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Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku is a shock to the system

Confounding context, scale and materiality, the Heydar Aliyev Centre adds to a growing repertoire of prodigious object buildings in the ambitious, oil-rich capital of Azerbaijan

When we send out a probe into space we claim that it is all about understanding, discovery and a celebration of technology, but underneath all that effort we are surely seeking reassurance and some flora, fauna or at least odd drops of water that might suggest we are not alone in the universe. The architectural traveller is much the same: seeking reassurance − relishing the discovery that other societies need to store food, support roofs, celebrate the point of entry, prepare the foreground and seduce us into a comfortable recognition of those same values and habits that we enjoy ourselves … ‘Oh − so that’s alright’.

Well, the Heydar Aliyev Centre isn’t going to play their game: it is anything but reassuring, anything but cosy, and even to the most intrepid Zaha follower, something of a shock to the system. So it just stands there − a white vision, outrageously total, arrogantly complete, just about real though located in a general-purpose location that you would have trouble remembering without the presence of this extraordinary object.

Certainly there are some better spots in town: the bay of Baku is about to host a ‘Caspian Lotus’ and a ‘Full Moon Hotel’ that will join the Crystal Hall of ‘Eurovision’ fame, while the three ‘Flame Towers’ sit on a significant hilltop; whereas the Aliyev Centre has to inhabit − albeit heroically − a sloping but otherwise characterless site away from the city centre and surrounded, at a distance, by Soviet period apartment slabs and approached via a sweeping but otherwise commonplace highway.

The great white presence is seemingly scaleless, only referential to those who will (again seeking reassurance) find an associative symbol in almost anything. The linear joints on its surface soothe those who enjoy their reassertion of the geometry of the skin − rather in the manner of a wire-frame diagram and therefore serving to remind everyone that it has been computer-generated. In a sense, by this token it continues the mood − at least on the outside − of super-humanness. The fact that these same lines define the presence of a series of panels certainly has none of the residual ‘construction’ symbolism that excited the High-Tech kids.

site_plansite plan

web_4_The intensely object building surveys a heroic landscape of steps, terraces and lawns. Parking for 1,500 cars is buried under the hill

So the challenge of this building is that you must forget all those reassuring conditions of scale, context, materiality and even − dare one say − normal human experience. It is a unique object that confounds and contradicts the reasonable. With its wave form sweeping up − almost lunging − into the sky and then, as you glide around its perimeter, sweeping down to disclose the fact that it does, after all, contain humanly occupied space.

Further wave forms fall out from the principal fold and begin to suggest a hierarchy of total-to-particular, with cleavages or ‘tucks’ on the northern corner that enliven the ‘welcome zone’ and the library above and a rather larger set of tucks on the southern flank that enliven the auditorium bar and balcony. The form of the rest of the building is concerned with a giant upward wave followed by the virtuoso moment when the tail of the wave tucks in upon itself: confounding the niceties of good animal or formal behaviour.

Alongside this nose-into-tail moment, the main entrance glides towards the inner spaces. As you enter, all that you see is gleaming white, with people zazzing about as dark specks: behind the skim of the glass balustrades that seem to maintain the near-abstracted and super-scaled audacity of the whole.

From the earliest days of the Hong Kong Peak we could observe Zaha’s fondness for the diagonal and from the MAXXI museum in Rome (AR August 2010) we know how this predilection is played against the desire to overlap and fold. If the MAXXI sits in her portfolio as one of those key referencing projects from which both gambits and language move forward, there is a sense that here in Baku, with so much territory available and a simple brief − for auditorium, multi-purpose hall, library and museum, plus all the necessary circulation − there is the opportunity to reassess the MAXXI language and perhaps move further forward from its very linearity.

So the building can develop along a train of thought and become something other than a mere sequential composition. There is of course some straightforward placement: auditorium and multi-purpose room on the north-east, library facing north for controlled daylight, museum and galleries on the south-west. These lie between the huge mouth of the main entrance and the extraordinary gliding staircase hugging the north-west wall. If I describe this last element as fabulous I am deliberately gushing in the manner of a film fan, with the adrenalin rush of a 10 year old at a Broadway production, or the pilot of a glider. The totality, the whiteness, the speck of a single person walking down it, the sheer spectacle of it − you have to throw out those English morals and weedy thoughts about world problems: here is architecture as ultimate statement of theatre.

