Baku Architecture Guide: From Middle Ages to Contemporary Times

Table of Contents

Overview

Baku’s built environment overwhelmingly owes to oil. Without oil, Baku would be merely a small town in semi-desert arid climate. No matter how decisive oil was to Baku’s development as a city, individuals, culture, politics and ideologies independent of oil influence had their impact, too. Prior to oil development, Baku was a truly oriental town where spatial structures were based on the Muslim concept of urban planning. Continuity of oriental identity was broken by the Oil Barons of the late XIX and the early XX century. Oil riches opened Baku’s doors to European ideas of urban planning and architecture of eclecticism. Later the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 had shaken-up the existing economic and socio-political system. This led to Baku’s expansion and growth driven by the socialist ideology for the rest of the XX century. All these created an exceptional synthesis best described by Pirouz Khanlou as “Baku is perhaps the only true Eurasian city on the world map, not only geographically but in its unique ability to synthesize both European and Asian architectural styles…”

In the background of Baku’s transformation as a city and unique mixture of cultures, traditions and contradictions, we present you a guide to Baku Architecture. This will help you to prioritize neighbourhoods and attractions of your primary interests to explore or to have knowledge of what to do and to see upon your visit from the perspective of Architecture.


Medieval Baku Until 1860

Socio-Political Environment

Baku had been ruled by Shirvanshahs (Shahs of Shirvan, historic name of the north-eastern part of Azerbaijan) since Baku became a domain in Islamic Caliphate throughout most of medieval times. Originally an Arabic dynasty later became persianized under the influence of much dominant culture. In 1501, Baku was invaded by Shah Ismail I of the Safavid Empire which brought the reign of Shirvanshahs to an end. After the fall of the Safavid Empire, the chaos and power struggle made Baku a Khanate of an autonomous principality under Persian suzerainty. Lasted for a half of a century Baku Khanate ceased to exist with the Imperial Russia invasion in 1806.

Until 1860, Baku was just all about today what we call it Ichari Shahar (literally Inner City a name given later), the Old Town. It had a population about 7400. Almost all of them were Muslims. 

Bird-Eye View of Ichari Shahar, Baku Old Town

Development and Specifics of the Architecture

The architecture that developed in Shirvan has been nominally termed as Shirvan-Absheron Architecture School. Oriental and Islamic traditions of architecture from Persia had a large influence on the architecture in Baku. Nonetheless, Shirvan-Absheron Architecture School produced a brand-specific to this region.

The built environment, design and spatial structures were organized in accordance with the Muslim concept of urban planning. In medieval times, Baku consisted of Mahallas, traditional Muslim neighbourhoods. No matter how small they were but every Mahalla would have its own mosque, bathhouse, market square. The streets were narrow, curved and labyrinthine. Most houses were low, one story and they all had flat roofs which were used mostly in summer times.

The Palace of Shirvanshahs now
 The Shirvanshahs Palace (Urek Meniashvili / Public Domain)

The Shirvanshahs moved the capital to Baku two times in the medieval times: the 11th and the 15th centuries. Both occasions brought enormous changes to Baku. In the Eleventh Century, Manuchehr III ordered to fortify the city by building fortress walls on all the sides of the city. Those fortress walls survived to our times. In the fifteenth century, three Shirvanshahs resided in Baku permanently as their capital. During this time city underwent huge urbanization as well as the completion of the Ensemble of the Shirvanshahs Palace. This has left a legacy for Baku’s Ichari Shahar to depend until even today. Thus the architectural details and structure of Ichari Shahar came down to us from the 15th century. 

Today all the rehabilitation and restoration works have been carried carefully to preserve that medieval vibes and atmosphere in Ichari Shahar. This offers a unique opportunity to walk in an urban setting of the 15th century in the 21st century.

