Architecture of Baku: Guide to Soviet Modernism

Soviet Modernist Architecture in Baku

The socialist architecture of the former Soviet republics is one of the domains that have received international attention recently. Once the iron curtain fell between the west and the east, socialist practices and movements of architecture have been recognized as a world heritage in western media and academia. Azerbaijan, one of the fifteen republics of the Soviet Union, has a fair share of that heritage.

While acclaimed globally, Soviet Modernism faces challenges in the national states that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The politics of the soviet past and rising nationalism in the former Soviet republics had a role in debating whether the soviet modernism is a national heritage in need of protection or a foreign element [read it as Russian] needs to be rejected. This debate posits itself differently in the various former Soviet republics, meanwhile in Baku it is nearly nonexistent or a part of a much wider movement of urbanism that aims at improving the built environment in favour of people

Another key question is that whether a modern architecture can be national. An argument is that the moment it becomes modern, it ceases to be national in qualities. Hence, it is quite difficult to assign romantic-national architecture to Soviet modernism. However, local modernist architecture trends emerge out of soviet modernism by giving rise to autochthon style of modernism in the Caucasus. Some Azerbaijani architects went further to identify the period of 1975-1985 as Baku Socialist Modernism. Therefore, there are certain elements which Baku can own.

No matter of these questions and debates the built environment was ideology-driven in helping to form the Soviet citizen as part of communist world order.

In post-soviet Baku, the situation regarding the architectural heritage of the soviet past is heartbreaking due to their decaying nature. In particular, the built environment of 1955-1991 is doomed to disappear and no policies in sight to preserve it.

Except for a handful of architects who have been doing all they can about raising awareness and influence decision making about the Soviet architecture of Baku, we are exceptionally nostalgic and sentimental about Soviet Modernism. This feeling of the Soviet-architectural-nostalgia looms out of many grey rectangular match-box shaped multi-story apartments in the microraion residential complexes of Baku. Wandering around all those, what some call it a totalitarian beauty, are melancholic, depressive and suicidal presence looms much larger overhelmingly.

Brief survey architecture of Baku during the Soviet Era

During the Soviet Union, architecture was subject to the changing tastes of the Soviet leaders. Every leader would enact an evolving policy about how architecture should be. There were two movements of architecture, Constructivism and Empire Style, before and during Stalin’s era. Khrushchev era saw the rise of architecture coined as Soviet Modernism and it lasted until the fall of the Soviet Union.  

Constructivism was a popular and flourishing modern architecture movement in the 1920s and the early 1930s in the Soviet Union. It combined technological innovation with a Russian Futurist influence, resulting in stylistically abstract geometric masses. It aimed at serving to meet the needs of changes in society of the time. One of the pioneering architects was the Vesnin brothers. Interestingly enough their first materialized constructivist project was built as workers’ town in Baku in 1925. Many other Azerbaijani architects, too, embraced constructivism in their early careers

In the mid-1930s, Constructivism fell out of favour and the Soviet leadership backed a policy of return to national traditions and roots. The architecture of this era is more known as the Stalinist Empire Style. In Azerbaijan, it produced a new wave called National Romanticism. This architecture advocated the adoption of decorations, ornaments and tall and larger arch-ways that rooted in Oriental and Azerbaijani culture. Leading architects of this movement in Azerbaijan were Mikayil Useynov and Sadig Dadashov.

The era of 1955-1991 radically changed the approaches to architecture and in particular urban planning. Rooted in the Russian avant-garde, Soviet Modernist architecture primarily oriented with utilitarian purposes whereas decorations and ornaments on buildings were rejected. Advanced methods and modern technologies required to boost industrialization and cost reduction. This is when massive, grey, tall, austere match-boxes appeared in the built environment of Baku. The notable projects of this era are Baku’s microraion residential complexes.

Soviet Modernism in Baku: Tracking Empire’s Last Style

The starting point for the Socialist Movement in architecture is the speech by Nikita Khrushchev at the closing of the All-Union Builders’ Conference on December 7, 1954. The essence of the Soviet architects’ creative focus has been reshaped for the decades to come until 1991.

The main objectives put before architects were to find a solution to housing problems of Soviet families and the solution had to be accomplished economically. This in return led to mass production and reproduction of standardized typical apartment blocks in residential complexes known as Microraions. 

