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Complex culture: Heydar Aliyev Centre, Baku by Zaha Hadid

The vast Heydar Aliyev cultural centre in Azerbaijan’s capital city takes Zaha Hadid Architects’ startling design artistry to a new level and creates a world-class exhibition space, writes Felix Mara

Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) accepted the commission to design the Heydar Aliyev Centre, a cultural complex named after the former leader of the post-Soviet republic, following a competition in 2007.

Comprising a museum, auditorium and multipurpose hall, adrift in a Parametric sea of foyer space and landscaping near the centre of Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, it opened in May 2012, suffered fire damage two months later, yet since November 2013 has been successfully up and running.

The winning of the Eurovision song contest in 2011 notwithstanding, Azerbaijan and its capital Baku are still largely unknown among Britons. So visitors might be struck by the sweep of Baku’s coastline along the Caspian Sea, its verdant public squares, fine historic architecture and rusticated parades of luxury boutiques. Azerbaijan’s second oil boom brought affluence, a lot of cars and ultimately the hip fantasy world of Condé Nast’s Baku magazine.

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But 23 years after independence, there is a lingering presence of men in uniforms. The positive spin would be that Hadid took on the Baku commission with the intention of bringing democracy and liberalism to Azerbaijan in the form of the Heydar Aliyev Centre’s remarkable permeability and transparency.

Some may say that Hadid’s commission lacks a raison d’être, that the practice was just a big hired gun, chosen to roll out an eye-catching landmark for the capital. Even if the Republic of Azerbaijan chose Hadid for the sole reason that it wanted to entrust the design of a highly symbolic building to the best, and not simply the most prestigious architect, this would not in itself mean the project was inherently flawed. The litmus test needed to determine whether the Aliyev centre is more than an import involves evaluating the specificity of its as-built programme and response to its site and regional context.

Complex culture: Heydar Aliyev Centre, Baku by Zaha Hadid

The answer to the first question might be, ‘Of course the centre is a specific response to a specific brief’. Its component parts are either clearly articulated as volumes or, in the case of the museum, navigable, and its circulation diagram is logical. The multipurpose hall can be subdivided and the generous shallow cascade of its principal steps also serve as display platforms. But, using the phrase rather loosely, has the government foisted a white elephant upon itself? As Hanif Kara of concept structural engineer AKTII observes, the programme was quite vague in the early stages and, leaving aside the auditorium, there was uncertainty about what was to be included.

The proposed library in the eight-storey peak in the north-west corner has not materialised, and there are now plans to fit out its unoccupied upper floors as a restaurant. When I visited in November, in what felt like a second take on its original opening ceremony, many of the white spaces seemed to be searching for an accommodation schedule - beautiful to behold, but sparsely populated by historic presidential limousines and, in one room, worthy but narcissistic paintings of the centre itself. The shell epithet is double-edged. But, like some of the unfortunate furnishing in the foyers, these spaces are better seen as reflecting the client’s style of occupation than flawed design and, budget permitting, there’s no reason why they couldn’t host world-class exhibitions.

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ZHA has taken advantage of the long rectangular sloping site, locating the complex in a commanding position at its top end, which is furthest from the city centre. Looking back down across the site, the white panel-clad complex is seen against the backdrop of the Caspian Sea. One of the few memorable buildings at the perimeter of the site, beyond the ring of traffic lanes, has an eerie resemblance to Ceauşescu’s palace in Bucharest, and forms a secondary backdrop to the north. Where there was a sharp drop in the site, ZHA introduced underground parking and covered it with sloping stepped terraces and plaza space, animated by pools and, most spectacularly of all, a slow-motion waterfall flowing into a recess behind a still infinity pond.

At the south end is a concrete and glass pavilion with a cantilevered roof which looks wafer thin, and a plaza of white concrete panels surrounding the centre forms a continuum with its polyester cladding, with a strongly directional grid of recessed joints like the seams of a quilted parka. This windswept landscape seems underused by day and to my ears blighted by traffic noise but, according to project designer and architect Saffet Kaya Bekiroğlu, it’s very popular with rollerbladers at night, when the space is transformed by concealed lighting. ‘We encourage people to climb the building,’ he jests.

The question of Hadid’s response to the regional context is more complex. Having decided to commission an overseas designer, the client would hardly have expected an outcome which resembled its indigenous architecture, least of all from the pen of Zaha Hadid. Baku’s lovingly conserved building stock combines Islamic and Western European architecture, along with additions from the Stalin and Khruschev eras, but, as critic and architect Joseph Giovannini has suggested, an essential reference point is the opaque, regimented, classicising Government House, completed in 1951 and the antithesis to the democratising Heydar Aliyev Centre.

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On another level, you could look to responses to the wider genius of place, the sunny blue skies and the Caspian Sea, or to the strong wind said to be involved in Baku’s etymology. Viewed from the south, it resembles a turban, unravelling in the wind and, turning to Azerbaijan’s nomadic Turkic heritage, others have compared it to a tent. Textiles, which figure in much of Hadid’s design experimentation, are an apt image for a former Silk Road caravanserai.

While we have at least established that the Aliyev centre is more than a luxury import, it must of course be seen in the context of ZHA’s earlier work and should be credited for expanding its frontiers. The soft, fluid, voluptuous direction in the practice’s work, aided by digital technology, has been taken to a new level here, and the external envelope seems to be dancing in space, guided by the lithe wrists and ankles of a limpid ballerina. This illusion of weightlessness is created by the imaginative design and construction of the external envelope and the space frame which supports it, and relies on untold investment by a powerful and determined client.

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