Mascarons as the manifestation of Art-Nouveau Architecture in Baku

Mascarons of Baku and Art-Nouveau Architecture

Boom Town and Modern Oil Industry in Baku

Ali, his father and his uncle gathered over tea and discussed the difficulty of understanding why and how different Europe is, after uncle Shah Nasr-ed-Din’s visit to Europe. Once the gathering was over, Ali was left alone on the rooftop of their house in Baku Old Town. With the view over the Maiden Tower to the Caspian Sea, then Ali went on…

…“There were really two towns, one inside the other, like a kernel in a nut. Outside, the Old Wall was the Outer Town, with wide streets, high houses, its people noisy and greedy for money. This Outer Town was built because of the oil that comes from our desert and brings riches. There were theatres, schools, hospitals, libraries, policemen and beautiful women with naked shoulders.”… Ali and Nino by Kurban Said.

Baku Oil Boom
Baku Oil Boom

The described city in Ali and Nino came into existence during 1870-1917. This city was also dubbed as a “Boom Town” by emphasizing the industrial development and demographic boom, and the “Outer Town” or Vorstadt (Suburb from German) by focusing on territorial expansion and diversity in human geography.

Regardless of all these different terminologies, Boom Town (the expansion of Baku beyond its historic XII-century fortress walls) and the development of the modern oil industry are inextricably intertwined. The Boom Town emerged out of industrial and technological development. The industrial development saw Baku rise to a global centre of oil production in 1901; a railway was built connecting Baku to the open seas via the Black Sea in 1883 and the longest oil pipeline of its time in 1907; Alexandre Michon filmed the oil gush fire as one of the earliest movies in 1898; or the construction of grand and magnificent Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in 1898. All these had a massive impact on society and urban habitats.

White Club in Baku, Oil Boom Era
Summer-Time Gathering Palace aka White Club in Baku, 1915 (c) Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky (1863-1944). The first colour image was ever taken in Baku.

Baku’s human geography had changed. The population rose from about 7 thousand to 155 thousand in 1903. Baku became a cosmopolitan city with diverse groups of people. European industrialists, such as the Rothschild Family, The Nobel Brothers, The Shell Trading and Transport Co, and The Royal Dutch Oil company revolutionized the oil industry. Mechanization and urbanization of the society were accelerated, the consumers gained more power, demand for choices increased and trade became truly international.

As a result of these developments, Baku was transformed from a medieval and oriental fortress town to a picturesquely European city with a modern lifestyle. One of the ways of organizing the transformation was architecture. The architecture of Baku in the late XIX and the early XX centuries is labelled as eclectic, a mixture of all the different styles. Among them stands one unique architectural movement that truly resonating the qualities and features of its era: Art-Nouveau Architecture.

Mascarons of Baku
“Seadet Sarayi” Mascaron. Femme Fatale. Photo Credit: Elchin Aliyev
Art-Nouveau Architecture and Mascarons of Baku
Mitrofanovs Residence Mascaron, Grotesque, Said Rustamov 3

Art-Nouveau Architecture in Baku

The Art-Nouveau Architecture movement along with other classical architectural influences from Europe arrived in Baku at the same time period: the first oil boom era during the late 19th century and early 20th century. The Art-Nouveau Architecture in Baku was not a reaction to utilizing classical Architecture specifically in Baku, but rather it was part of a global movement that rejected historicism.

Architects of European origin, Polish, German, Armenian, Azerbaijani and Russian, most of whom were students of Saint Petersburg Institute of Civil Engineering, brought various influences including Art Nouveau. There are a known handful of Architects who adopted and explored the opportunities of the movements. These architects are Nikolai Baiev (1875-1949), Józef Płoszko (1867—1931), Gabriel Ter-Mikelov (1874-1949), Zivarbey Ahmadbeyov (1873-1925).

Baku Art-Nouveau Architecture
Hajinski Palace
Architecturs of Baku
Zivarbey Ahmadbeyov
Architecturs of Baku
Gabriel Ter-Mikelov (1874-1949)
Architecturs of Baku
Nikolai Baiev
Architecturs of Baku
Józef Płoszko

Riches of Baku’s Oil Barons for personal glory and fame drove Baku’s architectural transformation. On the one hand, there was a kind of competition among the oil barons who built the most extravagant and grandeur mansion in Baku. On the other, young aspiring architects were putting their talent to the test to prove themselves to their clients.

Art-Nouveau Architecture and Mascarons of Baku
Mascaron: Greenman

Origins of Mascarons

As a reaction to the eclectic styles that dominated Europe, Art Nouveau manifested itself in architecture in decorative elements, too: the buildings, full of curved and sinuous lines, received ornaments inspired by organic shapes such as plants, flowers, and animals, both in terms of design and the use of color. Inspiration of animal elements produced in a specific term, Mascarons.

Art-Nouveau Architecture and Mascarons of Baku
Captivating, Mystifying and Enchanting Mascarons of Baku

As decorative ornaments, mascarons feature human and animal faces. Many of them originate in Greek and Roman mythology with a specific meaning. Initially, they were mainly used to scare evil spirits preventing them from entering the house. Later, the Art-Nouveau movement popularized the wide use of Mascarons in architecture, too.

The mythological figures and personas that look frightening, horrifying, comical, tragic, joyful, and neutral have now been adopted as one of defining aspects of new art in architecture. However, they were accepted as new art, and the original use of purpose of the mascarons remained useful in an attempt to explain them. Anna Kavelchenko summarizes them into beautiful women as femme fatale, medusa-gorgon, fauns and satyrs, grotesques, demons, chimeras, antique gods, masks, green man, animals.

Mascarons of Baku

The architecture of Baku Boom Town particularly served the Oil Barons of Baku to acquire fame and glory among all the barons. The consideration for any particular style of architecture was minimum. Fuad Akhundov, Oil Barons’ knowledge of architecture as “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.”

Art-Nouveau Architecture and Mascarons of Baku
Mitrofanovs’ Residence Mascaron, Two Greenmen on sides and Chimera in centre

Mascarons of adopted in the project design of exterior facades of residential and public administrative offices were not much into the playbook of the Oil Barons. Besides, most Oil Barons were Muslims.

The architects of Baku were clearly aware of the Art Nouveau movement and took their chances in leaving a legacy in this movement for the future. It was a matter of principle for the architects to embrace the movement and create their own art. Thus, Baku got introduced to the idea of the Mascarons in the late XIX and early XX centuries.

Mitrofanovs' Residence Mascaron, Green-man
The Corner of the Fantasy bathhouse with Mascaron of lion head and Water spring

Equally important, An Italian sculptor and stonemason, Antonio Franzi, from Vincenza, Italy helped and brought up a new generation of Azerbaijani sculptors. Although there is not much information, the stories mention master names such as Master Hanifa, Master Sultan, Master Salman.

Mascarons are not only found in Art-Nouveau Architecture but also Neo-Classical Architectural styles. Nonetheless, the geographic territory of Mascarons is almost limited to Downtown Baku, the immediate neighbourhoods of Baku Old Town.


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