Heydar Aliyev Center
By Kevin Holden Platt
Zaha Hadid Architects’ New Cultural Center in Azerbaijan Hovers on a Platform of Light, Like a Beacon of Advanced Design that Spans East and West.
Every evening, as the stars swirl across the sky over the seaside city of Baku, one glimmering structure seems to hover just above the Earth’s horizon on a platform of light: the luminous curves, soaring arcs and flowing geometry of the Heydar Aliyev Center, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, in the capital of Azerbaijan instantly identify this as one of the globe’s newest icons of advanced experimental architecture.
Leaders of the Republic of Azerbaijan, who selected Zaha Hadid’s London-based architecture studio following an international competition, have stated the center will play a leading role in re-sculpting the capital’s image and in the wider process of carving out the nation’s cultural future.
The blurring of conventions
Like Azerbaijan itself, which is split between Asia and Europe, the new Baku center carries elements of both Eastern and Western design aesthetics.
And like some of the icons of architecture created in the Eastern Hemisphere across the ages, the structure morphs seamlessly into its surroundings.
“We tried to blur the conventional understanding between figure and ground, architecture and city, interior and exterior,” said Saffet Kaya Bekiroglu, the project designer and architect for the Baku center.
“The public plaza, as urban ground, undulates and folds upwards to create internal spaces, a whole new kind of inclusive public civic space for the city,” the architect added.
The historical context
While the structure’s complex geometric form depends on leading-edge engineering, it is also connected to the region’s ancient cultural foundations. Saffet Kaya Bekiroglu explained in an interview that the building’s curvilinear contours echo the cursive flow of the Islamic world’s calligraphy, which was etched into mosques scattered around Baku in centuries past.
While designing the center, Zaha Hadid Architects reviewed a spectrum of architectural and cultural innovations that have appeared across the Islamic world over the past 1400 years.
“Fluidity has always been part of the Islamic world’s architecture,” Mr. Bekiroglu said. In structures like the 400-year-old Blue Mosque in Istanbul, he added, “Calligraphy and geometric patterns flow through the interior surfaces of domes and walls, and onto the carpets within, establishing this continuity.”
One icon of Islamic design, the Mosque of Cordoba, features doubled-tiered arches and columns that appear, to those walking through the World Heritage site, to stretch out into infinity. Along the perimeter of the mosque, commissioned in the 8th century by a Caliph of Damascus who fled civil war in Syria to reach sanctuary in the Spanish city of Cordoba, “the grid of orange trees in the courtyard continues in the interior as palm tree-like columns that blur the relationship between exterior and interior,” he said.
The arc-shaped passageways and curved lines of lighting that cut through the Baku center create an even greater impression that these spaces continue into infinity. And the architecture of the new cultural outpost, he said, flows symmetrically into the landscape design.
A continuation of the plaza’s urban life
The plaza surrounding the Baku cultural center, which features a series of ascending terraces, infinity pools, waterfalls, and triangle-shaped channels is completely open to the people of Azerbaijan and to the rest of the world, he said.
“There is a continuation of the plaza’s urban life into the building,” Bekiroglu said.
The open, curvilinear design of the cultural complex stands in sharp contrast with the monumental Soviet architecture built across Baku after Azerbaijan was forcibly assimilated into the Soviet Union in 1920. Only sections of Baku’s ancient architecture survived Russian rule.
Azerbaijan’s government has taken steps to protect surviving remnants of Baku’s diverse architectural past even as it commissions projects like the new arts center to reshape its national image. While inscribing the medieval “Walled City of Baku,” which includes an array of palaces, mosques and towers, on the World Heritage List, UNESCO experts noted: “Baku reveals evidence of Zoroastrian, Sasanian, Arabic, Persian, Shirvani, Ottoman, and Russian presence in cultural continuity.”
Azerbaijan became independent in 1991, and is now establishing its own cultural identity. As part of that process, Bekiroglu said, “it is investing heavily in these civic projects.” With the new arts complex in the capital, he added, “We wanted to do something that looks toward the future.”
During a talk at London’s Architectural Association, Zaha Hadid said the Baku Center is part of a series of experimental “fluid space” structures the studio has been developing with the Nordpark Railway Stations in Austria, the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, and the London Olympics Aquatics Center, which were featured in a retrospective of Hadid’s works at the Danish Architecture Center during the summer of 2013.
The Baku complex actually consists of three buildings – a conference center, a museum and a library – connected through an interior space and by the curving “fluid” envelope that winds across the entire structure, Ms. Hadid explained.
Bekiroglu, who headed the Zaha Hadid Architects competition team for the London Aquatics project, a design inspired by “the fluid geometry of water in motion,” said the studio used Rhino software to develop a highly precise but constantly evolving 3D digital model of the Baku center. Conceiving and building the complex involved simultaneous coordination with teams in Stuttgart, Munich, London, Azerbaijan and Dubai, he added.
The skin the building lives in
The architect, who co-authored and edited a book on the project titled “Zaha Hadid Architects: Heydar Aliyev Center” (http://www.lars-mueller-publishers.com/en/heydar-aliyev-center), stated in a design description: “One of the most critical yet challenging elements of the project was the architectural development of the building’s skin.”
“Our ambition to achieve a surface so continuous that it appears homogenous required a broad range of different functions, construction logics and technical systems that had to be brought together and integrated into the building’s envelope,” he added. “Advanced computing allowed for the continuous control and communication of these complexities among the numerous project participants.”
Bekiroglu, who has been a visiting critic and tutor at the Royal College of Arts in London and the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, said during the interview that the rigid Soviet buildings surrounding the Baku cultural outpost help underscore its unique curved geometry.
Even light interacts with these contrasting architectural forms in different ways, he said. While light bounces off each side of a rectilinear building in a uniform direction, he explained, with a building of double-curvature surfaces, the patterns of reflected light are much richer.
“We like how the center is transformed from day to night,” he mused. “As the sun goes down, the light comes from inside and washes across the surface.”
Ground-embedded facade lighting positioned along the perimeter of the center projects cones of light onto the building’s surface, helping create the illusion that this glowing form is suspended above the Earth, free from the force of gravitation.
“We tried to make it as light as possible,” he explained. The entire design “gives you the sensation of floating.”
Inside the complex, across its curved spaces, Bekiroglu said, “It seems like there’s no gravity.”
Leaders of the Baku center state on their website that this new cultural icon will play a central role in helping the country chart its post-Soviet future in areas ranging from nation-building studies and the promotion of Azeri arts to the presentation of “world cultural heritage and the accomplishments of various civilizations in Azerbaijan.”