Category Archives: Baku

Memory Politics in Baku

Baku and the Soviet Heritage: Memory and Oblivion

The collapse of the Soviet Union launched the search for a new identity and the creation of new narratives in Azerbaijan just as in the entire ex-Soviet space. We cannot cover all aspects of the memory politics in Azerbaijan during and after the Soviet period in a single article. Instead, we highlight the most significant sites of the Soviet memory landscape of Baku and their post-Soviet transformations within the new politics of memory.

The Nagorny Park Named After Sergey Kirov

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The monument to Sergey Kirov. Location: Nagorny Park, Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: 1978. Photo Credits: Isaac Rubenchik, taken from

Immediately after the Sovietization of Azerbaijan, the urban development of Baku took a Soviet turn. In September 1920, the special committee on the development of city gardens in the Absheron peninsula created a plan on changing the appearance of the city. It included the development of the English Park in the place of the Chemberkent cemetery[1]. Later it became part of the Nagorny[2] Park.

In 1939, the Nagorny Park took the name of Sergey Kirov, a prominent political figure whose death of at the end of 1934 had made him one of the central heroes of the politics of memory of Soviet Azerbaijan[3]. Kirov’s monument was installed in the Nagorny Park as the latter dominated the panorama of Baku with a view on the bay. Kirov’s massive figure raising his hand over the city was placed at the center of a memorial that remained a prominent landmark of Baku until the collapse of the Soviet Union (Bertanitski 1971, 138-140).

The Architectural Complex Lenin Square

The design of Baku’s new central square began with the construction of the House of the Soviets (“Dom Sovietov” in Russian) or the Government House. Intended to accommodate large-scale events and serve the purpose of an ideological center, the square was the largest one in the USSR at the time of its completion (Bertanitski 1971, 146-149).

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The Government House. Location: Then Lenin Sqaure, Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: 1977-80. Photo Credits: Leonid Kondratyev, taken from

The construction of the House began in 1930 and was completed in 1952. According to the architects of the House, the exterior of the building was designed in the Baroque style, using also elements of the national Azerbaijani architecture. This style was reflected in the three rows of columns located along the edges of the building, the prototype for which was the colonnade of the reception hall of the medieval Shirvanshah palace in Baku. The construction of the adjacent Lenin Square ended in the Fall of 1951. It became an ideal location for military parades and demonstrations of workers. The first large-scale event took place on November 7 of 1951 on the commemoration of the October Revolution of Bolsheviks.

The House of the Soviets itself was designed as a “memorial-building” dedicated to the “father of the revolution” Vladimir Lenin. His monument was installed in the square on November 6 of 1954. For many years, the expressive 11-meter bronze sculpture of Lenin, the leader of the proletariat, portrayed at the time of addressing the people, was the central element of the whole complex. The last Soviet demonstration in the square took place in May 1987. The mass rallies in the following years went down history as the events that contributed to the collapse of the USSR.

The 26 Baku Commissars Square

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26 Baku Commissars Memorial. Location: Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: 1980. Photo Credits: taken from

On September 10 of 1920, a solemn ceremony of reburial was taking place in the Freedom Square (the former Stock Exchange Square or “Birzhevaya” in Russian) of Baku. The remains of the Baku Commune members were brought from Krasnovodsk, where they had been executed by a firing squad in 1918. Since then, they have been referred to as the “26 Baku Commissars”, with the Soviet propaganda putting upon them a halo of martyrdom and turning their story into an important Soviet historical and ideological narrative. The four main commissars, Meshadi Azizbekov, Prokofy (Alyosha) Dzhaparidze, Stepan Shahumyan, and Ivan Fioletov, with their respective backgrounds of an Azerbaijani, a Georgian, an Armenian, and a Russian, were to symbolize the international spirit of Baku. The Soviet ideology turned their burial site into a place of memory and glorification.

The square and the park around it went through several transformations and were renamed after the 26 Baku Commissars. The first memorial was constructed in 1923 in time for the fifth anniversary of the commissars’ death. For the 40th anniversary in 1958, a high relief sculpture, the “Execution of the 26 Baku Commissars” was installed in the park. In another ten years, the entire site went through a redesign. The Eternal Flame was added and the structure made of marble, reinforced concrete, and granite was erected above the graves, creating a ring-shaped pantheon. The structure was inscribed with the words “26 Bakı Komissarı”. A massive bust of an oilman bent over the Eternal Flame was placed in the center of the composition.

In the Soviet politics of memory, the cult of the commissars took up an extremely important place as a symbol of proletarian internationalism and a selfless struggle against oppression. In the 1970s and 80s, in addition to this memorial complex, personal monuments to some of the commissars were established in different parts of Baku – in 1975 to Stepan Shahumyan, in 1976 to Meshadi Azizbekov, in 1980 to Prokofy Dzhaparidze, and in 1985 to Ivan Fioletov.

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The statue of Meshadi Аzizbekov. Location: Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: Unknown. Photo Credits: Isaac Rubenchik, taken from

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The statue of Ivan Fioletov. Location: Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: Unknown. Photo Credits: taken from

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The statue of Stepan Shahumyan. Location: Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: 1981. Photo Credits: Isaac Rubenchik, taken from the Photobook “Azerbaijan”.

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The statue of Prokofy Dzhaparidze. Location: Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: 1981. Photo Credits: Isaac Rubenchik, taken from the Photobook “Azerbaijan”.

The Collapse of Ideals: The Alley of Martyrs in Nagorny Park and the New Freedom Square

The collapse of the Soviet Union, which coincided with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, led to a dramatic reconstruction of Baku’s memory landscape. The Baku residents who were killed during the tragic events of January 1990[4] were buried in the Nagorny Park[5]. A grandiose funeral demonstration began on Lenin Square, transferring the bodies of the dead to the territory of the park, that from that moment on, became the site of the Alley of Martyrs (“Şəhidlər Xiyabanı” in Azerbaijani).

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The Alley of Martyrs. Location: Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: 2013. Photo Credits: Urek Meniashvili, taken from

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The entrance to the funicular in the Upland Park. Location: Near the Martyrs Lane Mosque, Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: February 6, 2018. Photo Credit: Saadat Abdullazade.

Kirov’s memorial was demolished in 1991. Later the graves of the heroes of the Nagorno-Karabakh war of 1992-1994 were also placed here. Regardless of when they died, those buried here are called martyrs. This is a religious term applied to people who died for their faith, and in a broader sense, for a just cause – in this case, for the independence and territorial integrity of the country. The grand opening of the memorial complex of the Eternal Flame took place on October 9 of 1998. Currently, the ally continues to serve as a reminder of Azerbaijan’s Soviet past, but now exclusively in a negative sense – as a period of oppression and deprivation of independence that was restored thanks to the martyrs buried here.

The January 1990 tragedy in Baku became a point of no return. The more heated the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh became, the louder the nationalist slogans got, which, in turn, further fueled the conflict. The later events of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, as well as the explicit and implicit Russian assistance to Armenia, gave momentum to the discourse of Soviet oppression and antagonism with it. As a result, everything Soviet, Russian, and Armenian was declared alien and subject to demolition and distancing. In a new Azerbaijan, the Soviet monuments were perceived to embody the crimes of Russians and Armenians towards the Azerbaijani people and the loss of independence. The “fight” against these monuments inevitably became an important part of the de-Sovietization that was already underway.

One of the first monuments to disappear from the streets of Baku in 1990 was the bust of Stepan Shahumyan[6] . With the transition to independence, the head of the Baku Commune had become nothing but the worst enemy of Azerbaijanis and a hidden Dashnak – affiliated with the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation Party (“Dashnaktsutyun” in Armenian).

Immediately after the failed attempt of the August 1991 Coup in Moscow, Lenin Square was renamed into Freedom Square (“Azadlıq Meydanı” in Azerbaijani). Soon after that, Lenin’s statue in front of the Government House was demolished, and the state flag of Azerbaijan was erected in its place. The square kept its status of the central square in the country and was now associated with the fight for independence. Military parades continue to take place here nowadays. The first one took place in October of 1992, and the latest one was in June 2018.

The New Interpretation of the Soviet Past

On October 18 of 1991, the Constitutional Act on the State Independence of the Republic of Azerbaijan, signed by President Ayaz Mutalibov, became the document laying out the foundation of the official politics of memory in independent Azerbaijan. It referred to centuries-long traditions of statehood of the Azerbaijani people and the Russian aggression towards Azerbaijan in 1920. The document described the seventy years of the Soviet rule as a period of colonialism, a ruthless exploitation of natural resources and plunder of national wealth, and infringement on national dignity.

This reinterpretation of the Soviet past was also derived from the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and was sealed by its consequences. It reflected the vision of history of the nationalists from the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (“Azərbaycan Xalq Cəbhəsi Partiyası” in Azerbaijani). However, this approach remained the cornerstone of the public consensus also under the leadership of President Heydar Aliyev. Later, it gained a fresh momentum in the form of another wave of de-Sovietization under President Ilham Aliyev. Heydar Aliyev’s decree “On the Genocide of Azerbaijanis”, adopted in 1998 for the bloody events of March 1918, was also an important landmark of the de-Sovietization process.

The dismantling of memorial plaques was the latest stage of de-Sovietization, as a policy to put the Soviet past to oblivion. For example, the Soviet plaque “Palace of Happiness” was removed from the Palace of Marriage Registrations during its reconstruction. The plaque also noted that the building used to house the Women’s Club named after Ali Bayramov and that the Club played an important role in the “emancipation of the Azerbaijani woman”. Similarly, after the reconstruction of the Nizami Cinema Center, the memorial plaque that indicated that the cinema received a commemorative banner did not find a place on its walls.

The Sahil Park in the Place of the 26 Baku Commissars

The demolition of the memorial complex of the 26 Baku Commissars began in the early 1990s. First, the Eternal Flame was put out, and then in 1993, the high relief sculpture “The Execution of the Baku Commissars” was destroyed. The inscription “26 Bakı Komissarı” was removed from the pantheon, and the area was renamed into Sahil Park.

For many years, the memorial remained abandoned. Stripped of its usual symbolism, the pantheon over the graves of commissars in the center of the city was creating an obvious dissonance. Finally, in January 2009, the park was closed for reconstruction. The structure around the Eternal Flame was demolished, and the remains of the commissars were reburied in the Hovsan cemetery in the suburbs of Baku. The renovated the Sahil Park, with a three-tier fountain installed in the middle, opened in May 2009.

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The fountain in Sahil Park built in the place of 26 Baku Commissars memorial. Location: Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: February 5, 2018. Photo Credit: Saadat Abdullazade.

As noted above, with the wind of change, the monument to the Armenian commissar Stepan Shahumyan was the first one demolished in 1990. In 1992, the monument to the Russian commissar Ivan Fioletov followed. Monuments to the Azerbaijani Meshadi Azizbekov and Georgian Prokofy Dzhaparidze stayed significantly longer and were demolished only in 2009 on the night of April 26 and 28 respectively.

The authorities react fervently to the slightest attempt at the revival of the symbolism associated with the commissars and the former name of the park. In 2017, the café “26” near the Sahil Park was closed by the city authorities, and their property was confiscated. The owners of the café were blamed for fulfilling an “Armenian order” and speculated to have family ties with the deceased commissars of Armenian origin.

The “Untouchable” Narimanov

Among the monuments to the Soviet state and its party leaders, there is one that survived all the stages of de-Sovietization and de-communization. It is the monument to Nariman Narimanov. He was the de facto leader of Soviet Azerbaijan during the first half of the 1920s when the first anti-Soviet armed demonstrations were suppressed. Through his participation in the central structures of the Soviet state, Narimanov also cemented the Soviet ideology of internationalism, which in modern Azerbaijan is viewed nothing more than a way of Russian and Armenian dominance over the indigenous population – the Azerbaijanis. Then how did Narimanov’s monument survive de-Sovietization?

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The monument to Nariman Narimanov. Location: Baku, Azerbaijan. Date of the Photo: February 6, 2018. Photo Credits: Saadat Abdullazade.

The new official discourse in independent Azerbaijan claimed that people had been fighting for independence throughout the Soviet period. And it was this persistent struggle, carried forward despite Moscow’s policy, that explains any achievement and success of the Soviet period. The argument is that despite Moscow’s anti-national policies, the Azerbaijani identity was preserved thanks to local political leaders whose national-patriotic spirit outweighed their adherence to Soviet ideology. Thus, their legacy is still honored as they are believed to have done everything possible to protect Azerbaijan’s interests. This clause of “despite” allows the selective attitude towards the monuments of the Soviet political leaders, and Narimanov is one of them.

Narimanov is credited for keeping Nakhijevan and Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan in the 1920s. It is widely believed that he was the one who saved prominent Azerbaijani generals Samed Mehmandarov and Aliagha Shikhlinski from Bolshevik repressions. He is portrayed as the politician who blocked the demands of Armenian nationalists acting under the patronage of Russian Bolsheviks. More recently, theories have appeared suggesting that Narimanov was deliberately pushed out of Baku and later poisoned in Moscow. Articles and books defending his ideas have been published. And the large-scale monument to Narimanov put up in 1972 continues to stand in one of the Baku squares.

