Winter 1998 (6.4)
Architecture and Development
by Betty Blair
Among anthropologists there's an expression, "You are what you eat!" I would suggest that it's equally true that "You are what you live in." The aesthetics of the built environment-architecture-affect our aspirations, our ability to persevere and endure, as well as our world view, at least subconsciously.
I've been "commuting" between Los Angeles and Baku for the past six years since we first began publishing Azerbaijan International. One thing that never tires me is straining my neck to look up at the extraordinary ornate buildings in the center of Baku, especially those dating back to the Oil Baron period (1885-1920). This last trip was no exception.
Perhaps, the owners of these palatial mansions were mostly thinking of themselves and didn't fully realize what a tremendous legacy they were leaving to future generations. Despite the fact that many of them died in poverty or fled the country after the Bolsheviks took power in 1920 and confiscated their wealth (See Oil Barons, page 29), the influence emanating from what they created cannot be measured. The residential monuments they left have become part of the identity of the people who have lived in this city, especially during this turbulent and isolated century.
Sketch of Tabriz (16th century). From an original miniature by N. Matrakchi. Redrawn by D. Giyasi.
First of all, these buildings pay tribute to the entrepreneurial spirit of hard work, ingenious strategy and sheer determination of those who created this wealth. The biographies of the majority of these owners, mostly Oil Barons, describe individuals who were born into stark poverty, had very little or no education, but who became millionaires, seemingly overnight. During the long winter of the Soviet period (1920-1991), these buildings stood like strong light beacons reminding passersby of the power of entrepreneurship and contradicting state policies that discouraged people from taking their own initiative.
The Oil Barons also set the precedent for investing in the country's own development in construction and in fostering the development of educational and cultural institutions. A century later, this tradition persists in contrast to what seems to be happening in other oil-developing countries nearby.
These buildings also represent a vibrant example of the strength and ingenuity that can be created through international cooperation. Foreign architects, especially those of Polish and German descent, were invited to work beside local talent to create a unique synthesis of European and Eastern styles which can be found no other place in the world. Such a heritage needs to be protected now especially during the early stages of Azerbaijan's independence and transition to the market economy, according to architect Pirouz Khanlou in his article, "The Metamorphosis of Architecture and Urban Development in Azerbaijan" (page 24).
The eclecticism of the period should be mentioned as well. No two buildings are alike. It's as if there had been an unwritten rule that a good thing should never be repeated, though elements could be incorporated and shaped in new ways. This uniqueness stands at odds with the Soviet-era ideals of mass-production and conformity. You see this openness to diversity in relationships as well. Azerbaijanis are not xenophobic. They embrace diversity and pride themselves in having friends among many nationalities, even those whom they feel have wronged them.
Finally, a part of the distinct legacy of the Oil Baron period is the reminder that all great things can eventually come to an end. Lack of diversification in a country's economic policy is dangerous and can lead to collapse. As Natig Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan's National Oil Company, points out (page 75), Azerbaijanis cannot sit passively waiting for oil to solve all their problems. Other aspects of the economy must be developed including industry, agriculture and non-oil natural resources.
Now is the time for Azerbaijan to make long-term national strategic plans for development and to build up its infrastructure in health, education, transportation and communication. In the past, Azerbaijan had substantially developed its manufacturing sector by producing metals, steel, aluminum and oil equipment machinery as well as consumer goods. These days Azerbaijan needs to stimulate the entrepreneurial spirit in many other facets of its economic life just like Turkey which has managed to build a healthy economy despite not having their own natural oil resources. Unless Azerbaijan does, this period of oil bonanza will leave future generations in poverty. The classic example of such a failure is Nigeria.
For readers who have never visited Baku, we hope these pages will intrigue and tempt you to do so. If some day, you find yourself walking down the streets in the center of Baku, take one word of advice: keep looking up. It's worth a little neck strain to discover so many rare architectural marvels in such close proximity to each other. You'll catch a glimpse of an era of the past that profoundly influences the hopes and dreams of the community which lives here today.
From Azerbaijan International (6.4) Winter 1998.
© Azerbaijan International 1998. All rights reserved.