pulled down when Azerbaijan gained its independence (1991). Architect: L. Elin.

Oil Boom
The turn-of-the-century Oil Boom triggered a "Big Bang" in the architectural history of Baku. Before this time, Baku had been only a sleepy little town that did not play a major role in the region, especially compared to Tabriz (now Iran), Tbilisi (now Georgia) and Istanbul (Turkey). Beginning in the 1880s, however, hundreds of new buildings and residences were constructed, each more extravagant than the next, as Oil Barons competed with one another to see who could create the most spectacular building.

By the early 1900s, Baku had become a fully developed, sophisticated metropolitan center in the Caucasus. Based on a well-planned urban design, its municipal infrastructure included parks, streets, public transportation, along with a safe water supply, sewage and railway systems. There were numerous public buildings such as schools, hospitals, opera and drama theaters, government buildings, mosques and cathedrals. Perhaps most noteworthy were the elegant private residences built by the oil barons. Baku's existing downtown is a brilliant manifestation of this period. The industrial district on the north side of Baku, familiarly known as "Black City" (Gara Shahar), was characterized by the state-of-the-art petroleum industry of its time, and included industrial buildings, refineries, exploration facilities, a related manufacturing and transportation system as well as housing for the workers.

The Oil Boom, based on private ownership and entrepreneurship, came to a screeching halt when the Bolsheviks toppled the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan and took over Baku (April 1920). Thus began a completely new era in the history of the country, affecting every aspect of political, economic and social life, including architecture. The luxurious residences of the oil barons and other industrialists were seized and all personal belongings were confiscated. Except for the grandest of buildings, mansions were partitioned into apartments and assigned to numerous families. The glory of the past was reduced to "communal dwellings."

General view of industrial development­Balakhani in the "Black City" of Baku of early 20th century.

Right: Yesterday's dream (1963): a socialist mass housing development in Micro Region No. 1, Baku. Today's reality: poorly maintained apartment complexes. Ganjlik region, Baku.

Baku Architecture

Baku Architecture

Soviet Planning
The decade between 1920 and 1930 could be called the "Decade of Transition". Russian intellectuals and the avant-garde were excited about the Socialist Revolution and were in search of a New Soviet Man and a socialist society. Naturally, these mainstream revolutionary movements influenced the new Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. At this time, New Economic Planning (NEP) was implemented. City planning was organized primarily by Moscow, and local architects and urban planners were influenced by Modernists such as Le Corubsier (projects like "unit d'habitation") and especially Constructivists like Moises Ginsburg.

Between the 1930s and mid-1950s, Baku, like many other Soviet cities, was given a Master Plan. This period can be categorized as the Stalinist period, during which large-scale buildings of solid quality and construction were erected. Many public buildings and infrastructure projects were undertaken at this time such as the Ministries building and numerous apartment buildings. Many of these housing projects were based on typical socialist planning in which the massing was organized around communal gardens.

Between the late 1950s and the mid-1980s, there was a special emphasis on housing. Many large-scale housing projects were completed in Baku and other Azerbaijani cities. They were characterized by central socialist urban planning under the concept of "Ideal Communist City Planning." Micro-regions (suburbia) and satellite cities such as Sumgayit were built in Baku's outer limits. In general, this period is marked by large-scale mass housing projects, wide avenues, standardization of building design and construction method and the introduction of prefabricated construction elements. These projects reflect the era in which they were designed and constructed-such as the Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev periods.



Left: Azerbaijan International Bank and ISR Plaza adjacent Fountain Square which have just been completed.

Right: An example of poor eclectic design which has no relevance to its context in downtown Baku. Caricature of Persian architecture.

From the early 1980s until the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991, the Soviet bureaucracy, crippled by an economy that was nearly bankrupt, proved incapable of continuing its ambitious city planning and urban development projects. Tragically, it could not even maintain its existing buildings and aging infrastructure.

Photo: New development in the "Inner City" behind a medieval courtyard.

A primary reason for this collapse was that Soviet technology had become hopelessly outdated. The West, spurred to sudden growth by developments in the computer industry, went through what amounted to a second industrial revolution, whereas the Soviet Union fell behind. Soviet products could no longer compete on the world market because they were built with technology from the 1970s. Huge Azerbaijani factories such as the ones in Sumgayit became good for nothing more than scrap metal.

The Perestroika and Glasnost phases of the Gorbachev era played an important role in opening up the Soviet Union to the outside world. In September 1990, the SSR Azerbaijan hosted the First Azerbaijani Business Congress in Baku, attracting several hundred business representatives, companies and entrepreneurs from all over the world. For the first time since the collapse of the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan (1920), this marked an independent effort by Azerbaijanis to connect to the outside world. It is interesting to look back now and realize that many of these same businessmen have returned to Azerbaijan to initiate new projects and bring foreign investment to the country.