Between Memory and Oblivion

The monuments, memorials, and places of memory discussed in this article appear to us as the most significant in the context of Soviet politics of memory and its post-Soviet transformations. Nevertheless, many other memorials were produced both in Soviet and independent Azerbaijan, and one article cannot cover them all. It is noteworthy that a number of monuments related to the Second World War (or its Soviet “equivalent” of the Great Patriotic War) have been completely preserved. At the same time, “that war” has largely lost its significance and ceded its memory to the events around the collapse of the Soviet Union and the current Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. As a result, the monuments, memorials, and places of memory, created for the commemoration of the “Black January” of 1990 or the Khojaly tragedy[7] , currently occupy a central place in the modern memory landscape in Azerbaijan.


[1] The Chemberkent cemetery was also the burial site of the British soldiers who died during the civil war of 1918 in Baku. That’s why initially the park was often called “English”.

[2] “Nagorny” means “upland” in Russian, and the park was named so because it is situated on a high platform in Baku.

[3] As a member of the 11th Unit of the Red Army, Kirov had taken part in the establishment of Soviet power in Baku. Later he was elected First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan.

[4] On the events of January 1990, see the 2003 book of Thomas De Waal “Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through peace and war” published by New York University Press.

[5] This decision might have been motivated by the fact that the Chemberkent cemetery used to be located here. It was believed that the Muslim victims of the bloody events of March 1918 in Baku were buried here. And indeed, during the ground preparations for the burial of the victims of January 1990, the remains of three people were found in the park and were reburied. The tombstones indicate that these are the “martyrs of 1918”. For more details on these events, see the 2010 translation into Russian of the book by Jörg Baberovski “The Enemy is Everywhere: Stalinism in the Caucasus” («Враг есть везде: Сталинизм на Кавказе») published by Rosspen in Moscow.

[6] For the biography of Stepan Shahumyan, see the 2012 work of Eldar Ismailov “Stepan Shahumyan – doomed to oblivion: a portrait of the “legendary communard” without retouching” («Степан Шаумян – обреченный на забвение – портрет «легендарного коммунара» без ретуши») published by Sharg-Garb publishing house in Baku.

[7] For more on the Khojaly tragedy, see the 2003 book of Thomas De Waal “Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through peace and war” published by New York University Press.


Bertanitski, Leonid. 1971. Баку [Baku]. Leningrad-Moscow: Iskusstvo.

* This story has been produced with support from the US Embassies in the South Caucasus. The opinions expressed in the publication reflect the point of the view of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the US Embassies.

** This story is part of a series on post-Soviet transformations of the memory landscapes, memorial sites, and monuments in TbilisiYerevan, and Baku.

Architectural Rumors in Baku

This article examines the agency of unrealized megaprojects in bolstering economic activity, legitimizing political regimes, and expanding designer’s portfolios. It argues that such proposals serve as a form of “Architectural Rumor,” providing politico-economic agency despite ultimate project infeasibility. Specifically, it looks at two case studies of proposed yet unrealized island megaprojects in the city of Baku, Azerbaijan: the 2009 Zira Island Master Plan and the 2010 Khazar Islands Plan. Spectacular urban design and architecture have long served as catalysts for development, investment attraction, and real estate speculation. As cities compete with one another to lure capital and boost their global status, many design proposals have become increasingly expensive, ostentatious, and technologically sophisticated. The high-risk financial nature of grand urban design proposals and their frequent associations with displacement or environmental destruction suggests that the megaproject model is becoming flawed. At the same time, there remain advantages for clients and politicians to proposing designs that are more spectacular than feasible. Using a mixed-methods approach, four key arenas in which unrealized proposals circulate are described. The various benefits and detriments of such an approach to architectural commodification are also discussed, foregrounding the broader societal costs.


Spectacular architecture and urban design have long served as catalysts for development, foreign investment attraction, and real estate speculation. As cities work to attract capital and boost their global status, design proposals have become increasingly ostentatious and technologically sophisticated in nature (Altshuler and Luberoff 2003Altshuler, Alan, and David Luberoff2003Megaprojects: The Changing Politics of Urban Public InvestmentWashington, DCBrookings Institute. [Google Scholar]; Orueta and Fainstein 2008Orueta, Fernando Diaz, and Susan S.Fainstein2008. “The New Megaprojects: Genesis and Impacts.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 32: 759767.10.1111/ijur.2008.32.issue-4[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). They have also grown overwhelming in scale, requiring billions of dollars for execution and decades of time to reach completion. Many such projects invariably end up scaled back or redesigned, bearing little resemblance to their original proposals. Others are left incomplete or frozen after the design phase. While on the surface this high-risk nature of grand urban design proposals would suggest that the megaproject model is flawed and bears great challenges for designers and their clients, there are a number of advantages to proposing designs that are more spectacular than they are feasible. Unrealized projects offer many opportunities to those deploying them. Not only are the costs of project construction avoided, images of the project can be positioned outside the daily reality of host cities – buildings can appear more populated, inhabitants more socially content, and public space more accessible to all. The technical engineering complexities of such megaprojects are also bypassed. The proposal phase is thus one of the most marketable moments of a project’s lifetime. As a vague, yet uncompromised visual imagining, such proposals communicate to the world a utopic vision of their host city’s future. There are also real-life financial gains to be made from the commodification and media circulation of unbuilt proposals since such projects can attract foreign investment by reinforcing an image of the city as more politically stable and economically prosperous than it may be in reality.

This article unpacks the distinct forms of agency embedded within unrealized design proposals and then examines four key arenas through which they circulate globally in order to gain greater notoriety and legitimization. The process of design proposals extensively circulating as media prior to their physical construction is referred to here as an “Architectural Rumor,” since the viability of these projects is often questionable and it is unclear as to whether or not they will ever be realized in their proposed form. Architectural rumors are project design proposals put forward by the government or private sector which travel widely as imagery and spoken word prior to their construction. They are presented as genuine endeavors, receive great media attention, corral public support, and even win awards, but rarely reach construction completion. As with traditional spoken rumors, architectural rumors function by circulating ideas with uncertain or doubtful truth. Beyond skepticism regarding project feasibility, architectural rumors propagate a selective narrative of present-day urban life, one that foregrounds prosperity, political stability, and civilian contentment, and which is not necessarily in keeping with the lived realities of the host city.

Using a mixed-methods approach, including field observations, media analysis, and interviews,11. All interviews have been left anonymous due to personal privacy concerns for the interviewees. Those interviewed were primarily members of the country’s intellectual class, including architects, engineers, journalists and academics, ranging from 26 to 55 years of age. They are all lifetime residents of Baku and are actively interested in events linked to its ongoing politics and urban development.View all notes this paper looks at the early stages of marketing and media circulation for two architectural rumors, both island megaprojects in Baku, Azerbaijan; the 2009 Zira Island Master Plan and the 2010 Khazar Islands development. It describes how the commodification of design proposals is distinct in its political and economic agency from that of constructed projects. The first case study is the luxury net-zero resort and residential project, Zira Island, designed by the Danish firm, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) on a former military island five kilometers off the coast of Baku in the Caspian Sea. The second case study is the Khazar Islands development, an artificial archipelago of over 50 islands also located in the Caspian Sea, 25 kilometers south of Baku (Figure 1). These two case studies show how design proposals are used to promote a new image of Baku both domestically and abroad, affording the ruling elite and project design professionals greater legitimacy.

Figure 1. Map of the two case study island megaproject sites in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Image by authors).

In 1991, the resource-rich nation of Azerbaijan emerged from the Soviet Union with great potential for economic growth as an independent country and regional hub of capitalist accumulation. As the world’s first center for oil and natural gas extraction, Azerbaijan has a long history of reflecting economic prosperity through built form (O’Lear 2001O’Lear, Shannon2001. “Azerbaijan: Territorial Issues and Internal Challenges in mid-2001.” Post-Soviet Geography and Economics 42: 305312.[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar]; Grant 2010Grant, Bruce2010. “Cosmopolitan Baku.” Ethnos 75: 123147.10.1080/00141841003753222[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Valiyev 2012Valiyev, Anar2012. “Baku.” Cities 31: 625640.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Koch and Valiyev 2015Koch, Natalie, and Anar Valiyev2015. “Urban Boosterism in Closed Contexts: Spectacular Urbanization and Second-Tier Mega-Events in Three Caspian Capitals.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 56: 575598.10.1080/15387216.2016.1146621[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Following independence, a capitalist class emerged from within the country’s governing elite, carried forward from Soviet times. It resulted in a coalition of state officials and entrepreneurs that have directed the nation’s development primarily in their own interests. Such was accomplished through large-scale urban projects and the hosting of mega-events (Valiyev 2012Valiyev, Anar2012. “Baku.” Cities 31: 625640.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Gogishvili 2018Gogishvili, David2018. “Baku Formula 1 City Circuit: Exploring the Temporary Spaces of Exception.” Cities 74: 169178.10.1016/j.cities.2017.11.018[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

Behind the façades of luxurious new development projects and spectacular mega-events, the ruling elite of Azerbaijan have been accused of gross human rights violations and of exacerbating the socioeconomic inequality of the country (Human Rights Watch 2012Human Rights Watch. 2012. “‘THEY TOOK EVERYTHING FROM ME’ Forced Evictions, Unlawful Expropriations, and House Demolitions in Azerbaijan’s Capital.” Accessed August 10, 2017. [Google Scholar]; Amnesty International 2017Amnesty International. 2017. “AZERBAIJAN 2016/2017.” Accessed January 10, 2018. [Google Scholar]; Destexhe 2017Destexhe, Alain2017. “Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe (PACE), Resolution 2185 (2017); Report of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights.” Azerbaijan’s Chairmanship of the Council of Europe: What Follow-up on Respect for Human Rights? October 11, 32nd setting. April 30. Accessed January 10, 2018. [Google Scholar]). Freedom of speech and the press are also overwhelmingly suppressed. Much new development has involved mass displacement and community demolition, with replacement projects benefitting mainly those affiliated with the Aliyev dynasty. Put succinctly by anthropologist Bruce Grant (2014Grant, Bruce2014. “The Edifice Complex: Architecture and the Political Life of Surplus in the New Baku.” Public Culture26: 501528.10.1215/08992363-2683648[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), “to speak in any critical way of the new construction in the city [is] therefore necessarily to criticize the government, a body politics with which most have their own clientelist relations” (514). Valiyev (2014Valiyev, Anar2014. “The Post-Communist Growth Machine: The Case of Baku, Azerbaijan.” Cities 41: S45S53.10.1016/j.cities.2014.06.008[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) similarly describes the ways in which the nation’s ruling elite directly profit from spectacular urban development, using Logan and Molotch’s (1987Logan, John R., and Harvey L. Molotch1987Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of PlaceBerkeleyUniversity of California Press. [Google Scholar]) term “urban growth machine.”

Megaproject proposals and spectacular architecture are particularly well suited for growth machine and urban boosterism development. Grant (2014Grant, Bruce2014. “The Edifice Complex: Architecture and the Political Life of Surplus in the New Baku.” Public Culture26: 501528.10.1215/08992363-2683648[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) describes the political life of Azerbaijan’s architecture as part of an “Edifice Complex” and shows how it is tied to various forms of capital surplus. His description of Baku’s “surplus of images” in particular relates to this paper’s notion of architectural rumors in that “many in Baku see a kind of surplus in the widely circulating images, posted online and plastered on billboards and construction sites across the city, that claim that the future is now” (2014Grant, Bruce2014. “The Edifice Complex: Architecture and the Political Life of Surplus in the New Baku.” Public Culture26: 501528.10.1215/08992363-2683648[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 507). Whereas Grant underscores the efficacy of “architecture as an opiate for the masses” (2014Grant, Bruce2014. “The Edifice Complex: Architecture and the Political Life of Surplus in the New Baku.” Public Culture26: 501528.10.1215/08992363-2683648[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 507), this paper foregrounds how the production of architectural rumors is taking place and discusses their related societal costs. We argue that the circulation of architecture through mediated images has reached an increased level of commodification and political agency in the twenty-first century, operating separately from that of built projects. Although completed urban megaprojects are also heavily mediatized and branded, their initial design proposals have distinct types of agency on account of their immateriality.

The following two sections provide summaries of literature on spectacular megaprojects and architectural image production before moving on to the case descriptions of the Khazar and Zira Islands and an analysis of the economic and sociopolitical ramifications of their proposals. Finally, the conclusion recognizes the shortcomings of architectural rumors resulting from the overuse of false project promises.