Neighbourhoods to Explore

The Maiden Tower (Gulustan / Public Domain)

Unmistakable, the must-visit neighbourhood to explore the medieval attractions of Baku is Ichari Shahar, aka the Old Town. Icheri Shahar is easily recognizable with high and grey Fortress Walls surrounding it. There are five entry points to on the Fortress Walls and they are accessible all day around. To the south of Icheri Shahar stands grand Baku Promenade along the Caspian Sea.

One can observe zones in Ichari Shahar, although there is no such a formal policy. There are commercially busy streets such as Boyuk Gala, Kichik Gala and Asef Zeynalli streets, the quarter where most of the historic attractions locate, such as the surroundings of the Shirvanshahs Palace, and most areas where only local people

It is still a residential area where some three thousand people live. As the most historic area it attracts a great deal of Bakuvians, to have their Sunday breakfast or weekday dinner with a view to architectural delights of Ichari Shahar.

Landmark Architectures

Landmark Architectures of XI century Medieval are Fortress Walls, XII century Maiden Tower, XV century the Shirvanshahs Palace and Muhammad Mosque and reconstructed Bibi Heybat Mosque. All of them except for Bibi Heybat Mosque are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. See the map of the attractions below. 


Oil Boom Architecture of Baku: the late XIX and early XX century

Socio-Political Environment

In its entirety, Baku had been part of Imperial Russian from 1806 to 1917. The Russian invasion cuts Baku’s ties with the oriental south. However, it was the devastating earthquake in 1859 in Shamakhi that changed everything.

In 1860 Baku became centre of Gubernia (an administrative division of Transcaucasia), hence the name Baku Gubernia. For the first time in ages, civilian engineers took a proper role to plan the city and expansion. Additionally, the development of the oil industry led to a massive investment of capital and an influx of emigration to Baku. 

Oil Wells of Baku circa 1900s

A small town now turned into a global industrial and modern centre. In 1901 Baku was one of the two largest oil producers in the world by surpassing the US oil production. Major industrialists of Europe, such as the Nobel Brothers, the Rothschild family, few emerging local entrepreneurs were leading actors of the oil industry.

Emigration also changed Baku’s human geography and made it a cosmopolitan city. In the 1850s Baku’s population was just about 7400 and the absolute majority of them were Muslim. In 1901 Baku’s official population was 150 000 and only one-third of them were Muslims. Alongside with Muslim Azerbaijanis, there were Russians, Jews, Armenians, Germans and Polish ethnicities.

During this time of period, Baku had been transformed into a metropolitan city with reminiscent of European metropolises or as they call it Paris of the Caucasus but with oriental spirit in its core.

Hajinski Mansion (Tim Beddow / Baku Magazine)

Development and Specifics of the Architecture

In this period, three factors that facilitated the transformation of Baku’s Oil Boom Architecture. Firstly, a greater role was given to civilian engineers and architects. In particular, civil architects of Saint Petersburg Civil Engineering Institute were instrumental in importing European Architecture and Planning to Baku. The second was the role played by the Oil Barons, a new generation emerged in Baku. They were not bonded with the traditional and customary lifestyle of Old Baku. And their oil riches enabled them to adopt new ideas and cultures and values of Europe. Thirdly, the evolving cosmopolitan environment contributed to plurality in the society. Cultural diversity and mixing ethnic groups enriched artistic expression and creativity in Baku’s Oil Boom Architecture. All these played an equal role in giving Baku a new architectural identity.

The defining characteristic of Baku’s Oil Boom Architecture is eclecticism. Some scholars go further calling it Baku Architecture of Eclecticism. As much as abovementioned three factors acted in harmony to start a new architecture movement in Baku, they clashed in regard to principles of architecture, personal tastes of the Oil Barons and their affiliation with particular cultural backgrounds. That clash could not be well-explained by anything but this popular saying that an Oil Baron summoning an architect and wishing “I want to have an entrance like in Taghiyev’s house, the dome like in Mukhtarov’s mansion, the porch like in Dadashov’s domicile, the decorations like in Mitrofanov’s residence, and something of my own.” Oil Barons’ lack of architecture knowledge put architects to face dilemma of following principles of built environment or fulfil extravagant wishes of their clients. A solution would be a synthesis of clients’ desires and architects’ ability to showcase their creativity put in their works.

