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

Caucasus Edition

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

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).

Caucasus Edition

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

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.

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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.

Introduction

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.

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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).
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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.

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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.

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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.

 
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