Spectacular megaprojects: the value of architectural superlatives

Global shifts in capitalist production since the mid-twentieth century have dramatically changed the landscapes of cities and generated new demands for forms of urbanism based on experience economies and mass spectacle rather than industrial production (Clark 2004Clark, Terry Nichols, ed. 2004The City as an Entertainment MachineAmsterdamElsevier. [Google Scholar]; Guggenheim and Söderström 2009Guggenheim, Michael, and OlaSöderström2009Re-Shaping Cities: How Global Mobility Transforms Architecture and Urban FormLondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]). In line with this trend, forms of city-to-city competition have also grown (Sassen 2001Sassen, Saskia2001The Global City: New York, London, TokyoPrinceton, NJPrinceton University Press.10.1515/9781400847488[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Roy and Ong 2011Roy, Ananya, and Aihwa Ong, eds. 2011Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being GlobalChichesterWiley-Blackwell.[Crossref][Google Scholar]). Within scholarly work examining the increased development of spectacular architecture over the past half-century, particular attention has been paid to the greater prominence of urban megaprojects (McNeill and Tewdwr-Jones 2003McNeill, Donald, and Mark Tewdwr-Jones2003. “Architecture, Banal Nationalism and Re-Territorialization.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 27: 738743.10.1111/ijur.2003.27.issue-3[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Siemiatycki 2013Siemiatycki, Matti2013. “Riding the Wave: Explaining Cycles in Urban Megaproject Development.” Journal of Economic Policy Reform 16: 160178.10.1080/17487870.2013.797904[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). The dramatic scope, size, and cost of megaprojects affords them the ability to draw international attention, engender national prestige – and crucially, attract investment money. But megaprojects also embody great precarity and risk (Flyvbjerg, Bruzelius, and Rothengatter 2003Flyvbjerg, BentNilsBruzelius, and Werner Rothengatter2003Megaprojects and Risk: An Anatomy of AmbitionCambridgeCambridge University Press.10.1017/CBO9781107050891[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Haines 2011Haines, Chad2011. “Cracks in the Façade: Landscapes of Hope and Desire in Dubai.” In Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, edited by AnanyaRoy, and Aihwa Ong160181. Chapter 6. ChichesterWiley-Blackwell.[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Flyvbjerg 2013Flyvbjerg, Bent2013. “Design by Deception: The Politics of Megaproject Approval.” Harvard Design Magazine 22 (Summer/Spring): 5059. [Google Scholar]; Müller 2014Müller, Martin2014. “After Sochi 2014: Costs and Impacts of Russia’s Olympic Games.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 55: 628655.10.1080/15387216.2015.1040432[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Deploying untested technologies and requiring decades to reach completion, megaprojects suffer the very real threat of physically malfunctioning or being rendered obsolete before they are even complete – all prior to a weighing of their social and environmental costs and benefits.

One noticeable megaproject typology to rise in prominence over the past two decades is that of the urban island development. Islands function as prime sites of design innovation and fantasy that can provide their host nations with greater clout (Adham 2008Adham, Khaled2008. “Rediscovering the Island: Doha’s Urbanity from Pearls to Spectacle.” In The Evolving Arab City: Tradition, Modernity and Urban Development, edited by YasserElsheshtawy218257AbingdonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]; Jackson and Dora 2009Jackson, Mark, and Veronica della Dora2009. “‘Dreams So Big Only the Sea Can Hold Them’: Man-Made Islands as Anxious Spaces, Cultural Icons, and Travelling Visions.” Environment and Planning A 41: 20862104.10.1068/a41237[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Sheller 2009Sheller, Mimi2009. “Infrastructures of the Imagined Island: Software, Mobilities, and the Architecture of Caribbean Paradise.” Environment and Planning A 41: 13861403.10.1068/a41248[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Ouis 2011Ouis, Pernilla2011. “‘And an Island Never Cries’: Cultural and Societal Perspectives on the Mega Development of Islands in the United Arab Emirates.” In Macro-Engineering Seawater in Unique Environments, edited by V. Badescu and R. B. Cathcart5975BerlinSpringer-Verlag. [Google Scholar]; Gupta and Pamila 2015Gupta, Pamila2015. “Futures, Fakes and Discourses of the Gigantic and Miniature in ‘The World’ Islands, Dubai.” Island Studies Journal 10 (2): 181–196. [Google Scholar]). As sites of remote large-scale construction, islands offer characteristics distinct from those of other mega-developments, such as private waterfront access for residential and resort areas.

The high-end nature of private residential waterfront development on islands also dovetails with another unique offering of islands – their sense of security enclosure. In their locations off mainland coasts, islands represent a tension between urban proximity and distance, being near enough to selectively participate in the life of the city, yet sufficiently removed to afford maximum control and privacy. It is in this way that spectacular island geographies are coming to embody the promises of insularity tied to other private enclaved urban spaces such as gated communities and tourist resorts.

In the face of increased environmental volatility due to climate change, some islands further present a bound space of elite climate protection. In this manner, they follow global precedents in enclaved eco-development (Hoffman 2011Hoffman, Lisa2011. “Urban Modeling and Contemporary Technologies of City-Building in China: The Production of Regimes of Green Urbanisms.” In Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, edited by AnanyaRoy, and Aihwa Ong5576. Chapter 2. ChichesterWiley-Blackwell.[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Caprotti, Springer, and Harmer 2015Caprotti, FedericoCecili Springer, and Nichola Harmer2015. “‘Eco’ for Whom? Envisioning Eco-Urbanism in the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City, China.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 39: 495517.10.1111/1468-2427.12233[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). The bold claims of ecological urbanism and sustainable architectural projects are very much in keeping with architectural rumors in that critiques of “green-washing” also represent accusations of project overambition and desire to garner clout on false pretenses. The questionable use of sustainability rhetoric in architecture is covered at length by authors such as Crot (2013Crot, Laurence2013. “Planning for Sustainability in Non-Democratic Polities: The Case of Masdar City.” Urban Studies50: 28092825.10.1177/0042098012474697[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), Cugurullo (2013Cugurullo, Federico2013. “How to Build a Sandcastle: An Analysis of the Genesis and Development of Masdar City.” Journal of Urban Technology20: 2337.10.1080/10630732.2012.735105[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), Koch (2014Koch, Natalie2014. “‘Building Glass Refrigerators in the Desert’: Discourses of Urban Sustainability and Nation Building in Qatar.” Urban Geography 35: 11181139.10.1080/02723638.2014.952538[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), Rapoport (2014Rapoport, Elizabeth2014. “Utopian Visions and Real Estate Dreams: The Eco-City past, Present and Future.” Geography Compass 8: 137149.10.1111/gec3.12113[Crossref][Google Scholar]), and Pow and Neo (2015Pow, C. P., and Harvey Neo2015. “Modelling Green Urbanism in China.” Area 47: 132140.10.1111/area.12128[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

When overlaid with proposals for environmental sustainability, elite island geographies become laboratories for future ecological urbanism paradigms propounding utopic/dystopic visions of climate survival. For example, Sze (2015Sze, Julie2015Fantasy Islands: Chinese Dreams and Ecological Fears in an Age of Climate CrisisOaklandUniversity of California Press. [Google Scholar]) draws attention to China’s use of sustainable rhetoric in the Dongtan City project in Shanghai, which depicts the country as technologically advanced and environmentally focused, rather than polluted and overcrowded. Grydehøj and Kelman (2017Grydehøj, Adam, and Ilan Kelman2017. “The Eco-Island Trap: Climate Change Mitigation and Conspicuous Sustainability.” Area49: 106113.10.1111/area.2017.49.issue-1[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) similarly raise caution about the “eco-island trap,” where small islands continue to invest in inefficient environmental sustainability initiatives in order to benefit from eco-tourism.

On account of their artificial nature, man-made islands take on additional performative roles as works of technology and iconic communication. This is best exemplified in the Palm Islands of Dubai, which are shaped as palm trees, and other island megaprojects, such as the iconic Tulip-shaped island in the Netherlands. The engineered forms of these islands maximize waterfront property while branding new communities through their iconic shapes. As such, island megaprojects demonstrate that one of the most assured ways for a city to climb the ranks of international media attention is through superlatives and bold claims toward originality. Elsheshtawy (2009Elsheshtawy, Yasser2009Dubai: Behind an Urban Spectacle, Planning, History and EnvironmentNew YorkRoutledge. [Google Scholar]), Gupta and Pamila (2015Gupta, Pamila2015. “Futures, Fakes and Discourses of the Gigantic and Miniature in ‘The World’ Islands, Dubai.” Island Studies Journal 10 (2): 181–196. [Google Scholar]); Haines (2011Haines, Chad2011. “Cracks in the Façade: Landscapes of Hope and Desire in Dubai.” In Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, edited by AnanyaRoy, and Aihwa Ong160181. Chapter 6. ChichesterWiley-Blackwell.[Crossref][Google Scholar]), and Ouis (2011Ouis, Pernilla2011. “‘And an Island Never Cries’: Cultural and Societal Perspectives on the Mega Development of Islands in the United Arab Emirates.” In Macro-Engineering Seawater in Unique Environments, edited by V. Badescu and R. B. Cathcart5975BerlinSpringer-Verlag. [Google Scholar]) describe how Dubai’s heavy reliance on such superlatives was integral to its cultural branding and market transformation, while Domosh (1988Domosh, Mona1988. “The Symbolism of the Skyscraper.” Journal of Urban History 14: 320345.10.1177/009614428801400302[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) and King (2004King, Anthony2004Spaces of Global Cultures: Architecture, Urbanism, IdentityLondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]) explain the global drive toward increasingly taller skyscrapers in branding cities.

Image production and circulation

In the past few decades, scholarly work has begun unpacking the mediatization of architecture and the global circulation of its imagery. Biddulph (1995Biddulph, Mike1995. “The Value of Manipulated Meanings in Urban Design and Architecture.” Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 22: 739762.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) assesses the characteristics of signs and sign values in American housing markets and shows how housing developers manufacture signs to enhance their sales. Vale (1999Vale, Lawrence1999. “Mediated Monuments and National Identity.” The Journal of Architecture4 (4): 391408.10.1080/136023699373774[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar]) uses the term “Mediated Monuments” to describe how media campaigns aimed at controlling public interpretations of monuments are inseparable from the physical forms they describe. Likewise, Rattenbury (2002Rattenbury, Kester, ed. 2002This is Not Architecture: Media ConstructionsNew YorkRoutledge. [Google Scholar]) and Colomina (1996Colomina, Beatriz1996Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass MediaCambridge, MAThe MIT Press. [Google Scholar]) probe at the various relationships between architecture and representation and question the intrinsic nature of architectural production as one which deals in fictional imaginings. Focusing on the post-Soviet urban context of Astana, Kazakhstan, Laszczkowski (2011Laszczkowski, Mateusz2011. “Building the Future: Construction, Temporality, and Politics in Astana.” Focaal 60: 7792.[Crossref][Google Scholar], 1) describes how representations of Astana’s new buildings worked “to mobilize citizens’ agency and capture their imaginations, thus producing complicity” (See also Koch [2012Koch, Natalie2012. “Urban ‘Utopias’: The Disney Stigma and Discourses of ‘False Modernity’.” Environment and Planning A 44 (10): 24452462.10.1068/a44647[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]] for media depictions of Astana). Such works can be seen as building upon Marx’s more classic notions of surplus value in commodities (Marx1992Marx, Karl1992Capital: Volume I: A Critique of Political Economy. Translated by B. FowkesNew YorkPenguin Classics. [Google Scholar]), and specifically, on the relationship between surplus images and sign values (Mitchell 2002Mitchell, William2002. “The Surplus Value of Images.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 35: 123.[Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

Academic interest in image production in architecture, however, has remained primarily focused on examining the media surrounding realized projects – or comparing realized projects to their originally designed forms – rather than on the politico-economic opportunities afforded by project proposals in their own right. For example, while Jackson and Dora (2009Jackson, Mark, and Veronica della Dora2009. “‘Dreams So Big Only the Sea Can Hold Them’: Man-Made Islands as Anxious Spaces, Cultural Icons, and Travelling Visions.” Environment and Planning A 41: 20862104.10.1068/a41237[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) acknowledge that “many island projects are purely speculative, and act as attractants of capital, investment, and curiosity” and that “some will be built, but many will not” (2809), they abstain from probing further at the specific ways in which such speculations operate, the arenas through which they circulate, and the reasons behind why they may do so. Insight into the political agency of unrealized design proposals can be found more specifically in literature looking at the propaganda projects of the Soviet Union. Soviet officials put forward many ostentatious and ideologically ridden works of architecture that were never built, the most famous of which is Boris Iofan’s Palace of the Soviets intended for Moscow. However, there were dozens of others.22. For example, see, The Guardian, “Unbuilt Moscow: The ‘New Soviet’ City that Never Was” (Rogers 2017Rogers, Alexandra2017. “Unbuilt Moscow: The ‘New Soviet’ City That Never Was.” The Guardian, March 8. Accessed August 14, 2017. [Google Scholar]).View all notes Buck-Morss (2002Buck-Morss, Susan2002Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and WestCambridge, MAThe MIT press. [Google Scholar]) coins the term “utopian supplement” to describe the cognitive power of such dream images in conveying plans for the making of a new socialist society.

