Boomtown Baku: The price some residents of the capital of Azerbaijan pay for the rapid development of their city.
“If oil is a king, then Baku is his throne.” The phrase is attributed to urban explorer JD Henry, or Winston Churchill. And sometimes there is talk of a queen. The words refer to the historically close relationship between the oil industry and urban development in the Azerbaijani capital.
Oil villas are the names of the bombastic buildings that the beneficiaries of the first oil boom at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century had built around the old town by European architects. Many of them stand along Istiqlaiyat Street; Gothic and baroque stylistic elements are mixed with Arabic decorative arts, so that I couldn’t imagine myself in Paris after all. The money from the oil boom these days is also flowing into architecture.
The new landmark of the city are the Flame Towers. The three towers with their glass facades, licking like flames, rise almost 200 meters above Baku. Apartments are housed in it, a hotel. Azerbaijan sees itself as the land of fire, it has always blazed due to escaping gas from crevices in the earth, it was worshiped by the Zoroastrians as a symbol of their deity. When I strolled across the Bulvar along the Caspian Sea in the evening, the towers were so illuminated that they really resembled blazing flames.
No building is more stunning than the Heydar Aliyew Center in Baku
The Towers aren’t the only modern buildings that give Baku at least the surface feel of a cosmopolitan city, as do the designer shops along Neftchilat Avenue. The Crystal Hall was built within a few months, it was the venue for the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012. The architects responsible for the design are based in Berlin, it is the office of gmp, Gerkan, Marg and Partners. The carpet museum, which architecturally resembles a carpet being rolled up, was designed by the Austrian architect Franz Janz. The mall next to it looks like the Sydney Opera House. Many Baku residents are proud of this development in their city.
But no building is more overwhelming than the Heydar Aliyew Center by the Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, who lived in London until her death in 2016. With its facade of white waves, it sits enthroned on a hill. It is named after the former president, who gave his name to every important building in the country, thanks to his son Ilham Aliyew, who succeeded him in office. In 2014, Zaha Hadid received an award from the London Design Museum for this. The protests surrounding the award ceremony shed light on the dark side of Baku’s architectural boom. Houses were evicted to make way for Hadid and other buildings; People lost their homes. There isn’t a word about this in the local newspapers. The dictatorship is also an architect’s paradise.
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