All throughout its history, Baku has been a city of fleeting fortunes. In this country of boom and bust, prosperity arrives on your doorstep overnight and can be snatched away just as quickly. Invading armies, oppressive ideologies and nosy neighbours have passed Azerbaijan’s territory around for centuries, each taking its turn to pillage the country of its oil wealth. As in the other Caucasus nations, the teasingly brief periods of sovereignty in between are now looked back on as the Golden Days.
Independent since 1991, contemporary Azerbaijan is considered with a new sense of permanence. The state has set foundations that cannot be uprooted – most notably via ambitious civic projects that have re-shaped the city’s skyline. The Heydar Aliyev Center in downtown Baku is a signature of Azerbaijan’s self-authored (hyper)modernity – a symbol of stability and forward momentum. In a city known for its bold architectural statements, the Center cuts the most impressive figure of them all.
Designed by Zaha Hadid Architects and completed in 2012, the Center is clearly a pushback against the unimaginative Soviet style that dominates residential Baku. On a more nuanced level, it expresses traditional Islamic elements (rows and grids) and conceptually, it’s said to be a nod to Azeri national identity.
In downtown Baku where the Center stands, the straw-coloured facades of monumentally huge European-style buildings rise up from expansive streets like sand dunes. Constantly windswept, the city feels as shallow and impenetrable as a cardboard film set.
The Heydar Aliyev Center, in contrast, sits atop the landscape like a dollop of whipped cream slowly melting back into the earth. The building is joyful and dynamic; you’re allowed to walk on its perfectly manicured grass lawns and clamor up the sides of its enveloping walls. Best of all, no one will tell you off for taking photos.
Silhouetted against the Center’s massive white curls, commuters look like explorers sliding across the Arctic tundra. Viewed from a different aspect, the building is something warm and gentle, like a sinuous wave inviting you into the ocean. However you choose to see it, the Heydar Aliyev Center is something you must experience when in Baku.