As part of the former Soviet Union, the urbanism and architecture of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan on the Western coast of the Caspian Sea, was heavily influenced by the planning of that era. Since its independence in 1991, Azerbaijan has invested heavily in modernising and developing Baku’s infrastructure and architecture, departing from its legacy of normative Soviet Modernism.
Zaha Hadid Architects was appointed to design the Heydar Aliyev Centre following a competition in 2007. The centre, designed to become the primary building for the nation’s cultural programs, breaks from the rigid and often monumental Soviet architecture that is so prevalent in Baku, aspiring instead to express the sensibilities of the Azeri culture and the optimism of a nation that looks to the future.
The design sought to establish a continuous, fluid relationship between the surrounding plaza and the building’s interior. The plaza, acting as the ground surface; accessible to all as part of Baku’s urban fabric, rises to envelop an equally public interior space and define a sequence of event spaces dedicated to the collective celebration of contemporary and traditional Azeri culture. Elaborate formations such as undulations, bifurcations, folds, and inflections modify this plaza surface into an architectural landscape that performs a multitude of functions: welcoming, embracing, and directing visitors through different levels of the interior. With this gesture, the building blurs the conventional differentiation between architectural object and urban landscape, building envelope and urban plaza, figure and ground, interior and exterior – a quality that is prevalent in the architecture of Zaha Hadid.
Fluidity in architecture is not new to this region. In historical Islamic architecture, rows, grids, or sequences of columns flow to infinity like trees in a forest, establishing non-hierarchical space. Continuous calligraphic and ornamental patterns flow from carpets to walls, walls to ceilings, ceilings to domes, establishing seamless relationships and blurring distinctions between architectural elements and the ground they inhabit. The architect’s intention was therefore to relate to that historical understanding of architecture, not through the use of mimicry or a limiting adherence to the iconography of the past, but rather by developing a firmly contemporary interpretation, reflecting a more nuanced understanding.
Responding to the topographical sheer drop that formerly split the site in two, the project introduces a precisely terraced landscape that established alternative connections and routes between public plaza, building, and underground parking. This solution avoids additional excavation and landfill, and successfully converts an initial disadvantage of the site into a key design feature.
Geometry, Structure and Materiality
One of the most critical yet challenging elements of the project was the architectural development of the building’s skin. The underlying ambition was to achieve a surface so continuous that appeared homogenous, required a broad range of different functions, construction logics and technical systems had to be brought together and integrated into the building’s envelope. Advanced computing allowed for the continuous control and communication of these complexities among the numerous project participants.
The structure principally consists of two collaborating systems: a concrete structure combined with a space frame system. In order to achieve large-scale column-free spaces that allow the visitor to experience the fluidity of the interior, vertical structural elements are absorbed by the envelope and curtain wall system. This particular surface geometry fosters unconventional structural solutions, such as the introduction of curved ‘boot columns’ to achieve the inverse peel of the surface from the ground to the west of the building, and the ‘dovetail’ tapering of the cantilever beams that support the building envelope to the east of the site.
In this architectural composition, if the surface is the music, then the seams between the panels are the rhythm. Numerous studies were carried out on the surface geometry to rationalize the panels while maintaining continuity throughout the building and landscape. The seams promote a greater understanding of the project’s scale. They emphasize the continual transformation and implied motion of its fluid geometry, offering a pragmatic solution to practical construction issues such as manufacturing, handling, transportation and assembly; and answering technical concerns such as accommodating movement due to deflection, external loads, temperature change, seismic activity and wind loading.
To emphasize the continuous relationship between the building’s exterior and interior, the lighting of the Heydar Aliyev Centre was carefully considered. The lighting design strategy differentiates the day and night reading of the building. During the day, the building’s volume reflects light, constantly altering the centre’s appearance according to the time of day and viewing perspective. The use of semi-reflective glass gives tantalizing glimpses within, arousing curiosity without revealing the fluid trajectory of spaces inside. At night, this character is gradually transformed by means of lighting that washes from the interior onto the exterior surfaces, unfolding the formal composition to reveal its content.
Architect: Zaha Hadid Architects
Location: Baku, Azerbaijan
Design Team: Zaha Hadid, Patrik Schumacher and Saffet Kaya Bekiroglu
Project Architect: Saffet Kaya Bekiroglu
Project Team: Sara Sheikh Akbari, Shiqi Li, Phil Soo Kim, Marc Boles, Yelda Gin, Liat Muller, Deniz Manisali, Lillie Liu, Jose Lemos, Simone Fuchs, Jose Ramon Tramoyeres, Yu Du, Tahmina Parvin, Erhan Patat, Fadi Mansour, Jaime Bartolome, Josef Glas, Micheal Grau, Deepti Zachariah, Ceyhun Baskin, Daniel Widrig, Charles Walker
Structural Engineer: AKT, Tuncel Engineers
Mechanical Engineer: GMD Engineers
Main Contractor: DIA
Sub Contractors: Mero, Werner Sobek, MBLD, DBikes, Etik Engineering, BME Ltd. Co.
Area: 101 801 sqm
Status: Completed, 2012
Photographs: Iwan Baan, Hélène Binet, Hufton + Crow, Zaha Hadid Architects