No matter how peculiar was Baku Oil Boom Architecture, it produced great architects to be well respected and honoured across the times. Among them were architects: Gasim bey Hajibababeyov, Zivar bey Ahmadbeyov, Mammad Hasan Hajinski, Józef Gosławski, Józef Plośko, Adolf Eichler, Nikolay Von Der Nonne, Robert Marfeld, Nikolai Bayev, Gavril Ter-Mikelov and so the list can continue with many others. They gave Baku masterpieces of architecture in Neo-Classical, German and Italian Renaissance Revival, French Islamic Magreb, Vienna Secession, Venetian Gothic Revival styles. All these gave rise to a metamorphosis of European and Oriental architectures in Baku. 

Night View of Ismailiyya Palace (Photo: azerbaijan.travel)

Neighbourhoods to Explore

The best neighbourhood to explore Baku’s Oil Boom Architecture is Baku Downtown. When Ichari Shahar listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site, Baku Downtown was included in the protected area as a buffer zone due to its proximity to Ichari Shahar. So any street in Baku downtown is an area to showcase the best examples of the architecture.

The Palace of Happiness (Photo: azerbaijan.travel)

In Baku Downtown locates the Nizami Street, the busiest street in Baku. It is a traffic-free street with retail brand shops, popular cafes and restaurants as well as theatres. Thus anyone finds anything to do to feel like a local in the beating heart of the city.

Additionally, you can take a walk along Istiqlaliyyat Street where most architecture is monumental and rich in terms of artistic expressions for first impressions: Khagani Street for a walk of urban exploration with local places to hang out; 28 May Street to observes various architecture styles side by side; and Mammad Amin Rasulzade Street to have your cup of coffee at international brands such as Starbucks, Hard Rock Cafe or Gloria Jean’s Coffee.

Landmark Architectures

Some of the Mansions of Oil Barons are Mukhtarov Palace, Taghiyev Residence, Ismayiliyya Palace, Sadigov Brothers Residence, Nagiyev Palaces, Rylski Residence, Town Hall and many others are listed on the map below.


Soviet Baku – XX Century

Socio-Political Environment

The main event of this era was undeniably the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and subsequent invasion of Baku on 28 April 1920 by the 12th Red Army. Baku became the capital city of newly established Azerbaijan Socialist Soviet Republic.

Socialism was adopted as the socio-political system of organizing society. Eventually, all industries were nationalized, private ownership was banned. The central authorities such as the Communist Party and other essential soviet apparatus were given enormous power to make decisions for all. All these were driven by the ideology of Socialism and communism. State’s interference in every aspect of social, political and economic life, and the emphasis put on the ideology played an unchallenged role in the society.

For the first time in history, Baku’s population reached 1 million. Mega constructions projects have been carried out such as Baku Metro, massive underground transport system, ‘Neft Dashlari’ off-shore oil platform, literally a full-fledged city on the Caspian, and masive residential complexes. The city grew bigger giving a rise to a new term, Greater Baku.

Baku’s was still a cosmopolitan city with a mixture of various ethnic groups. Oil kept its crucial role in Baku’s heavy industry, however, it lost the traditional essence. Baku was no longer an exporter of crude oil, but oil expertise and technology to the Soviet Republics. Baku was the Oil Academy of the Soviet Union.

Development and Specifics of the Architecture

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 was 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

Buzovnaneft (Sefer azeri / Public Domain)

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. 

7th Microraion

The era of 1955-1991 radically changed the approaches to architecture and in particular urban planning. Rooted in constructivism, 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.

Neighbourhoods to Explore

Exploring Soviet-era architecture is searching for hidden gems in Baku. Baku Downtown area has few must-see Soviet-era architectures scattered around, but the hidden gem neighbourhoods locate quite outside of Baku Downtown. 

