Azerbajian’s capital Baku is a fascinating modern city, with fabulous modern architecture, no doubt thanks to its oil wealth.
For modern Baku the only history that is visible is that of the last 20 years. And then especially of the spectacular, extravagant architecture that screams at you from every corner of the city. Forget Dubai, Baku is the place.
OK, there is a small old city, of which more later, and there are traces of Soviet construction remaining – most notably the huge Azerbaijani Government Building, but also, in some neighbourhoods, the five story apartment buildings that were so prominent in other ex-Soviet republics we have been to, and in Albania, where they were called palatis. But those few still existing are almost invisible, now tucked away behind newer buildings, and no doubt will be pulled down in the not so distant future to make way for more new buildings. Apartment buildings, often 15-20 stories high, built in a kind of classical, slightly conservative style. Not ugly, but unremarkable.
Or perhaps somebody decides to construct another mall, an office tower, or a sports facility. Quite a few are under construction right now, and from their skeleton forms they promise to make yet another contribution to the already impressive, and most remarkable, collection of ultra-modern buildings. Driving in from the airport the array starts with a view of the Olympic Stadium; never mind that Azerbaijan never hosted any Olympic games (and that Baku 2020 lost out against Tokyo), this is a truly beautiful stadium. A little further one passes a couple of tall office towers, one as series of cubes stacked onto each other. And then comes the Haider Aliyev Centre, a fabulous design without any corners, flowing from ground level to eight floors in one corner, four on the other side. Photogenic inside, and even more so outside: every angle invites yet another picture.
So it goes on and on, one building even more creative than another, sports centres and malls, or just another office. What to think of the Carpet Museum, in the form of a rolled-up carpet? Or the new Caspian Waterfront Mall in the shape of Sydney’s Opera House? Or, best of all, Baku’s blue glass signature buildings, the three Flame Towers, the tallest of which is 182 m high. Designed to symbolise the Land of Fire, the name for Azerbaijan derived from it being the birthplace of Zoroaster, who gave his name to the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism – the one with the fire temples -, it could equally well be interpreted as an ode to oil.
Because all these extravagant constructions need to be paid for, of course, and Azerbaijan, and Baku in particular, has been blessed with lots of oil, onshore and under the Caspian Sea. And it is obvious that some of this money spills into Baku. The city, surrounded by desert, has an abundance of parks, green and clean. Armies of gardeners and sweepers are kept at work to make sure that Baku shines: they polish the marble of the huge underpasses, that bring pedestrians from one side of one eight-lane avenue to the other, they maintain the many escalators down into the underpasses and back up again; they water the grass, and the plants and trees that provide shadow along the extensive 50 meter wide Bulvar park along the coast. But they can’t do anything about the faint smell of oil – not diesel or petrol, no, the smell of crude oil – that is present by inland winds, and spoils the walk along the water just a little. Just a reminder of why Baku is what it is: a fabulous, beautiful, cosmopolitan city in the middle of nowhere.
next: the old city