Understanding how such image production works under capitalism, and more specifically in each of the phases of building construction under capitalism, is an area of research with room for greater exploration. Lehrer (2003Lehrer, Ute2003. “The Spectacularization of the Building Process: Berlin, Potsdamer Platz.” Genre 36 (3–4): 383404.10.1215/00166928-36-3-4-383[Crossref][Google Scholar]) notes a trend toward “the specularization of the building process”; that is, toward the commodification of the experience of the project’s construction in its own right. In a similar vein, this paper looks at the commodification of architecture even before its construction phase and shows how, distinct from building commodification and construction commodification, design phase commodification affords its own great politico-economic agency. In drawing a distinction between the use of images of finished architecture and that of design proposals in branding, this paper’s analysis foregrounds the agency of architectural rumors that remain suspended in a protracted state of “near-future” development.

Project case descriptions

Zira Island

Officially announced on 27 January 2009, the Zira Island Masterplan proposed to redevelop the entire 1,000,000 m² of Nargin Island (Boyuk Zira) off the coast of central Baku in the Caspian Sea.33. Images of the project proposal are available online at all notes The project is located on the site of a former Soviet detainment camp and naval station currently being used for natural gas extraction. Construction of the project was estimated to cost USD $3 billion at the time of its announcement (Zero-carbon Living on Zira Island 2009Zero-carbon Living on Zira Island. 2009The Edge Markets. June 21. Accessed August 11, 2017. [Google Scholar]). The developer for the project is Azerbaijan-based Avrositi Holding (Eurocity Holding), whose self-declared mandate is “to create world-class real estate developments in Azerbaijan and Central Asia” (Holding 2009Holding, Avrositi2009. “Zira Islan Project Website.” Accessed August 11, 2017. [Google Scholar]). As an urban redevelopment project, this proposal promises to reactivate not only the island but also Baku’s wider harbor front, rebranding the city’s industrial image. Project renderings show small sailboats meandering across the harbor in some of the world’s most industrially contaminated water (Jafari 2010Jafari, Nasar2010. “Review of Pollution Sources and Controls in Caspian Sea Region.” Journal of Ecology and the Natural Environment2: 025029. [Google Scholar]). At present, the harbor’s boat traffic is almost exclusively from large government-run international ferries and tankers, with the exception of minimal high-end private yacht traffic.

In terms of the project program, the master plan for Zira Island offers multiple high-end private beaches, resorts, and residential developments, including approximately 300 private waterfront villas, all physically linked through an elaborate landscaping design. The project’s grand vision is said to get its design inspiration from the seven mountain peaks of Azerbaijan, the forms of which have been parametrically reconfigured into shiny glass and steel inhabitable objects using sophisticated design and imaging software. The particular molding of these islands into buildings can be seen not only as a reflection of the geography of Azerbaijan, but also a trademark of the project’s architect, famous Danish firm, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), which has proposed similar terraced, mountain-shaped designs in cities as disparate as Copenhagen and Los Angeles.

Beyond the branding provided by its star architect, Zira Island has sought acclaim through its innovative approach to environmental sustainability. Sometimes referred to as Zira Zero Island, the project has proudly declared itself the first carbon-neutral project in the region, rendering it an example of the aforementioned coming together of “green-washing” and architectural rumors. In order to obtain this environmental goal, the island claimed it would deploy not only traditional sustainable design approaches (such as solar heat panels, photovoltaic cells, waste water and rainwater collection, and an offshore wind farm), it would also become,

An autonomous ecosystem where the flow of air, water, heat, and energy are channeled in almost natural ways. A mountain creates biotopes and eco-niches, it channels water and stores heat, it provides viewpoints and valleys, access and shelter. The Seven Peaks are conceived not only as icons but engineered as entire ecosystems (Holding 2009Holding, Avrositi2009. “Zira Islan Project Website.” Accessed August 11, 2017. [Google Scholar]).

The coming together of high-end residential architecture with technologically advanced environmental design approaches reflects global real estate trends to commodify environmentalism and package it as a luxury product (Hoffman 2011Hoffman, Lisa2011. “Urban Modeling and Contemporary Technologies of City-Building in China: The Production of Regimes of Green Urbanisms.” In Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, edited by AnanyaRoy, and Aihwa Ong5576. Chapter 2. ChichesterWiley-Blackwell.[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Crot 2013Crot, Laurence2013. “Planning for Sustainability in Non-Democratic Polities: The Case of Masdar City.” Urban Studies50: 28092825.10.1177/0042098012474697[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Cugurullo 2013Cugurullo, Federico2013. “How to Build a Sandcastle: An Analysis of the Genesis and Development of Masdar City.” Journal of Urban Technology20: 2337.10.1080/10630732.2012.735105[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Rapoport 2014Rapoport, Elizabeth2014. “Utopian Visions and Real Estate Dreams: The Eco-City past, Present and Future.” Geography Compass 8: 137149.10.1111/gec3.12113[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Hudson 2015Hudson, Kris2015. “Builders’ New Power Play: Net-Zero Homes.” The Wall Street Journal, January 20. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]; and Pow and Neo 2015Pow, C. P., and Harvey Neo2015. “Modelling Green Urbanism in China.” Area 47: 132140.10.1111/area.12128[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). At the same time, the design appears completely indifferent to the socioeconomic exclusivity that it proposes for Azerbaijan, or to the necessary fuel requirements associated with daily travel to and from an urban island. As such, the Zira Island proposal carries forward both the existing socioeconomic disparity of local Azeri society and the contaminated water legacies of the Caspian Sea (Jafari 2010Jafari, Nasar2010. “Review of Pollution Sources and Controls in Caspian Sea Region.” Journal of Ecology and the Natural Environment2: 025029. [Google Scholar]). Descriptions of the project as being completely self-dependent and removed from Baku intend to celebrate the net-zero accomplishments of this proposal. But they could equally describe its exclusionary social characteristics and broader nature as a restricted island enclave.

Khazar Islands

The Khazar Islands Development is an artificial archipelago megaproject situated 25 km south of Baku on the Caspian Sea. It was designed to consist of 41 artificial islands located in 19 different new districts and intended to occupy almost 31 km2 of land (Figure 2). The project’s central connective boulevard was designed at an astounding 50 km long (Valiyev 2012Valiyev, Anar2012. “Baku.” Cities 31: 625640.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). The project was launched in 2010 by Avesta Concern, a local Azerbaijani development company founded by the Azeri billionaire Ibrahim Ibrahimov. Ibrahimov was known for his extensive ties to the ruling Aliyev family, which deteriorated in 2015, when he was arrested on allegations of unpaid state debts (Snip 2017Snip, Inge2017. “Azerbaijan’s Corrupt Construction Sector to Blame for Cut Corners.” MeydanTV, March 5. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]). The overall cost to realize the project was estimated at USD $100 billion and it was optimistically slated for completion in three phases over a 15-year period.

Figure 2. Conceptual rendering of Azerbaijan Tower and the Khazar Islands on a billboard advertisement in Azerbaijan. (Image by authors).

The first phase of the project emphasized land massing and the installation of basic site infrastructure, including the development of parks and boulevards. It was intended to provide a period for further investment attraction through the circulation of the project’s design images and the pre-sale of the second phase residential units. It is in this manner that despite actual work commencing on the project’s foundations, the proposal still very much functions as an architectural rumor, distributing information about the latter phases least likely to get built.44. Here, it is particularly the use of images of the world’s tallest building and Formula One race track that serve as rumors on the project.View all notes The relative attractiveness of investing in the area has consistently been framed in relation to the extravagance and novelty of the future phases of the project. The central skyscraper of the islands, “Azerbaijan Tower,” was rumored to become the tallest building in the world at 1050 m and would consist of 186 floors (compared to Dubai’s Burj Khalifa at 828 m and 160 stories). The tower was aimed to stand in dramatic juxtaposition to its surrounding proposed towers, the majority of which were designed to range in height from 19 to 25 floors, or up to 80 floors for a few prominent hotel proposals.

According to various news sources, if built, the Khazar Islands would have the capacity to house between 400,000 and 1 million residents and host up to 200,000 tourists – staggering figures considering Baku’s population of 2.25 million (The State Statistical Committee of the Republic of Azerbaijan 2017The State Statistical Committee of the Republic of Azerbaijan. 2017. “Population.” Accessed January 10, 2018. [Google Scholar]). In support of this dramatic influx of residents, the project design entails the additional construction of 150 new schools, 50 new hospitals, and a variety of support facilities such as parks, retail areas, university campuses, cultural centers, and an airport. All these facilities would be elaborately connected by 150 bridges weaving throughout the project. Considering that Azerbaijan is in a relatively active seismic zone, the buildings would need to be built with reinforced concrete able to withstand a dramatic nine-point magnitude earthquake. As with Zira Island, the Khazar Islands claim to be a model sustainable, low-emission development. The proposal includes a tram network, boats, and bicycles for site mobility and limits the number of roads provided for vehicles.

As of October 2016, satellite imagery showed the first project phase underway. Avesta Concern had also finalized some bridges and road infrastructure and started constructing a few of the residential buildings envisaged in the original project proposal (Figure 3). It was initially announced that by 2013 the central boulevard as well as its adjacent restaurants and beaches would be opened to the public (First Residents Will Settle in Khazar Islands in 2014, 2012“First Residents Will Settle in Khazar Islands in 2014.”. 2012Today.AZ. , December 25. Accessed August 13, 2017 [Google Scholar]). This was later adjusted and re-announced for May 2014 (First Phase of Khazar Islands Project to be Accomplished by May 2014“First Phase of Khazar Islands Project to be Accomplished by May”. 2014Azernews. , April 22. Accessed August 13, 2017 [Google Scholar]). When Ibrahim Ibrahimov was arrested in 2015, skepticism and rumors began to surround the project’s completion. Despite a high degree of controversy regarding Ibrahimov personally, intellectuals interviewed expressed their strong opinion that the project always seemed dubious in nature, particularly on account of Ibrahimov’s overwhelming lack of experience in the construction industry and the sheer size of the proposal. As of February 2018, author site visits confirm that no new work has commenced. Avesta Concern has also suffered mass employee resignations due to non-payment and the project’s frozen development (Çağtürk 2018Çağtürk, Fərhad2018. “Mass Resignation at ‘Avesta’ Concern.” AzEuroNews, February 4. Accessed February 10, 2018. [Google Scholar]). Unlike the Zira Island Masterplan, the Khazar Islands project does not have a famous architectural affiliation. Instead, its notoriety has come through the overwhelming scale and ostentatiousness of the programming. A lot of emphasis has been placed on the project’s island geography, the housing of a Formula One-grade race track, and the world’s tallest building. These spectacular rumors generate hype around what would otherwise be a somewhat banal yet elite gated residential community.

Figure 3. Image of the frozen construction of the Khazar Islands, taken 20 December 2016. (Image by authors).

The agency of architectural rumors

Both the Kazar Islands and Zira Island projects have brought increased international attention to the city of Baku and to the nation of Azerbaijan solely through the ideas they put forward in their unrealized proposals. Their wide circulation as speculative designs in a diverse range of media outlets – from local newspapers to international design journals and press conferences – has worked to draw attention to this geographically small and under-recognized post-Soviet country. Those interviewed from the local intellectual class described how these projects were being used to improve the image of Azerbaijan internationally. For example, one interviewee who works as a local journalist and a policy analyst stated, “with these projects, the developers are getting money from the state budget, but the architecture is also definitely part of an image-building project to show off Azerbaijan.” Another, an academic specializing in the political economy of local urban development, further stated,

even though the project of the Khazar Islands was not considered serious by knowledgeable locals, Ibrahimov used his political ties and networks to get the largest loan from the International Bank of Azerbaijan by claiming that the project would “make Azerbaijan great.”

Such nationalistic rhetoric coupled with initial signs of foreign investment interest open the doors for official state sponsorship and investment loans for these projects. The strategic circulation of architectural rumors thus has the potential for real-life benefits.In order to better understand the ways in which these two projects have impacted the image of the city and the reputation of its ruling elite, this section breaks down four arenas where architectural rumors circulate and explains how these arenas were used specifically to promote the image of Baku and improve the reputation of powerful Azeris. These arenas can be understood as coexisting and overlapping with one another. They have no clear hierarchy or chronological order. It is acknowledged that there may be any number of additional potential arenas for circulating architectural rumors around the globe. As such, this is not intended to be a definitive list but serves more as an initial identification of the arenas relative to these two specific case studies.