Standardization and industrialization of construction and architecture brought up fetishism of economical and quantitative production of the house. Some argued it made cities monotonous, derivative and unexpressive. The individual approach to finding architecture solution has been replaced with mass production, aesthetic beauty dumped in favour or utilitarian and functionality. These had limited and restrained the potential of architects in the Soviet Republics in many ways. 

Despite the fact of the change in course of architecture, however, we could still see the construction of Satanist Empire Style architecture in the 1950s and early 1960s in Baku. The first multi-storey residential apartments were built in the mountainous part of Baku: Nariman Narimanov and Huseyn Javid avenues bear the best examples of this architecture: the campus of Academy of Sciences, Azerbaijan Technical University and residential apartments as such.

The first Microraion was built in 1957-1958 in Baku. This process has also intensified by opening Baku House Construction Factory (an industrial business conglomerate) in 1960. The early standardized residential complexes were 5-story houses. 9-story standardized houses were built from the 1970s and onward. 9-story standardized houses massively built in Ahmadli and Guneshli and 8th Microraoin. Eventually, this period saw the construction of nine Microraions and all of them are in the north of Baku city center.

Nonetheless, the Microraions and standardized house blocks are considered as banal and featureless by many, however, these are not what Soviet Modernism should be judged by. The distinctive work with the best practices through plasticity, transparency, airiness, spatial complexity, innovative methods of using contemporary materials, refinement of details, novelty and abstract imagery, and beauty of contrasting forms are the value and landmark designation of the Soviet Modernism. 

Baku, too, has iconic landmarks representing Soviet Modernism Architectures that deserve publicity, acclaim and praise. There few experimental residential apartments that exceptionally stands out, whereas most of the masterpieces are public buildings as administrative offices, sport complexes, concert halls or hotels. Here we attempt to track them down with past and present images and geo-locations as a guide to Soviet Modernism in Baku. Besides check this google map tracking each and every landmarks with exact locations.

Baku State Circus

  • Architect: Anvar Ismayılov, F. Leontyeva
  • Construction year: 1967
  • Status: Active,
  • Address: Samad Vurgun street

Republic Palace named after Heydar Aliyev

  • Architect: Vadim Shulgin
  • Construction year: 1972
  • Status: Active, renovated
  • Address: Bülbül avenue 35

Azerbaijan Statistics Committee

Baku Central Railway Station (Vagzal)

  • Architect: Architect: Shafiga Zejnalova, Yu. Kozlov, H. Ragimov
  • Construction year: 1970s
  • Status: Active, renovated
  • Address: Khatai avenue

Town Hall of Narimanov District (architects T. Khanlarov, I. Ibrahimov, 1980s), and Town Hall of Nizami District (architects T. Khanlarov, H. Mukhtarov, 1985)

Gulustan Palace

  • Architects: Hafiz Amirkhanov, Teodor Shcharinsky, N. İsmayılov, K. Karimov
  • Construction year: early 1982
  • Status: Active
  • Address: Istiqlaliyyet street 1

Sharg Bazaar

  • Architect: Uruzmag Revazov, P. Yarinovsky
  • Construction year: 1983
  • Status: Active, under renovation
  • Address: Khatai Avenue

Baku Olympic Center

  • Architect: Zeynab Guliyeva
  • Construction year: 1974
  • Status: Active, renovated
  • Address: Olimpiya street

Baku Sea Port

  • Architect: Anya Val, Vadim Shulgin, Irina Orlova-Stroqanova
  • Construction year: 1969
  • Status: Active, renovated
  • Address: Neftchilar avenue

Guest House for Diplomatic Delegations

  • Architect: Rasim Aliyev, Yevgeni Kiryashov
  • Construction year: 1970s
  • Status: Active, renovated
  • Address: Neftchilar avenue

Kapital Bank Office (SSSR Stroybank office)

  • Architect: Abram Surkin
  • Construction year: 1981
  • Status: Active, renovated
  • Address: Fuzuli street 71

Mirvari Kafe (Café Pearl)

  • Architect: Vadim Shulgin, Anya Val, Irina Orlova-Stroqanova
  • Construction year: 1961
  • Status: Active
  • Address: Seaside Boulevard

Hotels

Experimental 16-story Residential Apartments

Administrative Offices

(Note: No information found about architects and construction years)

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