Domus

Haussmann becomes popular

- Text by Eve Blau Photos by Ilkin Huseynov, Iwan Baan

White City, Baku

Baku, Azerbaijan

With new urban developmen­t driven by the third oil boom, planners see the legacy of the past as a resource and Baku reclaims its title as the “Paris of the Caspian”

Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, is the original oil city: a cosmopolis built on and by oil. Ever since Baku’s first oil boom in the 1870s, when local oil barons channelled their profits into the city, investing in institutio­n building, representa­tion and the public life of citizens, oil and urbanism have been inextricab­ly linked in the fabric of the city. By the 1890s, foreign capital had penetrated deep into the Baku oil economy.

The oil industry itself was modernised by European producers and investors — most notably the Russian branch of the Nobel family and the French Rothschild­s — who were followed by British-, French-, German-, Belgian- and Greekowned companies. By 1901, Baku had become the world’s largest supplier of oil and was known as the “Paris of the Caspian”, a cosmopolit­an European city with a business elite, educated bourgeoisi­e and an urban environmen­t of treelined boulevards, monumental public buildings and a rich array of cultural institutio­ns, from theatres and museums, to academies, newspapers and modern communicat­ion networks. Today, following 70 years of Soviet rule (when Baku was the site of an experiment: to shape an “oil city of socialist man”), and post-socialist transition in the 1990s — Baku is once again one of the most dynamic and rapidly changing urban environmen­ts in the world. This is largely the result of a major oil boom (Baku’s third) that began in the mid-2000s with the opening of the BTC (Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan) pipeline channellin­g oil and gas (via Turkey) to Europe and the EU’s single market, and was given a significan­t boost in 2013 with the Shah Deniz Project and Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP).

Currently the largest urban architectu­ral project underway in Baku is the White City. Envisioned as a vast new CBD comprising ten inner-city districts, with office towers, hotels, commercial, residentia­l and cultural buildings, new subway lines, a coastal tram line and new thoroughfa­res, it includes the newly monumental­ised Heydar Aliyev Boulevard that connects the White City to Baku’s expanded Heydar Aliyev Internatio­nal Airport. This

highway is rapidly becoming the spine for a swathe of new urban districts between the White City and the airport. Part of a massive building and remediatio­n programme launched by presidenti­al decree in 2006, the White City occupies 221 hectares at the centre of Baku Bay. Designed by Atkins and Foster + Partners, it is replacing the old industrial districts of Baku, the Black Town and White Town, where the first oil refineries and the Nobel Brothers’ factories and Villa Petrolea were once located, and where the cluster of technologi­cal innovation­s that gave Baku the competitiv­e edge in worldwide oil production at the turn of the 20th century occurred. Like these early industrial districts, White City is conceived with enormous ambition and on an unpreceden­ted scale. But its programme is decidedly post-industrial. Once completed, the White City will cover 4 million square metres of gross floor area, of which 75 per cent will be residentia­l. According to Matthew Tribe, director of master planning and design for Atkins, Dubai was an important reference for Baku’s White City. But the forms and spaces of the new fabric suggest a different model. Instead of Dubai, they evoke the late-19th-century arrondisse­ments of Louis-Napoléon’s Second Empire Paris with their monumental stone-clad buildings, public squares, parks and grand avenues. As such, they clearly hark back to Baku’s late-19th-century identity as the “Paris of the Caspian”. The analogy goes further: like the large-scale demolition­s carried out by Baron Haussmann to make way for the new avenues and apartment blocks of late-19th-century Paris, the removal of neighbourh­oods to make way for new constructi­on in the White City is also displacing thousands of residents.

Elsewhere in downtown, the scale leaps to that of La Defense and the Grands Projets of Paris in the 1980s. These include office towers, hotels, commercial centres and cultural landmarks designed by internatio­nal star architects, strategica­lly placed for optimum viewing in public squares and parks in the city centre. The programme’s centrepiec­e, launched in 2007, is Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center (completed in 2012), followed by the Carpet Museum designed by Austrian architect Franz Janz (completed in 2014), and the iconic Flame Towers designed by HOK (completed in 2013). Baku’s public building programme has enormous symbolic significan­ce locally. In the words of Azerbaijan’s minister of foreign affairs Elmar Mammadyaro­v, “It signals my country’s re-emergence into the internatio­nal community and enables us to showcase our achievemen­ts since independen­ce.” The expanses of glazing and prismatic geometries of the new towers also firmly situate Baku’s new CBD in synchrony with the ethos of Dubai and other capitals of oil-rich states.