As utopic imaginings of urban space, architectural rumors serve a number of key, and at times inter-connected, objectives:

(1) They promote a city and/or country as an emerging destination rivaling that of its global competitors. This works toward attracting foreign investment dollars and boosting the local economy, whether for the specific rumored project itself or for others that will benefit indirectly from the promises of that project.
(2) They work to engender public complacency by informing local populations that their nation is prosperous and globally competitive. This has the potential to legitimize the government, especially under relatively fraught, authoritarian circumstances – something that is particularly important during periods of nation building. At the same time, such projects can buttress the legitimacy of the ruling elite by depicting them as generous purveyors of philanthropy to the country, however disingenuous are such efforts. Citizens are shown images of Azerbaijan as an emerging global actor, implicitly reminding them that any personal discomfort should be seen as necessary sacrifice for achieving a greater nationalistic cause.
(3) Tied to the first two points, architectural rumors financially and ideologically support specific key individuals behind the country’s growth machine, affording them great personal wealth, notoriety, and power. These projects allow elites to financially speculate on real estate and receive government loans in order to do so. On a personal level, architectural rumors perform akin to bragging and function as a type of proof of group membership for the elite ring of politico-economic actors in Baku’s real estate sector.
(4) For projects that remain as rumors and that are never built, the above three objectives can be accomplished while avoiding many of the costs and uncertainties surrounding the realization of a megaproject. The costs of actual project construction are avoided and technical construction issues associated with the engineering complexity of such proposals are bypassed. There is also no risk of the project prematurely going out of fashion, becoming a poor investment, or failing to live up to customer demands. In sum, the project is incapable of failing in any of the traditional architectural senses because it is never actually built.

Arena one: architectural rumors in media

One of the greatest arenas for the international circulation of architectural rumors is in design-related media. This includes design-specific newspapers, magazines, and journals showcasing architecture and design culture, as well as the news, travel, and design sections of popular media outlets. The announcement of the Zira Island master plan in a number of design magazines exemplifies this phenomenon. The website Inhabitat described the project as such:

Located in the bay of the capital city Baku, Zira Island is a ferry ride away from a growing metropolis and will stand as an example to a region so dependent on oil, that it is possible to live off the wind and the sun. (Meinhold 2009Meinhold, Bridgette2009. “Azerbaijan’s Carbon Neutral Zira Island.” Inhabitat, February 2. Accessed August 14, 2017. [Google Scholar]) (emphasis added)

In a two-part feature covering Baku’s futuristic architecture, including both the Zira Island and Khazar Island projects, the personal website of Architectural Digest correspondent Anna Kovalchenko, gushes about how “it looks like Baku, Azerbaijan seriously has taken the route to becoming the most ultra-modern city in the region” (Futuristic Architecture of Baku, Part 2: New Incredible Projects 2013“Futuristic Architecture of Baku, Part 2: New Incredible Projects”. 2013L’essenziale. March 2. Accessed August 14, 2017. [Google Scholar]). Similarly, DesignBoom declared, “unlike some of the extravagant development in the Middle East, this new development takes the particular climate of the area into account, hoping to pave the way for future eco-conscious projects” (Archer 2009Archer, Nate2009. “BIG Architects: ZIRA Island Masterplan.” Designboom. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]). Fast Company states that “compared to the eco-smashing excesses of the equally futuristic artificial islands built and planned in Dubai, the intentions for Zira Island appear to really be clean and green” (Eaton 2009Eaton, Rik2009. “Azerbijan’s Futuristic Eco-Island Plans.” Fast Company. March 2. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]). Here, Azerbaijan is framed as surpassing its rival global cities and becoming an even greater paradigm for responsible sustainable and eco-friendly architectural development. Since it is not in keeping with the agendas of such media outlets, there is no mention of the country’s high levels of social inequality, corruption, and human rights violations, painting an entirely uneven impression of the living conditions in Azerbaijan.The overwhelming majority of media outlets, however, simply replicated the text descriptions provided by project press releases, quoting large passages verbatim and offering no critical interpretation.55. For example, such is the case with the posts on ArchDaily; and Dezeen all notes Thus, how “constant irrigation and fertilizing of the island supports the lush green condition of a tropical island, with a minimal ecological footprint,” could be found referenced dozens of times (Holding 2009Holding, Avrositi2009. “Zira Islan Project Website.” Accessed August 11, 2017. [Google Scholar]). However, none of the editorials questioned how this might work within Azerbaijan’s existing high levels of soil toxicity and water pollution. Similarly, there are no present-day images of the city of Baku in the project announcements. Particularly in the design articles mentioned above, the only images shown are artificial computer renderings, many of them hazily illuminated at night and conveying no sense of reality in the city.

The publication dates of these articles also vary greatly from the initial date of the project announcement. For example, on 24 June 2013, the design website eVolo released the article “Zira Island is Central Asia’s First Carbon Neutral Master Plan in Baku, Azerbaijan,” over four years after the project was first announced (Marija 2013Marija, Bojovic2013. “Zira Island is Central Asia’s First Carbon Neutral Master Plan in Baku, Azerbaijan.” Evolo, June 24. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]). Even later, 88DesignBox, an online magazine of architecture, interiors, and home design, announced the Zira Island project on 27 February 2015, a full six years after its initial announcement and well after it was clear to our interviewed Azeri intellectuals (journalists, academics, architects, and engineers) that the project would not be realized (Zira Island Masterplan 2015Zira Island Masterplan. 201588designbox. February 27. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]). The updated recirculation of the project proposal in the media supports the rumor of it continuing to be a genuine development in-the-making, despite the perpetual lack of project commencement. Field research by the authors in June 2016 revealed absolutely no sign of construction related to the BIG Master Plan on Boyuk Nargin (Zira Island). Instead, through information obtained from the operators of freight shipping services that travel past the island, it was revealed that the site continues to be used for industrial-scale natural gas extraction. The confusion surrounding the project’s status – even in the face of determined investigation – underscores how once an architectural rumor begins circulating, it is very difficult to disprove.

The specific project element of the Khazar Islands that has afforded Azerbaijan the most branding support as an architectural rumor is the USD 2 billion, 1050 m Azerbaijan Tower, which Business Insider Magazine boasts as being 27% taller than Dubai’s Burj Khalifa (Taylor 2012Taylor, Adam2012. “Forget the Burj–Azerbaijan is Planning to Build the World’s Next Tallest Building.” Business Insider, January 26. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]). Between the Khazar Islands’ original construction announcement in 2010 and 2018, headlines describing how the world’s tallest building has been planned for Azerbaijan appeared in news outlets as diverse as The Otago Daily TimesThe New York TimesReuters IndiaBusiness InsiderTime, and the International Business Times. Each underscores the currency of architectural rumors in news outlets and shows the diversity of the type of news provider (from business newspapers to international affairs sections) in which they circulate.

One more area where news outlets provide a lot of agency for architectural rumors is through their persistent announcement of false project construction dates. An article in The New York Times stated that construction on Zira Island is expected to begin in 2010 (Brass 2009Brass, Kevin2009. “Design Unveiled for Sprawling Eco-Complex on Island off Azerbaijan.” The New York times, March 18. Accessed February 10, 2017. [Google Scholar]). An investment news site also stated that construction would commence in 2010 and that the project would “be built in stages, with completion due in 8 to 12 years” (Zero-carbon Living on Zira Island 2009Zero-carbon Living on Zira Island. 2009The Edge Markets. June 21. Accessed August 11, 2017. [Google Scholar]). Yet none of these timelines could be verified and none are mentioned on the official project websites. Similarly, local Azeri news expressed great confidence in the project timeline for the Khazar Islands. An article from 25 December 2012 leads with the title “First residents will settle in Khazar Islands in 2014” (2012“First Residents Will Settle in Khazar Islands in 2014.”. 2012Today.AZ. , December 25. Accessed August 13, 2017 [Google Scholar]), and only later inside the body of text is it clarified that this is an optimistic statement from the development company’s president. Nine months before this, the state-controlled Azernews carried the confident title, “First phase of Khazar Islands project to be accomplished by May,” another project deadline that was not realized (First Phase of Khazar Islands Project to be Accomplished by May 2014“First Phase of Khazar Islands Project to be Accomplished by May”. 2014Azernews. , April 22. Accessed August 13, 2017 [Google Scholar]).

Rumors also circulated in local and international press regarding who would invest in the construction of the Khazar Islands. Over multiple years, investors from countries as disparate as Canada (Orujova 2013Orujova, Nigar2013. “Canada to Lend $4 Bln for Khazar Islands Project.” Azernews, March 4. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]), China (Chinese Investors Have Agreed to Invest $12.5 bn in Khazar Islands Construction Project 2015“Chinese Investors Have Agreed to Invest $12.5 bn in Khazar Islands Construction Project.” 2015Abc.AZ. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]), and The Czech Republic (Orujova 2014aOrujova, Nigar2014a. “Czech Company to Build Artificial Islands in Azerbaijan.” Azernews, October 31. Accessed August 12, 2017. [Google Scholar]) were named in the media as being stakeholders. Various other news pieces announced a range of “interested” investors from around the globe, including from Turkey (Ahmedov 2012Ahmedov, Ali2012. “One of the Biggest Investors of Turkey is Interested in Khazar Islands Project.” APA.AZ. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]) and the United States (“Khazar İslands” Project Arouses Great Interest in USA 2014“Khazar İslands” Project Arouses Great Interest in USA”. 2014Azertac. December 17. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]) in order to attract further capital to the project. In one particularly confusing example of an architectural rumor circulating in local Azeri news, a 12 July 2012 article from Today.Az titled “Qatar Interested in Khazar Islands Project” describes investment interest in the Khazar Islands, but features an adjacent incorrect picture of the Zira Island proposal (Qatar Interested in Khazar Islands Project 2012Qatar Interested in Khazar Islands Project. 2012Today.AZ, July 12. Accessed August 14, 2017. [Google Scholar]).

Arena two: architectural rumors on project and team websites

Many of the architectural rumors discussed above originate on the websites of the project design teams and developers. They are then copied and presented as new pseudo-news announcements elsewhere. Both Zira Island and the Khazar Islands have their own project websites that provide project information.66. all notes The continued operation of these websites alone stands as a form of perpetual rumor circulation, as it attenuates skepticism about possible project cancellations. In line with this, the undated “News” section of the Khazar Island website leads with the statement, “construction of the Khazar Islands, a new city to be built by Avesta on artificial islands, is in full swing” (Concern 2011Concern, Avestia2011. “Khazar Islands Project Website.” Accessed August 11, 2017. [Google Scholar]). Features from the news section of Avesta Concern’s website similarly include updates related to prominent visitors to the project site, such as the Iranian Deputy Minister and the Italian Ambassador, while not providing any actual information about the development of the project itself. Revealingly, the photos accompanying these prominent visits show officials overlooking a scale model of the project or sitting in its sales office since there is not much of a project site to visit.

Similarly, visitors to the Zira Island website can navigate through sections providing information on the project’s vision, sustainability approach, and design team. A PDF project book is also available for free download, and there is a three-and-a-half-minute film with flyover footage and animated diagrams explaining how the new buildings have inherited their sustainable mountainous forms. The architect’s and engineer’s websites identically replicate much of this information and visuals about the project (Riemann 2009Riemann, Lars Ostenfeld2009. “Zira Island Master Plan.” Ramboll.Com, Accessed August 13. [Google Scholar]). All feature the same design narrative and particularly replicate how, “as a young post-Soviet democracy, Azerbaijan is rediscovering its national identity by imagining Zira Island as an architectural landscape based upon the country’s dramatic natural setting” (Holding 2009Holding, Avrositi2009. “Zira Islan Project Website.” Accessed August 11, 2017. [Google Scholar]). The resulting message of this architectural rumor is that Azerbaijan is a model nation and a true democracy, one that is rising to become an excellent leader in environmental design. This stands in contrast to the fact that since independence Azerbaijan has possessed one of the worst environmental degradation and human rights records of all the post-Soviet countries (Freedom House 2015Freedom House. 2015. “Azerbaijan Country Report: Freedom of the Press 2015.” Accessed November 11, 2017. [Google Scholar]; Transparency International 2016Transparency International. 2016. “Country Profiles.” Accessed September 9, 2017. [Google Scholar]; Amnesty International 2017Amnesty International. 2017. “AZERBAIJAN 2016/2017.” Accessed January 10, 2018. [Google Scholar]).