Azerbaijan Press House influenced by Constructivist architecture S. Pen (1934).

Right: Constructivist design proposal for a cultural center in the Bailov region. Architect: L. Vesnins (1937).

New Momentum
In 1994 with the signing of the "Contract of the Century," as Azerbaijanis dub the contract with AIOC, a new stage of development for Azerbaijani business began. As Western oil companies began to establish offices in Baku, there was an urgent need for modern strategic service industries such as telecommunications, transportation, banking, insurance and hotels. It became crucial to make the country "business-able." Since late 1995, many major commercial and residential construction projects have been initiated. Some have already been completed, while others are still under construction. This renewed development is somewhat reminiscent of the Oil Boom of the late 1800s-after nearly 80 years, a new energy is being pumped into the architectural development of the country.

For the most part, construction and development has been so rapid that legislation has not been able to keep pace, especially in terms of municipal ordinances such as city zoning and building codes (regulations), and the establishment of various architectural commissions and other appropriate governing bodies. The Soviet regulations of the past no longer apply or fulfill the needs of the present day, and new laws have yet to take their place. There are no systematic rules and regulations that apply to modern construction technology or fulfill present needs for contemporary building and development.

Right now with the new privatization, rules and regulations are interpreted individually. To prevent this, Baku city needs to have a working plan-checking system, clear zoning definitions and a building inspection system that is fairly and correctly implemented.

This is a determining moment in Azerbaijan's history. So many changes are going on that the transformation seems quite overwhelming. Baku was not designed to handle this much growth. At the same time, it cannot inhibit growth, nor should it. It is time to deal seriously with these issues so that Baku's appearance will be protected and the health, environment, safety and well-being of its entire population will be guaranteed.

Baku in 1806. 1822. 1854. 1878

1898. 1918. After 1918

A Master Plan
Baku needs a revised Master Plan. The most recent one was introduced in 1984 after 12 years of deliberation. It was supposed to be completed by 2005, but quickly became outdated in 1991 when Azerbaijan began its path from a centralized state economy to a market economy.

An independent country with a new governmental structure and a new privatized market economy requires a service sector, including banking, insurance, transportation, shipping, airports, terminals, business and commercial projects, housing and mixed-use developments. This infrastructure requires many new buildings: hotels and restaurants for the tourism industry, shopping centers, business centers, communication centers, sports facilities, conference centers, etc.

A new Master Plan must address the needs of a market-based society, especially needs created by economic and population growth. For example, in Baku there are still no guidelines in place regarding parking requirements in new buildings, not even high rise buildings. The concept of parking inside a building is still so new that one city building official recently told a foreign developer that it was dangerous for cars to be parked in garages underneath the building! With the recent multiplication of cars in Baku, traffic and parking is already an issue, and will soon become a more serious problem.

Petroleum office building influenced by the modern movement (1952).

Internal Refugees
The tragic displacement of nearly one million internal refugees due to Armenia's occupation of close to 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory has exacerbated the situation. Baku alone has seen an influx of 200,000 to 300,000 refugees, stretching the city's infrastructure beyond its capability. Ten years ago, the population of Baku was less than 1.5 million; today it is closer to 2 million. In addition to the fact that these people need jobs, the strain on public services is unprecedented.

Nearly every section of the city, some more frequently than others, has to cope with the sudden interruption of utilities, whether it be water, gas or electricity. This is the norm rather than the exception. There are immense plumbing problems as faucets run and cannot be shut off. The city's sewage system was not built to handle its present load. Streets are in disrepair and filled with treacherous potholes. Telephones are still far from adequate, even though immense improvement has taken place since 1995.

Left: General view of industrial development - Balakhani in the "Black City" of Baku of early 20th century.

Well-thought-out zoning codes need to be studied and implemented so that they will regulate commercial, high-density and low-density residential areas as well as hospitals, schools and agricultural areas in an appropriate manner. For example, in the Inner City, office buildings and companies have already invaded a historic residential area.

Building Codes
Well-developed, modern building codes and regulations need to be implemented along with a fair but strict inspection system. Currently, there is no systematic plan-checking protocol that guarantees that building codes and regulations are followed before a building permit is issued. Outdated Soviet-era building codes don't take into account appropriate building safety requirements or new kinds of construction technology.

