Nov 20, 201301:41 PMPoint of View
Zaha Hadid's Curvy New Gem on the Caspian
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It’s fitting that the “City of Winds” would have a building like the Heydar Aliyev Center as its new cultural and geographic heart. I am referring to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan whose blustery clime earned the city its lyrical moniker. Situated between two wind currents—one winterly, the other, mild and warm—Baku is racked by the resulting crossfire, so to speak. The center appears poised at their nexus, its suggestive curves and folds physically channeling the incompatible forces that meet there. From some angles, the building, by Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA), resembles a billowing sail or a coiled mollusk shell. At others, especially from the main facade, the lithe, sinuous walls swoosh like a flying carpet. Frozen in place, yet still something dynamic.
Almost martian in its appearance, the 619,000-square-foot structure is everything that Baku’s generally gray cityscape isn’t. Where the Soviet-era buildings in the city are wan, rigid, and inflexible, ZHA’s design is starkly white and light-footed. The Heydar Aliyev Center crowns a green swatch of sloped lawn crisscrossed with pedestrian paths. The landscape is riven with stairs and platforms that narrow and widen as they make their way towards the center’s entrance. Set far back from its neighbors, the building has plenty of space to perform its acrobatic backflips.
Courtesy Iwan Baan
For project architect Saffet Kaya Bekiroglu, the curves aren’t an entirely alien urban element, and therefore, avoid becoming excessive. “Fluidity in architecture is not new to this region,” he writes, before citing a litany of examples culled from the city’s historic Islamic architecture. Echoed in ZHA’s design, he says, are traditional ornamental patterns and looping lines of calligraphy that “flow from carpets to walls, walls to ceilings, ceilings to domes, establishing seamless relationships and blurring distinctions between architectural elements and the ground they inhabit.”
The building and the plinth do indeed seem spun out of the same sculpting material. Walls clad in glass-fiber-reinforced polyester panels emerge organically from the concrete ground plane in waves. They fold in over themselves to form arched ceilings or, conversely, ramps. The resulting interior spaces may have the feel of a cocoon or cathedral, depending on the height of the surrounding walls. The performance hall and auditorium is more of the former, an amorphous container wrapped in timber and animated by the wispy streaks of light emanating from the ceiling, walls, and floor. Elsewhere, the building’s other spaces, particularly the library but even hallways, are characterized by a loftiness almost Gothic in its resplendence.
Courtesy Hélène Binet