The rebranding of Azerbaijan away from its legacy of oil production is also brought to attention on the corporate website of the project’s engineering firm, Ramboll (Riemann 2009Riemann, Lars Ostenfeld2009. “Zira Island Master Plan.” Ramboll.Com, Accessed August 13. [Google Scholar]). Elsewhere, Ramboll’s Group Director of Buildings & Design, Lars Ostenfeld Riemann is quoted as saying:

Zira Island will be an important step into the future of urban development in the Caucasus and Central Asia. By the help of the wind, the sun and the waste the Island will produce the same amount of energy as it consumes. In a society literately built on oil, this will serve as a showcase for a new way of thinking sustainable planning.(Etherington 2009Etherington, Rose2009. “Zira Island Masterplan by BIG.” Dezeen. January 30. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]) (emphasis added)

Coming from a professional authority on sustainable design, these comments do much to legitimize the growth machine of Baku while reiterating the engineering firm’s own expertise. Although the Bjarke Ingels Group website identifies the project’s status as “Idea” (Bjarke Ingels Group 2009Bjarke Ingels Group. 2009. “Zira Island Masterplan.” Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]), Ramboll makes no mention of the project as unrealized. It instead lists only the “Services Provided,” giving the impression that the project may have already been completed (Riemann 2009Riemann, Lars Ostenfeld2009. “Zira Island Master Plan.” Ramboll.Com, Accessed August 13. [Google Scholar]). In a similar fashion, the Khazar Islands website uses relative timeframes such as “a year ago” and “nowadays” without providing any concrete reference dates (Concern 2011Concern, Avestia2011. “Khazar Islands Project Website.” Accessed August 11, 2017. [Google Scholar]). The text on the website also uses slippery language that sometimes makes it sound as though the project is already a reality. Website visitors learn how the “Khazar Islands are the gateway to a new life” and how “In a city like this, the benefits of civilization ally with nature; the harmonious combination of environmental security, esthetics, and cutting-edge technology make this an ideal place for both family and successful business” (Concern 2011Concern, Avestia2011. “Khazar Islands Project Website.” Accessed August 11, 2017. [Google Scholar]).

Arena three: architectural rumors in exhibitions

Only a few weeks after the January 2009 Zira Island project announcement, the design was already being featured in an exhibition chronicling the work of its architect, Bjarke Ingels Group. Titled “Yes is More,” the much-celebrated event showcased the work of the firm in their home city of Copenhagen, Denmark at the Danish Architecture Center between 21 February and 31 May 2009. It was the first solo exhibition of the firm’s portfolio and included a large quantity of content, ranging from 30 project models to 19 animated films and a 130 m long portfolio comic strip (Jordana 2010Jordana, Sebastian2010. “YES IS MORE Exhibition: An Archicomic on Architectural Evolution.” ArchDaily, June 16. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]). Featured prominently in the center of the floor space of the exhibition was the large illuminated master plan model of Zira Island with all seven of its mountain-inspired buildings. A year later, the exhibition traveled on to Bordeaux, France, where “Yes is More” was exhibited at the Arc en Rêve between June and November 2010. The content of the exhibition was later compiled into a book published by Taschen under the same “Yes is More” name (Ingels 2010Ingels, Bjarke2010Yes is More: An Archicomic on Architectural EvolutionLondonTaschen. [Google Scholar]).

Just as the original Zira Island proposal had done, news of the “Yes is More” exhibition and images of its content began circulating widely in online design publications (Jordana 2010Jordana, Sebastian2010. “YES IS MORE Exhibition: An Archicomic on Architectural Evolution.” ArchDaily, June 16. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]). The exhibition announcement on DesignBoom featured the image of the Zira Island model but with no caption to identify it as an unrealized design (Kim 2010Kim, Erika2010. “BIG Architects: Yes is More Exhibition.” Designboom, June 30. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]). It is in this fashion that the initial architectural rumor of the Zira Island Masterplan gained greater legitimacy through its repeated circulation. As with the original proposal announcement, there was no contextual information discussing the city’s social, political, or environmental conditions.

If the “Yes is More” exhibition was tailored toward attracting the particular attention of design professionals and members of the public interested in art and architecture, then the simultaneous displaying of the Zira Island project at the Cityscape Abu Dhabi exhibition in April 2009 targeted an alternative audience of international investors. Cityscape is an annual real estate event taking place in Abu Dhabi, UAE that includes real estate exhibitions, seminars, and conferences. It is attended by government representatives, consultants, and architects, as well as international real estate professionals. In 2009, the event attracted over 30,000 attendees from 34 different countries. Beyond an arena for showcasing real estate, Cityscape Abu Dhabi features an awards ceremony with eight categories of project recognition. It assigns awards to both architects and developers. As of 2016, the awards now further distinguish between “built” and “future projects,” but this was not the case in 2009 when the Zira Island Master Plan was shortlisted for an award. The ability for a highly speculative design proposal to receive award attention in a real estate forum speaks to the benefits of producing radically innovative, yet mostly infeasible proposals as a means of improving the branded image of a country. The award performs as a source of exterior validation not only to the quality of the design but also to the host-city and nation.

Arena four: architectural rumors on billboards, in sponsorships, and local advertising

The first three arenas for the circulation of architectural rumors have been mainly focused on online forums and the impact of designs on international audiences. Yet, architectural rumors also circulate throughout the physical spaces of their host cities on billboards, at pubic events, and through word-of-mouth. Local event sponsorships by project developers can serve as an additional opportunity to normalize the rumors of future megaprojects in passing.

For example, the 2014 Miss Globe International Contest was hosted in Azerbaijan by Avesta Concern, and the Khazar Islands are listed as a prime sponsor for the event (Orujova 2014bOrujova, Nigar2014b. “Miss Globe International Contest Comes to Azerbaijan.” Azernews, May 15. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]). Promotional material for the beauty contest even directly featured marketing support for the project. One of the main official slogans for the event was, “Go to Azerbaijan to see the venue for the tallest building in the world!” while another slogan declared more broadly, “Witness the history!!” (Miss Globe International 2014Miss Globe International. 2014. “Results Information.” Miss Globe International. Accessed August 14, 2017. [Google Scholar]). Physical posters used to promote the event around Baku carried a number of related images complementing these slogans. While a few simply featured an image of the previous year’s winner, Brazilian Jakelyne Oliveira De Silva, others contained a silhouette of the Khazar Islands’ future Azerbaijan Tower. These posters were displayed around Baku for two months and were also shown in Istanbul, Turkey on billboards and metrobus lines . A local news article from 15 May 2014 announcing Azerbaijan’s hosting of the Miss Globe International Contest states, “world-known Khazar Islands is a general sponsor of the project” (Orujova 2014bOrujova, Nigar2014b. “Miss Globe International Contest Comes to Azerbaijan.” Azernews, May 15. Accessed August 13, 2017. [Google Scholar]). Here, the reader is not only reminded of the purported concrete existence of the Khazar Islands, but also informed that the project developer, Ibrahim Ibrahimov, is an active philanthropist.

Two of the local intellectuals interviewed during fieldwork described at length how Ibrahimov worked perpetually to bolster his local image and authority, relying heavily on the ostentatiousness of the Khazar Islands and his role in transforming Baku to afford him local respect. Billboards for the Khazar Islands have likewise been featured across Baku for years. Some are now starting to show signs of physical deterioration. Their poor condition is an early signal of the future collapse of this architectural rumor. In contrast, there was less local advertising of the Zira Island proposal, which only had a few months of video promotion on social media and local television. The reasons why local billboards supporting the Zira Island project were not utilized could not be identified.

An eco-chamber of rumors

In keeping with the broader nature of spoken rumors, architectural rumors gain much of their currency from repeated circulation, elaboration, obfuscation, and combination with other rumors. Amidst the chaos of all the actual real estate development underway in Azerbaijan, it is easy for unrealized proposals to be mistaken as genuinely underway, particularly by an international audience that lacks local exposure. This is supported by the fact that media releases for new projects in Baku have a propensity to mention in passing other megaprojects being built in the city. For example, a local AzerNews article boasting the architectural success of the completed Flame Towers in Baku further describes the Khazar Islands as invariably being one of the city’s next big architectural successes (Dadashova 2013Dadashova, Gulgiz2013. “Architectural Pearl of Baku Named ‘Best Hotel and Tourist Center.” AzerNews, April 30. Accessed November 10, 2017. [Google Scholar]). As such, architectural rumors rely on one another to amplify a false sense of hype and real estate prosperity across the city. The long-term development periods associated with megaprojects are a key factor that affords early design-phase rumors power. Megaprojects typically take years to complete and have very few visual clues in the early phases, which are usually focused on excavation and earth mounding.

The compounding of architectural rumors occurs not just within a city, where one project leads the way and provides an investment lure for subsequent others. It can also take place internationally, as projects get grouped thematically or categorized based on their geographic locations. Architectural rumors about the tallest buildings in the world circulate together and support one another, clustering development in cities such as New York, Shanghai, Dubai, and Kuala Lumpur with new development in Baku. Likewise, innovative sustainable development master plans are published together and juxtaposed based on their various environmental attributes, leading to the Zira Island master plan being compared to other eco-city projects like Dongtan in China and Masdar in Abu Dhabi (Riemann 2009Riemann, Lars Ostenfeld2009. “Zira Island Master Plan.” Ramboll.Com, Accessed August 13. [Google Scholar]). The sheer global breadth of locations pandering to megaprojects as a vehicle toward their global legitimization makes it highly unlikely that news readers will ever be in a position to thoroughly verify their degree of final completion, or the amount of deviation they possess from the proposed design.


Through an analysis of the project designs for the Zira Island and Khazar Islands master plans in Baku, Azerbaijan, this paper has described how the commodification of design proposals is distinct in its political and economic agency from that of built projects. It further argued that the agency of outlandish design proposals to promote urban boosterism and regime security can be preferable to that of realizing such high-cost, technically complex, and rapidly obsolete projects. Given the fleeting half-life of superlatives in design, where projects can loose their titles of “largest,” “tallest,” and “first” even before their construction is complete, the power of architecture and urban design to legitimize governments and to assert a nation’s role on the international stage is increasingly focusing attention on schematic design phases. Here, the use of dramatic architectural imagery to legitimate and brand a nation is reciprocated by the use of regime money to legitimate and brand the architectural and engineering firms behind their designs.

Each of the four arenas through which architectural rumors circulate were shown to target slightly different audiences. Arena One’s design publications overwhelmingly targeted designers, investors, and the general public. This arena worked to alert design professionals to the types of megaprojects that they might inevitably end up producing in the future, and to draw investors’ attention toward new project opportunities. Arena One further perpetuated a culture of consequence-free design speculation focused on the fashion of esthetics more than architecture’s capacity for social transformation. Local news articles directed toward mass public audiences worked as a source of soft propaganda – both domestically and abroad – conveying Azerbaijan as a thriving modern democracy and global economic player.

For Arena Two, the circulation of architectural rumors on project and team websites targeted a very broad audience. It included everyone from the general public to prospective real estate investors. The content producers of Arena One’s media outlets are also the targets of Arena Two’s project and team websites, since this is where most of their published content is extracted from. Local news releases further perpetuated a sense of development anticipation to be shared among the local population, albeit one that risked turning into fatigue and cynicism when overused. Arena Three specifically targeted developers, investors, and architects, using exhibitions as a space to inflate the rumored reputation of a project while also soliciting investment. Likewise, the final arena of physical billboards, local sponsorships, and advertisings showed how architectural rumors could be normalized though their circulation within the public life of their host cities.

In considering the compounding effects of these four rumor arenas, it was shown how megaprojects and architectural rumors work together to create broader investment fervor, as it becomes a challenge to differentiate between what is actually being constructed and what is not in a city. As long as images are circulating and cranes are erected, the promise of new things to come can live on.

Architectural rumors seek to be economically effective by captivating prospective investors through images of Baku’s bright future of development. If convincing, they turn artificial hype into actual development investment. This leads to the more challenging question of what the actual cost is of circulating architectural rumors. In the face of the many existing failed and under-utilized megaprojects around the world, such as those produced for Olympic games, theme parks, and shopping experiences,77. For example, Athens and Rio have been struggling with underused mega-event related infrastructure (Mangan 2008Mangan, James A.2008. “Prologue: Guarantees of Global Goodwill: Post-Olympic Legacies – Too Many Limping White Elephants?” The International Journal of the History of Sport25: 18691883.10.1080/09523360802496148[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar]; Boukas, Ziakas, and Boustras 2013Boukas, NikolaosVassilios Ziakas, and Georgios Boustras2013. “Olympic Legacy and Cultural Tourism: Exploring the Facets of Athens’ Olympic Heritage.” International Journal of Heritage Studies 19: 203228.10.1080/13527258.2011.651735[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Kaiser 2017Kaiser, Anna Jean2017. “Legacy of Rio Olympics So Far is Series of Unkept Promises.” The New York times, February 15. Accessed August 14, 2017. [Google Scholar]), while Chinese cities are facing the new problem of ghost towns with empty residential complexes or gigantic shopping malls (Banerji and Jackson 2012Banerji, Robin, and Patrick Jackson2012. “China’s Ghost Towns and Phantom Malls.” BBC. Accessed August 14, 2017. [Google Scholar]; Wang et al. 2015Wang, Xin-RuiEddie Chi-Man HuiCharlesChoguill, and Sheng-Hua Jia2015. “The New Urbanization Policy in China: Which Way Forward?” Habitat International47: 279284.10.1016/j.habitatint.2015.02.001[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).View all notes it may not be entirely bad that some proposals advance no further than the rumor stage. Still, large amounts of state capital are consumed producing and circulating architectural rumors, and such projects work to exacerbate already precarious conditions of real estate speculation and government corruption.