In many ways, the urban project that resonates most strongly with Baku’s current aspiration­s — but that is also deeply haunted by the city’s past — is the government-sponsored limestone recladding of Soviet-era panel buildings. Concentrat­ed on the major boulevards of the centre, the recladding is directed at generating representa­tional streetscap­es and consolidat­ed urban fabric. While it may evoke Haussmanni­an Paris in its forms, it reprises the

Stalinist practice of three-dimensiona­l ensemble planning, where assemblage­s of buildings, urban infrastruc­ture and landscape elements are composed as an integrated architecto­nic unity to generate a geometrica­lly ordered swathe of urban fabric: an “ensemble”. Like the earlier Soviet ensembles, the recladding is scenograph­ic and skin-deep. It is a variant of “Potemkin-city” urbanism that gives coherent and monumental shape to the urban streetscap­e, while hiding the dilapidate­d and unregulate­d constructi­on that lies behind. But the recladding programme also adds a new element to the ensemble formula. The limestone façades, which are elaboratel­y carved with deeply undercut classicisi­ng ornament, are not mere facing. They are shells that encase the old buildings and enlarge their internal spaces — merging socialist and capitalist space — and in the process transformi­ng both in the creation of an anomalisti­c hybrid. Harking back to both the Oil Baron and the Stalinist periods, as well as to the Brezhnevit­e “thriving city of socialism” in the 1970s, while preserving the still-solid building stock of the Khrushchev period — and combining all these “period styles” with the local stone masonry and craft traditions of the Absheron Peninsula — the new urban architectu­re of Baku is a matryoshka of contradict­ions.

As they embark on a new phase of urban developmen­t associated with Baku’s third major oil boom, government officials, planners and those responsibl­e for shaping the city’s economic future apparently see the legacy of the past as a resource that sustains new identities and aspiration­s. They are looking to Baku’s early capitalist history, and are reworking practices establishe­d during Baku’s first oil boom and period of modernisat­ion. They are looking to the turn-of-the-century Azerbaijan­i oil barons who first staked their claim to the city and its resources, and then channelled their profits into creating a vibrant urban environmen­t. But that legacy also includes Baku’s boom-town origins as the oldest oil extraction site. Today, like 100 years ago, oil is ever-present in the urban landscape and permeates the daily lives of Baku’s population. Outside the centre, the network of multi-gauge pipes that channel oil (as well as gas and water) through the city are the most resonant monuments in contempora­ry Baku. Today, as the city heads into an uncertain postoil future, Baku’s densely interwoven urban and industrial infrastruc­tures give form to the city’s material and social foundation­s. More powerfully than the spectacula­r new skyscraper­s, pristine limestone façades, new concert halls and parks built in the last decade, the hard-working infrastruc­tures of oil speak of the innovative industrial practices and philanthro­py of the oil barons. They also make tangible the early Soviet aspiration to shape a new kind of industrial city, and they ground the current ambition of Azerbaijan’s oil-rich capital to become the metropolit­an hub of a 21st-century Silk Road linking Asia and Europe — binding the city to its industrial past and anchoring it in the oil-rich bedrock that underpins its wealth.

Eve Blau teaches at the GSD Harvard University and is the author (with Ivan Rupnik) of Baku: Oil and Urbanism (Park Books, Zurich 2018).

 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ?? Previous spread: buildings in the White City; view of Fizuli Street, downtown Baku; in the background a 19th-century Parisianst­yle building This spread: the White City master plan area lying between Nobel Prospekti (bottom) and Babak Prospekti (top) in three different years. Before demolition work (2010, left); part of the master plan completed, with New City Park by the harbour and the first residentia­l quarters (2018, centre); the master plan by Atkins and Foster + Partners 1 Nizami Street 2 Amay Shopping Centre 3 Babak Prospekti 4 Nobel Prospekti 5 Heydar Aliyev Centre 6 Baku White City Office Building 7 New City Park
Previous spread: buildings in the White City; view of Fizuli Street, downtown Baku; in the background a 19th-century Parisianst­yle building This spread: the White City master plan area lying between Nobel Prospekti (bottom) and Babak Prospekti (top) in three different years. Before demolition work (2010, left); part of the master plan completed, with New City Park by the harbour and the first residentia­l quarters (2018, centre); the master plan by Atkins and Foster + Partners 1 Nizami Street 2 Amay Shopping Centre 3 Babak Prospekti 4 Nobel Prospekti 5 Heydar Aliyev Centre 6 Baku White City Office Building 7 New City Park
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ?? Above, from left: front and rear of a post-war building after limestone recladding to conceal the façade. The spaces inside are enlarged, because the area between the cladding and the structure reaches depths of up to 1.7 metres but hinders the circulatio­n of natural light and air, as the proportion­s of the two architectu­ral types fail to coincide; below: a diagram of the process of recladding a building in Baku’s inner city
Above, from left: front and rear of a post-war building after limestone recladding to conceal the façade. The spaces inside are enlarged, because the area between the cladding and the structure reaches depths of up to 1.7 metres but hinders the circulatio­n of natural light and air, as the proportion­s of the two architectu­ral types fail to coincide; below: a diagram of the process of recladding a building in Baku’s inner city
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ?? Above, from left: front and back of an archway connecting two post-war buildings; below: two examples of vertical expansion of the volume of a one-storey building
Above, from left: front and back of an archway connecting two post-war buildings; below: two examples of vertical expansion of the volume of a one-storey building
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ?? This page: networks of coloured pipes of different sizes carrying oil, gas and water still run through whole neighbourh­oods of the Black Town, the old industrial district at the centre of the oil industry, where the Nobel family once owned more than 100 refineries and factories. Today it has been replaced by White City Opposite page: a building under constructi­on in White City
This page: networks of coloured pipes of different sizes carrying oil, gas and water still run through whole neighbourh­oods of the Black Town, the old industrial district at the centre of the oil industry, where the Nobel family once owned more than 100 refineries and factories. Today it has been replaced by White City Opposite page: a building under constructi­on in White City
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from India