As part of the former Soviet Union, the urbanism and architecture of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan on the Western coast of the Caspian Sea, was heavily influenced by the planning of that era. Since its independence in 1991, Azerbaijan has invested heavily in modernising and developing Baku’s infrastructure and architecture, departing from its legacy of normative Soviet Modernism.
Zaha Hadid Architects was appointed as design architects of the Heydar Aliyev Center following a competition in 2007. The centre, designed to become the primary building for the nation’s cultural programs, breaks from the rigid and often monumental Soviet architecture that is so prevalent in Baku, aspiring instead to express the sensibilities of Azeri culture and the optimism of a nation that looks to the future.
The design of Heydar Aliyev Center establishes a continuous, fluid relationship between its surrounding plaza and the building’s interior. The plaza, as the ground surface; accessible to all as part of Baku’s urban fabric, rises to envelop an equally public interior space and define a sequence of event spaces dedicated to the collective celebration of contemporary and traditional Azeri culture.
Elaborate forms, including undulations, bifurcations, folds and inflections modify this plaza surface into an architectural landscape that performs a multitude of functions: welcoming, embracing, and directing visitors through different levels of the interior. In this way, the building blurs the conventional differentiation between architectural object and urban landscape, building envelope and urban plaza, figure and ground, interior and exterior.
The Heydar Aliyev Center is a national symbol for Azerbaijan, a catalyst for regeneration and, in the broadest sense, a regional showpiece. Constructing Zaha Hadid Architects’ audacious design for the Center drew on expertise from Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the Commonwealth of
Independent States, as well as further afield. This explains the feel good factor and can do mentality, which made it possible. It was a labour of love and one that clearly paid off, given that it was named Design of the Year 2014 by the London Design Museum a first for an architectural project.
It is in the design of the auditorium that Zaha Hadid Architects’ approach can be seen at its most formalistic, and its swirling free form geometry in American white oak was one of the practice’s principal challenges to the project team. For specialist Ankara-based contractor, Ikoor, who were responsible for the construction of the auditorium, free-form meant anything but a free-for-all. The architects expected the outcome of their design exploration to be replicated to the letter, providing little scope for rationalisation and no possibility of “design creep.” The forms of the auditorium, appearing to metamorphose in algorithmic sequence from one bay to the next, could not be reduced to repetitive modules.
“As with all of our work, the Heydar Aliyev Center’s design evolved from our investigations and research of the site’s topography and the Center’s role within its broader cultural landscape. By employing these articulate relationships, the design is embedded within this context; unfolding the future cultural possibilities for the nation,” concludes Zaha Hadid Architects.