Ideologically, architectural rumors also bear costs, as they risk portraying nations as more inclusive and prosperous than they are in reality. Such obfuscation builds up the hopes of local residents for a better, more desirable future – a future that may never come or that has not taken their needs into consideration. Clearly, any approach to attracting investment and building population consent that is founded on falsities will have a limited lifespan. As with all rumors, there exists a particular tension in the ongoing deployment of architectural rumors. In order to compete globally, a city cannot get away with only circulating promises while constructing nothing. There needs to be at least a core of new projects to substantiate rumored claims. But within that flexible and ambiguous space between reality and rumor there exists much room for elaboration and fabrication in a manner that bolsters the city’s branded image without relying upon final construction.

As the initial two sections of this paper have shown, the production of architectural imagery has always been a projective and somewhat utopic endeavor – one relying heavily on esthetic, financial, and programmatic imaginings of a best-case scenario in order to carry forward their designs. Today, despite the overwhelming desire of the Azerbaijani Government to be dissociated from its Soviet past, much of the ideological foundations of state-sponsored utopia communicated through architecture carry forward from these earlier periods. If Azerbaijan is to truly advance past the challenges of its history through new development, there will need to be genuine initiatives undertaken to implement state reforms and to reduce urban boosterism. Paradoxically, only after the country switches its focus from architectural rumors toward more concrete political reforms may the type of utopic futures envisioned actually have a chance at becoming reality.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.


The authors would like to thank Bruce Grant and Anar Valiyev, as well as the journal editors and reviewers, for their thoughtful comments and support toward this article.


1. All interviews have been left anonymous due to personal privacy concerns for the interviewees. Those interviewed were primarily members of the country’s intellectual class, including architects, engineers, journalists and academics, ranging from 26 to 55 years of age. They are all lifetime residents of Baku and are actively interested in events linked to its ongoing politics and urban development.

2. For example, see, The Guardian, “Unbuilt Moscow: The ‘New Soviet’ City that Never Was” (Rogers 2017Rogers, Alexandra2017. “Unbuilt Moscow: The ‘New Soviet’ City That Never Was.” The Guardian, March 8. Accessed August 14, 2017. [Google Scholar]).

3. Images of the project proposal are available online at

4. Here, it is particularly the use of images of the world’s tallest building and Formula One race track that serve as rumors on the project.

5. For example, such is the case with the posts on ArchDaily; and Dezeen


7. For example, Athens and Rio have been struggling with underused mega-event related infrastructure (Mangan 2008Mangan, James A.2008. “Prologue: Guarantees of Global Goodwill: Post-Olympic Legacies – Too Many Limping White Elephants?” The International Journal of the History of Sport25: 18691883.10.1080/09523360802496148[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar]; Boukas, Ziakas, and Boustras 2013Boukas, NikolaosVassilios Ziakas, and Georgios Boustras2013. “Olympic Legacy and Cultural Tourism: Exploring the Facets of Athens’ Olympic Heritage.” International Journal of Heritage Studies 19: 203228.10.1080/13527258.2011.651735[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Kaiser 2017Kaiser, Anna Jean2017. “Legacy of Rio Olympics So Far is Series of Unkept Promises.” The New York times, February 15. Accessed August 14, 2017. [Google Scholar]), while Chinese cities are facing the new problem of ghost towns with empty residential complexes or gigantic shopping malls (Banerji and Jackson 2012Banerji, Robin, and Patrick Jackson2012. “China’s Ghost Towns and Phantom Malls.” BBC. Accessed August 14, 2017. [Google Scholar]; Wang et al. 2015Wang, Xin-RuiEddie Chi-Man HuiCharlesChoguill, and Sheng-Hua Jia2015. “The New Urbanization Policy in China: Which Way Forward?” Habitat International47: 279284.10.1016/j.habitatint.2015.02.001[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).


A Mehelle Film About Urban Change in Baku

The documentary below is brought to you by Ajam’s Mehelle project, an initiative dedicated to preserving the sights, sounds, and memories of rapidly-changing neighborhoods in Central Asia, Iran, and the Caucasus. Facade is a product of two years of filming in the Sovetski neighborhood of Baku, which has been the target of a state-led urbanization campaign since 2014. A follow-up film will be released in Spring of 2018.

Produced and Directed: Ajam Media Collective’s Mehelle Project
Production Help: Javid Abdullayev and Ahmed Muktar
Music: Shebnem Abdullazade and Vusal Taghi-zadeh

“The neighborhood was one large family… Sovetski was always strong, and that’s why they want to break us.”

In the center of Azerbaijan’s capital city lies Sovetski, a historic neighborhood that was once home to Baku’s oil workers and their families. Over the course of the 19th and 20th century, Sovetski developed its own distinct identity. Self-proclaimed as the “old” Bakuvians, the residents of the neighborhood have had their ups and downs; they have witnessed political upheavals, the rise and fall of various “-isms,” and economic stagnation, but they always had a close-knit community to fall back on.

Now however, the residents of Sovetski face an uncertain future. Fueled by oil rents and foreign investment since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Baku municipal authorities and the Aliyev administration have initiated many urban beautification projects to dramatically rebrand the former Soviet industrial entrepot as a center for global capital and tourism. Over the last three decades, the municipality has renovated the Old City and the adjacent Torgova district (2008), in addition to building the iconic Flame Towers (2007) and transmuting the historical industrial Black City area into a wealthy suburb known as the “White City” (2014).

The authorities have not excluded Sovetski from their vision of a ideal cityscape. In 2014, the Baku municipality ordered “renewal” of the historic Sovetski neighborhood– their labyrinthine alleys, homes, shops, and places of worship will be replaced with a public park and major boulevard. Over the course of the last three years the people of the neighborhood have resisted through protests and demonstrations, but the bulldozers have been relentless. As of Autumn of 2017, the heart of the neighborhood has already been demolished, and new sections have been marked for demolition for the coming years. Facade is a documentary about this process.

As part of Ajam’s Mehelle project, Facade is the result of a collaboration with a number of Azerbaijani filmmakers, journalists, urban activists, and neighborhood residents. If you are interested in the lived experiences of the people of Sovetski, check out the digital map below featuring 360 video, music, and other forms of media.

Baku’s Sovetski Celebrates a Final Novruz

This photo essay features video footage from the Mehelle project, as well as photographs from Chinara Majidova, a Baku-based photographer. The accompanying text was written by Ajam Editor Rustin Zarkar. For more articles from Mehelle, click here.    

Novruz bonfires rage in what remains of the Sovetski neighborhood in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Every year on March 20th, communities from the Balkans to Western China celebrate Novruz (Nowruz, Newroz, and other spelling variations all reference the same holiday). Over the centuries numerous forms of commemoration have developed throughout this geographic space–ranging from table settings to divination, children’s games and bonfires, and even throwing hats and tightrope walking–as people have blended local traditions with the celebration of the vernal equinox. Despite the diversity of practices, a common theme runs through all Nowruz festivities: renewal and rebirth.

In the case of the Sovetski neighborhood in Azerbaijan’s capital city, Baku, the last two Novruz celebrations have been bittersweet. Sovetski residents continue to ring in the new year with fanfare and jubilation (which usually includes lighting large bonfires), but the continued demolition of their neighborhood looms over them. While many have already moved from the neighborhood, the last holdouts in Sovetski believe that this will be their last Novruz in their homes.

As we have outlined in earlier coverage, in 2014 the Baku municipality ordered the destruction of the historic Sovetski neighborhood (and home to 60,000 residents) in order to make way for the extension of Winter Boulevard and the accompanying pedestrian park. While many residents have taken the government’s financial compensation package and moved to the outskirts of the city, some still reside in the emptying neighborhood.

With most of the demolition taking place last summer, Novruz 2016 was attended by many. The streets were crowded with cars, music blared from speakers and people gathered around bonfires that dotted the neighborhood’s alleyways and growing empty spaces. Our Mehelle correspondents were able to capture Novruz celebrations in the videos below:

A short video of 2016 Novruz celebrations from the Mehelle project

Residents of all ages gather around the fire to ring in the New Year.

Family members also start bonfires in back-alleys for a more intimate setting.

360 degree video of Novruz celebrations along Murtaza Muxtarov Street.

One year later, however, the crowds have noticeably dwindled. The municipality has blocked off all major roads leading into the neighborhood, forcing people to travel by foot in order to come and go. The fires continued to rage, albeit this time fueled by construction materials, windowpanes and molding, as well as paper scraps that litter the area. Bulldozers hovered around the gathering like moths to a flame as the inhabitants listened to music, laughed, and added to the fire. Despite the constant reminder of the demolition all around them, the people of Sovetski were able to welcome the New Year the way they have done so many years before.

As dusk falls, a few groups of residents begin to make their own fires.

Young men watch the fire from the steet.

Tending the fire.

Remnants from once-inhabited homes are used as firewood.

The roaring flames attract more residents.

Bulldozers ominously watch over the festivities.

While Novruz is a time for new beginnings, it is also worth reflecting on what has been lost. In Sovetski, as well as other neighborhoods across the Caucasus and Central Asia, state and private interests are dramatically refashioning urban areas. This coming new year, Ajam will introduce two new locations to the Mehelle project: Tbilisi (spring) and Dushanbe (summer). Not only do we wish to document the changes to the built environment and the social relations embedded within them, but we hope to show that communities continue to find reasons to live and celebrate despite the struggles and the hardships they face.

Baku’s Not-so-Ephemeral Public Banners

We Apologize for the Temporary Inconvenience: Capturing Baku’s Not-so-Ephemeral Public Banners


The following is an interview with Ilkin Huseynov, a Baku-based artist, photographer, and publisher. In this interview, Ajam Editor Rustin Zarkar speaks with Huseynov about his recent book, “We Apologize for the Temporary Inconvenience” (2017) by Rally in the Streets Publishing.

The book documents a municipality-led initiative to place graphic banners over active (and idle) construction sites in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.

For more information on urban transformation in Baku, check out Mehelle, an AjamMC project capturing the sights, sounds, and memories of rapidly changing neighborhoods in the Caucasus.

Baku’s Government House, an example of Stalinist-era architecture which houses a number of Azerbaijan’s ministries.

1) AjamMC: Your book takes a detailed look at urban transformation and idealized visions of public space through the lens of banners covering Baku’s construction sites. Could you give us some background on the political and economic processes that fuel this  development?

The title of the book is called “We Apologize for the Temporary Inconvenience,” but in reality this inconvenience is permanent. Since the second oil boom of the 1990s, there has been a constant string of new construction projects, often without any forethought. It is common practice for companies to break ground on a project before they have acquired the necessary funds to complete the building.

Due to limited financial resources, they rely on selling individual units to fund the later stages, and if they do not reach their goal, they will just freeze construction. This dilemma was exacerbated during 2015-16 manat crisis, so a good number of building sites remain idle. There are many people involved who do not have much experience in the industry, and they see it as a way to make a quick buck without considering the risks involved.

In order to mask the unsightly building process, Baku City Hall has placed banners on the fences and barriers that run along the construction sites. With this book, I want give a sense of the imposed artificiality that is slowly displacing the actual cityscape.

Layering of two banners depicting the iconic Baku Flame Towers, and underneath the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline.

2) AjamMC: What did you notice as you were documenting these walls and barriers? What stood out to you about them? Can you speak about some tropes or themes that were used by the municipality?

IH: There’s nothing unique about using billboards or banners to cover construction sites. In most cities the images depict the final plans of the projects being built in that particular location. In our case, however, the banners are rarely related to the spatial context, and instead consist of a wide variety of images that present ideas of the “utopian” city, notions of “beauty,” as well as Baku’s pre-modern and modern history. The people in charge want residents and tourists alike to see a particular vision of the city, without all of this construction.

Aesthetically, the photos themselves are not that impressive. They are pixelated, repetitive, and sometimes even placed upside down. Originally, I was more drawn to how they are affected by the environment and vandalism– how they have endured the aggressive elements here.

A banner featuring Baku seaside Boulevard and Flag Square, which was placed upside down.

3) AjamMC: Who is responsible for the images that go up? Can you explain the decision-making process? How long has this been going on?

IM: It is a relatively new phenomenon, no older than a decade or so. It coincided with the construction boom of the mid 2000s, as well as the innovations in printing technologies. In Azerbaijan, it only costs ten or fifteen manat ($6-$10) to print five square meters.