The Government House (Poco a poco / Public Domain)

For the Stalinist Era Architecture, the neighbourhood of Elmler Akademiyasi is perfect. It is a quarter high level of student activity. It includes several Universities and Baku State University, the largest in Azerbaijan, as well as the Campus of the Academy of Sciences (Elmer Akademiyasi) and all necessary infrastructure to support student and urban life.

The main purpose of the Microraions was to solve housing problems in Baku. It created new settlement complexes to house Baku’s working classes. There are nine Microraions and all of them primarily oriented to meet the needs of residents. While exploring the neighbourhoods of the Microraions, one would naturally find an authentic suburban lifestyle.

Landmark Architectures

Landmark Architectures of the Soviet Baku in Baku Downtown are Soviet Government House, Office of Standard Bank, Monolith, Buzovnaneft, Republic Palace, President’s Administration, State Drama Theatre and Central Train Station. Outside Baku Downtown, visit Elmler Akademiyasi in Huseyn Javid avenue and residential apartments in Narmian Narimanov avenue. Above all Microraions are places not just a showcase of urban planning and architecture but also a typical soviet life style.


Contemporary Baku: XXI Century

Socio-Political Environment

In 1991 Azerbaijan regained independence from the Soviet Union. But the sweet independence came with costs. The collapse of the Soviet broke all existing system economic activity and it had a devastating impact on Azerbaijan, too. Besides, Azerbaijan found herself in a bloody with Armenia which resulted with Armenia occupying 20% of her territory and financial burden of dealing with 1 million refugees and IDPs. 

In the meantime, Azerbaijan managed to attract western multinational oil corporations to invest and extract oil from the Caspian Sea. No matter how long it took, but eventually, the Azerbaijani government succeeded in the export of oil only in 2005. This was the inception of the Second Oil Boom. Subsequently, the Second Oil Boom, too, put Baku in the centre attention internationally such as hosting Eurovision Song Contest 2012, annual Formula 1 Races and the European Games 2015. 

A huge part of the oil money has been allocated to mega construction projects in the name of modernisation and developing. This process is undergoing to add another layer of architecture history, futurism.

Development and Specifics of the Architecture

Heydar Aliyev Center (Helene Binnet / ArchDaily)

The Architecture in Contemporary Baku is an on-going process. This is the case when our generation lives through as the built environment is being made. 

Generally, architectural development in Contemporary compared to Dubai or Kuwait by many in terms of glassy, shine futuristic skyscrapers. It is true that similarly, the oil money fuels Baku’s ambitious mega projects. They may even look like similar, but their essence is completely different and there lies a rich cultural history. 

Above all, this kind of architectural is nothing new to Baku. It happened once during the first oil boom era. Baku is not replicating and experience of some other places but reinventing itself on its own way. In a report to ArchDaily, Zaha Hadid Architects put it clear and straight that “Our intention was to relate to that historical understanding of architecture, not through the use of mimicry or a limiting adherence to the iconography of the past, but rather by developing a firmly contemporary interpretation, reflecting a more nuanced understanding.”

Overall the direction of the built environment in contemporary Baku is postmodern architecture with neo-futuristic tendencies.

Neighbourhoods to Explore

The Flame Towers (Photo: facebook.com/FairmontBaku)

One of the important elements of the postmodern architecture is that it also changes the understanding of neighbourhoods where those kinds of architectures are found. The sheer size of these massive construction projects makes it nearly unsatisfying to approach them but stay in far distance away to appreciate their beauty. There one does not need to search for the exact location but you just need to find a viewpoint. The viewpoints of those postmodern architectures are on a walk across Baku Boulevard, the 15 km long promenade along the Caspian Sea.

Landmark Architectures

Landmark Architectures of this era are Flame Towers, Heydar Aliyev Center, Caspian Waterfront Shopping Mall, Port Baku Residence and the Crescent. See map of postmodern landmarks and viewpoints below.

 

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