Zaha Hadid’s New Gem on the Caspian
Swept up in Baku: the architect's Heydar Aliyev Center in Azerbaijan's capital city is literally all curves.
It’s fitting that the “City of Winds” would have a building like the Heydar Aliyev Center as its new cultural and geographic heart. The city in question is 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 confluence.
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. All frozen in place, of course, yet strongly suggestive of dynamism.
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 acrobatics.
Courtesy Iwan Baan
For project architect Saffet Kaya Bekiroglu, the curves aren’t an entirely alien urban element, and so avoid becoming excessive. “Fluidity in architecture is not new to this region,” he says, before citing a litany of examples culled from the city’s historic Islamic architecture. Echoed in ZHA’s design, he adds, 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 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
The construction photos depict a flowing mesh of steel bars and joints that seems like a gleefully warped version of the visionary space frame projects of the 1970s. Shorn of its generic cladding material, the structure at least looked like it came from a recognizable history—one with a heritage of tectonics and technological expression—and not merely dropped in from an anonymous future. In some ways, the naked space frame seems more futuristic than the final built design, whose motivations, apart from formal experimentation, appear vague.
Courtesy Hufton + Crow
Squint and you might find the calligraphic lines Bekiroglu makes reference to; or you may notice how the tile grid overlay and its bombastic transformations evoke a kind of ornament. But then you could be missing the point altogether. While the architects couch the design language in the syntax of the region’s historic architecture, the building really could be anywhere. What you, or more accurately, the residents of Baku are really getting is a shiny new Zaha Hadid, Model E-C (Extra-Curves). It has its own quirks, for sure, but it handles very much like many of ZHA’s recent efforts, particularly the cultural buildings. Still, had any other starchitect or large architectural office been given the commission, it’s doubtful they could have produced something with this much verve.