As for the process, it is clear that there is not much thought or logic in the selection of images. I envision a group of district-level officials are told by higher-ups to choose from a certain number of categories. However, they are not provided with anything specific, which has resulted in them resorting to Google searches. In some cases, you can even see the watermark or copyright of the original photographer.

I’ve only seen one photograph that was taken by a relatively well known photographer; he had gone around shooting all the fountains of the city and was featured in an exhibition. The rest of them have been chosen randomly, coming from the tastes of personnel who use their imaginations to adhere to a vague set of criteria and directions. As you can imagine, this results in a very chaotic beautification initiative.

Low-resolution image banner in front of the Heydar Aliyev center depicting both eponymous late president as well as his son, Ilham Aliyev, the current president of Azerbaijan.

4) AjamMC: Regarding vandalism and environmental stresses, it’s clear that a lot of the banners are in bad shape. My favorite examples are of those photographs composed of different layers of banners.

IH: Interestingly, construction often remains static but the banners are updated frequently. For example, before every event like Formula 1 (annually), Eurovision (1202), or the European Games (2015), they will put up new banners right over the older ones.

The layering of the images sometimes reflects the process of capital accumulation fueling the construction boom— you can see photos from the oil industries, like rigging platforms and pipelines, with the iconic Flame Towers and other contemporary landmarks plastered over them.

I wanted to capture how the banners were able to inadvertently create a natural collage without any real artistic involvement through this layering process, so I designed the pages of the book to have different lengths and dimensions.

Layering of two banners caused by a tear in an image of the Azerbaijan Drama Theater to reveal an image of an oil rig.

5) AjamMC: Yes, we see that oil features prominently on the barriers, even though It seems like an odd choice for beautification. Why do the banners stress oil imagery? Is it an homage to the economic and political history of the city?

IH: Oil is the national pride of Azerbaijan, and it has been stressed as part of the state narrative  for more than a century. Of course, Baku wouldn’t be the city and major port it is today without the infrastructure, transport lines, and migration brought about by petroleum.

Oil is part of the city’s economic transformation, so I understand why it features so prominently in the images. I hear such sentiments quite often when I take photographs. People say, “Why are you shooting negative things? Don’t you see how things have changed? Look far we’ve come.”

A banner featuring the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum.

6) AjamMC: Why did you choose this topic? What interests you about urban change in Baku?

IH: To be honest, I never thought I would ever be interested in urban change, architecture, or this kind of photography. My previous work mostly focused on social issues and people-centered stories, so I never imagined I would start a project that didn’t prominently feature people. My first book, Mühit, was very much about things that are hidden in plain sight. Whenever I would attempt to photograph objects, people, or places that were intentionally hidden for socio-political reasons, people would always ask me, “Why are you interested in that? Go and shoot something beautiful.”

After I returned from a trip to Spain, I was inspired by a new movement called post-photography, which documents found images that have been distorted and manipulated through photoshop and digital editing. As I scanned the city, I was struck by the artificiality of some temporary beautification material, as well as the various ideological narratives they were propagating.

I took people’s advice and shot what the authorities intended for me to see, but from a different perspective. Rather than going out and searching for what was hidden, I became interested in how things were hidden.

An off-colored banner depicting the Azerbaijani countryside.

7) AjamMC: How did you undertake this project? How long have you been working on it?

IH: As you can imagine, there are hundreds if not thousands of construction sites across the city, and there’s not much information about where to find them. Often, I would just drive around, jot down the location of the banners, and return on foot.

Two months after launching the project, I participated in a group exhibition at Yarat! Contemporary Art Space. I had just started the project, and it would take me eight more months to fully realize it. I was still experimenting with how I would present this material, and I chose to highlight their wear and tear. I thought that these small details represented a disruption, and by shifting our attention, we can prevent the banners from rendering themselves neutral in our everyday life.

I keep returning to the idea of how things are hidden, so I want to continue the project by documented other forms of facades, especially the new cladding used to cover the walls of old housing blocks.

The Heydar Aliyev Center, designed by Zaha Hadid.

8) AjamMC: Regarding the composition of the book, your photographs only feature the barriers/walls, and we are left with no context or visual information about our surroundings. Is this intentional? Does it reflect something about the municipalities curatorial decisions for these barriers?

IH: I designed the book so the images do not reference their surrounding environment. In the first draft of the book, I included images where people, animals, cars, etc. were passing by. I wanted to show some semblance of the lived reality there, but I ultimately took out. Instead, I want readers to question what they are looking at and to ask whether it was an actual location or just an image of a place. There is this surrealistic feeling where you do not know where the photo ends and the environment begins.

As I have already mentioned, the banners provide little to no geographic context to the construction sites they are covering. This is pretty unusual. Take the example of Istanbul, the images seem to be carefully chosen and the projects are well-executed.

A banner that seemingly blends reality and representation.

9) AjamMC: Sure, I see what you mean about Istanbul. The Galataport development project in the Karaköy neighborhood is an example of this. They are completely transforming the area and erasing traditional architecture, but at least the banners are propagating a narrative of historical continuity related to physical geography. So you are saying this context is not stressed in the case of Baku?

IH: Exactly, only in the Old City (İçərişəhər) do you see banners related specifically to the neighborhood. For example, in the book, there’s a few examples of banners covering the fortifications featuring the ancient walls and historical structures of the Citadel.

A banner featuring traditional architecture.

10) AjamMC: After publishing your book, do you think people have a different impression of these banners?

IH: After the exhibition, people would send me pictures of banners they had seen, and I recall speaking with an individual who told me, “you know, I never really see these banners, yet we pass by them everyday. They have become part of our environment.” The project encourages people to look past the banners’ utopian landscapes displacing the actual image of Baku. But you know, you cannot really conceal anything in this city. Sooner or later, the truth reveals itself.

A torn banner depicting the Baku cityscape.

Islamic Paradox? – Gender in Baku

Islamic Paradox? – Gender in Baku

By Heather D. DeHaan  
In western popular consciousness, Islam is a faith that rigidly patrols its boundaries. In this conception of Islam, the “House of Islam” combats the world of unbelief, religious infidelity is punished by the state, and uncovered women are banned from public space. The only boundary that the West might wish to introduce–a religious/secular divide–is staunchly rejected. Given such an understanding of Islam, the western public cannot quite fathom Islam’s variability or the fact that “flexible” Islam exists.

Living in the secular Shia state of Azerbaijan made me consider anew the question of Islam, for Azerbaijan’s post-Soviet Islam offers a paradox: a distinct “male” gendering of public space, despite the presence of “liberated” women in European cuts of fashion.  Unlike Russia, where the figure of the babushka (the Russian grandmother) dominates public space, public space in Azerbaijan is distinctly male. Here, there is no sign of the male emasculation associated with Soviet-era repression (in which the state usurped the role of father) or with post-Soviet unemployment (which left men unable to provide). Indeed, neither Soviet nor post-Soviet economic struggles appear to have limited the size or cohesion of the Azerbaijani family, and Azerbaijani men remain central to family life. While not unaffected by Soviet life, Azerbaijani traditional culture remains exceptionally strong.

As a westerner, this vitality might not be immediately visible, for Azerbaijani streets tend to be filled with small groups of men who have apparently nothing to do. They gather at the junctions of streets, on the edges of the dvor, and around metro entrances. Shifting restlessly, but not with any sense of haste or impatience, they engage in long conversation marked by few words and multiple drags on a cigaret. Some of them are taxi drivers waiting for a customer to appear. Others appear to be arranging a deal of some sorts–a swap, a trade, or something else. Some are surely pensioners, while others are probably unemployed. High unemployment alone cannot explain this phenomenon, however, for in places such as Russia or Georgia, similar post-Soviet unemployment rates failed to produce this male-dominated street scene. The men on Azerbaijani streets signal something else–namely, that public space is coded male.

This gender coding is unmistakable. For every woman in the metro after dark, there are at least a dozen men. In the heart of Baku, men and women together remain out late, but this does not change the overall gender imbalance on the street after dark. Males dominate the night, and to some extent they even dominate the day, for they are the ones responsible for public errands as opposed to domestic chores. Azerbaijani teahouses are purely male “hang outs,” and even public parks seem to privilege men, who gather there to play chess, dominoes, and backgammon, or perhaps just sit.

Not that women are entirely absent from public space; only, they tend to be busy with activities other than leisurely conversation in the street. When small clusters of 2-5 women appear, they are generally on their way to somewhere, never stopped on a street corner.  Although women do frequent restaurants and cafes, these are crowded and expensive mixed-gender spaces. Bathhouses are gender segregated, but going to the banya is regarded as something that “the boys” do when seeking to relax or bond. Women do occasionally stop and chat together in the dvor, but not as often as men, and they are usually busy supervising children as they talk. In any case, the dvor is something of an extended familial space, being only quasi-public. The hair salon provides a site for female sociability outside the home, but such salons consist of interiors sheltered by curtains from public view.

Despite male dominance over public space, women walk Azerbaijani streets with remarkable freedom from harassment. As a rule, Azerbaijani men do not ogle women. They make no unwelcome advances, and one has the sense that they would be dreadfully embarrassed if some action on their part caused offense to a woman. Moreover, such respect is granted no matter what the woman’s attire–headscarf or revealing “European” cut of clothes. Freedom of dress may be a legacy of the Soviet past–of an imposed secularism in which fashion was a mark of cosmopolitan sensibility, but thankfully it’s a practice that has lingered. This is a world where women have the freedom to choose–to work or not work, to sport a headscarf or not. They can also wander into “male” space and not be harassed.

This spatial arrangement is tied to domesticity, being a city-wide expression of household arrangements that sustain the family. Yes, Azerbaijani women may opt for careers or European dress, but nearly all have families, and the pressure to bear children is very high. To support family, which Azerbaijanis value deeply, men assist in childcare, running errands and taking children outdoors to play. Meanwhile, women cook, clean, and keep the home in order, whether or not they have careers. Despite women’s freedom of career, social roles tend toward the traditional, and the street’s gender code illustrates this. Male-coded streets not only reflect the political and economic dominance of men over women (top posts in Azerbaijan are, of course, dominated by men), but also a deep male-female interconnectedness–that is, a shared strategy for managing all space, both interior and exterior.

Navigating such spaces can be complex, for class and neighborhood also divvy up Baku’s urban terrain. In Baku’s large markets, where low-brow and more transient men appear, a “ruffian” may comment on some woman’s clothing, provoking a fistfight with “her” man.  The offending comment might be relatively innocent by western standards–a mere reference to a logo on a shirt, perhaps; but, such remarks represent a transgression, an impropriety that insults the woman’s honor and thus that of the man. Such conflicts involve manhood–that is, the male defense of honor and territory, as defined by the woman and her relationship to these men. In a typical scenario, a man from a middle- or upper-class neighborhood enters the “lower” world of the market. The man in the market then responds, challenging the newcomer’s social code and place at the same time.  Cultural and economic differentials help provoke the conflict. Class and territorial boundaries–not just gender lines–are at play.

To understand this complicating feature of the gendered landscape, it’s important to remember that Soviet Baku was historically divided into neighborhoods, each with its own codes of dress and comportment. Many were ethnically mixed, turning “territoriality” into an expression of class. Memoirs of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s describe how young men in one neighborhood organized to keep “their” women away from the men of other neighborhoods; in fact, dating a woman from another neighborhood was a sort of “coup.” Women could cross neighborhood boundaries, but the men who accompanied them might be challenged by men from competing neighborhoods. In other words, the male coding of urban space in Baku did not exclude women, but left games of trade, influence, and policing to the men.

Perhaps ironically, Azerbaijan’s male dominance on the street appears to benefit women. In Russia or Georgia, where women “occupy” public space to the same degree as men, women require male accompaniment after dark, for harassment and assault are not uncommon. Yet in Baku, where men rule the street, women are generally safe from verbal or physical harassment, as if virtually veiled and protected from objectification. They are defined, after all, in relationship to men–as wives, mothers, sisters, and neighbors, all in a world where family traditionally extends into the dvor and the dvor into the neighborhood. Far from marking the “bogey men” of unemployment or conservative Islam, then, Baku’s male-dominated street marks the resilience of a complex traditional social code, one that is post-Soviet and yet distinct to Azerbaijan.

All of which highlights the variability in Islamic practice, something all too often forgotten in popular western conceptions of Islam. Thanks to Soviet influence, the strict Islamic segregation of space according to gender has broken down, leaving a milder gender code that nonetheless protects many of the fundamental principles that Islamic practices were designed to uphold, starting with respect for women. In striking contrast to southern Azerbaijan (i.e. northern Iran), Azerbaijani women in post-Soviet space enjoy freedom that defies the boundaries cast both by conservative Islam and by the West’s conception of it. Unlike the state-imposed boundaries of Iran or the imagined Islam of the West, Azerbaijan’s boundaries are complex and evolving, influenced by Iranian and Soviet pasts and a distinctly Azerbaijani present in which the boundaries of class, nation, faith, and gender shift continually.