Baku needs a safe, reliable transportation system that incorporates public transportation such as the Metro, tram and bus systems as well as private vehicles. In 1995, the worst Metro accident in world history took place in Baku when a fire broke out in a subway car during rush hour. More than 300 people lost their lives in the nightmarish scenario that followed, as passengers were trapped and suffocated in the train cars. Other aspects of the city's public transportation system are also in desperate need of repair. Buses are dilapidated and need maintenance. Tram cables often slip off of their electric wires, resulting in traffic jams and delays. These systems need to be studied and updated and put on regular maintenance programs.

Traffic patterns need to be studied and systematized. Baku was planned during the Soviet period when private ownership of cars was rare. Most people relied upon public transportation, as ownership of cars was restricted to government officials and extremely privileged Party members. These days, however, cars are widely available. During the past five years, the private use of cars in Baku has increased at least twenty-fold. Consequently, the desperately outdated traffic system does not work anymore.

For example, there is no system for making left turns or U-turns in the city. Instead, one has to drive to a roundabout that may be miles away. Most city streets are based on a one-way system, but not in a consistent, predictable pattern of alternating streets. There is an enormous amount of redundant traffic movement, which results in street congestion, pollution, wear and tear on the streets and vehicles as well as waste of fuel-not to mention the amount of time that is lost. This is especially true in central Baku and the Inner City.

Historical Buildings
Azerbaijanis also need to have a better understanding of the architectural structure of their historical buildings. In many old buildings, columns are three feet or more in diameter. There have been occasions when contractors thought that they could hack away at the outside of the column to decrease its size, not realizing that the strength of the column is in its outer concrete rim, not in the center, which is usually filled with loose debris and rubble. Such ignorance can cause entire buildings to collapse. Not long ago, a column in one old building was removed, causing the entire building to collapse into tons of debris.

Conservation and renovation regulations should be passed and strictly enforced; otherwise, the beauty and uniqueness of many of Baku's older buildings will be at risk. Of course, this threat is nothing new, as the Soviets were notorious for dividing beautiful mansions into numerous one- and two-room apartments, giving residents no choice but to share kitchen and bathroom facilities.

Inner City (Ichari Shahar)
The development going on in the Inner City should be re-examined. The narrow lanes and alleys of the Inner City were primarily designed for pedestrian use. In a few places, camel caravans and horses could navigate the area. Now, because of a lack of zoning regulations, nearly a dozen international companies have moved their offices inside the 12th-century citadel walls, simply because management was intrigued by the exotic location. As a result, there are frequent traffic jams.

First, the Inner City should be preserved to maintain the pulse of the vibrant residential community that has lived there for many generations. Large corporate offices should not be allowed in the central part of town. Second, the outer edges of the Inner City should be developed to attract tourists with gift shops, restaurants and other sites. Of course, there are many gray areas when it comes to conserving buildings. Inevitably change will and should result simply because building materials are different today from what they were 100 years ago.

Training of Architects
Today's architects, planners and engineers need to be trained for the future. Azerbaijanis are at an extreme disadvantage, as their knowledge has become obsolete. Examples such as the unfinished Baku airport (Bina) and the old Moscow and Karabakh hotels illustrate that local architects don't understand the basic principles of airport and hotel design.

Architects need to be retrained. Exposure to the outside world is essential. Architecture schools in Azerbaijan would benefit tremendously from new curricula, architecture books and journals, exchange programs, seminars, visiting professors and relationships with international institutes. Students need exposure to architecture in other countries, which of course means traveling there. Architects also need to have exposure to the latest concepts set forth in international architectural books and journals.

Personal Responsibility
So far, I've discussed issues that must be implemented on a governmental level. Now I would like to mention the necessity of adopting a new mental attitude. With personal ownership comes the necessity of personal responsibility. In the past, Azerbaijanis took care of the interiors of their apartments, assuming that the government would maintain the exterior. In other words, they compartmentalized ownership between the individual and the state. If something belonged to the state, they ignored it, or even abused it. This kind of mentality has to change.

In a market-based society, communities come together to make decisions about how their environment should look and be maintained. Azerbaijanis are still struggling with this concept. For even a simple decision like maintaining a public stairwell in an apartment building, neighbors are still floundering, not knowing how to organize themselves to agree upon a plan of action. Individuals must learn to participate in the decision-making process, and not just assume that someone else will take responsibility for the things that need to be done.

Mechanisms need to be created to incorporate input from the community into the existing environment. In this way, systems can correct themselves, and development can move ahead. Problems that we can't anticipate today will be handled wisely and in due course if there is a systematic framework for addressing them.

Azerbaijan International (6.4) Winter 1998.
© Azerbaijan International 1998. All rights reserved.

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