There’s plenty more (especially circulation) that is extravagant, as even a cursory reading of the plans will reveal, yet the way this voluptuous building breathes is in a category of its own. Then, turning your head, there’s a distant gem: as you gaze up within the wave a piece of the white world congeals, for once you recognise scale, incident, function; almost as if the old knotted architecture is reminding you of its pre-existence. So this ‘normal’ element becomes a gem surrounded by the breathless, the white, the total, enhancing it rather than challenging it. Moreover, there is the use of layers of balconies and great carved-away voids that are effectively part of a single, continuous public space with selected moments when they suggest, in the traditional sense, an ‘activity’.

Whereas the auditorium is, and has to be a far more predictable space, where the sweep of the geometry is more by way of being a re-quotation of that outside. It is elegant and seems to work (I’ll assume that the over-dependence on loudspeakers is a cultural rather than acoustic issue). It hints that the Hadid office might perhaps quite like to do a wooden building?

floor_plan_01floor plan

section_zoom_01section AA

web_1the cavernous 1,000-seat auditorium is formed of curved strips
of American oak planed in situ, as in boatbuilding

Such architecture demands to be sustained in the way in which it is made and in the last two years we have heard many stories of Guangzhou Opera House − as achieving a near-zenith of Zaha’s inventiveness, followed by whispers that it is flakey in execution − but here in Baku, no such criticism could be made: all the details and finishes are impressive. The skin panels align impeccably, the counters are crisp, the balustrades sheer, the Werner Sobek space frame secretly rides the general figure perfectly and the wide spans feel inevitable rather than daring feats.

Which causes my eye to fall upon the presence and patterning of the window subdivision. For more than 160 years there have been great glass houses and a few buildings such as this where roof and walls merge and the only other condition is the void: which of course, you fill in with glass. And of course you design it so that it will not fracture. But I believe that those old Gothic characters were the most canny, they (through necessity and design), pulled the tracery down into even the largest of windows.

Modernism put paid to all of that insisting upon the division of surface into either (a) solid or (b) void. So the game has become one of ‘let’s pretend’ − paint the mullions grey or have glass restraining glass or even wires. But those last two are rather British and High-Tech-y for the Hadid office − which is after all quite German when it comes to windows. So we have a rather insistent ‘up and down’ transom pattern − quite black, solid looking and surely a bit ploddy among all this élan. It’s a tough one but at least I’m reassured to find something that isn’t beautiful.

web_2narrow slits of neon incised into the sinuous walls of the glacial interior emphasise the fluidity of form

web_3huge expanses of glazing flood the interior with natural light. The use of semi-reflective glass gives an intimation of what goes on inside

By contrast, the streaks of neon are brilliant: both deft and at the same time setting their own very powerful dynamic. The garden too is a clever essay in stepped patches of lawn (pity nobody seems to go there). So, all in all, we are to be forgiven for wondering how it can all come about.

The world at large is intrigued by the Zaha Hadid phenomenon: the architectural world jealous of the succession of mouth-watering commissions and of the (let’s admit it, guys) high success rate. That she herself is unique we know and can continue to be the subject of TV and the popular press, but there needs to be some observation of the phenomenon and the machine.

At every gathering Zaha will invoke the presence of Patrik Schumacher: as valued colleague and often as butt of some throwaway comments. Left with these and his famous diatribes on the subject of Parametricism we miss out on the fact that the machine − that is the Hadid office − is very largely his construct. Living in the London architects’ village and having an ear to so many Hadid employees past and present, one is struck by the consistently high calibre of the staff and that this is undoubtedly Schumacher’s doing.

On a job like Baku, star acts like Cristiano Ceccato (one of the former co-founders of Gehry Technologies) and Saffet Kaya Bekiroğlu (on the London Aquatics Centre via Gehry) are surely backed up by layers and layers of way above-average devotees. This condition exists within an ambience whereby Zaha has broken all the rules of restraint − with a flair and dare − creating her own language, style, gallery and soon a museum of her work. It sets up a detachment that in the past belonged only to Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier who seemed to ‘possess’ all who came into contact with them.

All of this is supposed to be out of keeping with our world of circumspection, restraint and morals. Moreover I have deliberately not mentioned politically controversial clients: only because I am cynical enough to suspect that powerful clients of the past were much about the same (was Prince Albert really that special?). So for this observer, Baku stands alongside the Sydney Opera House and the Bilbao Guggenheim and mercifully she didn’t have to deal with all those so-called democratic creeps who sent Jørn Utzon into exile. So bully for the Aliyevs I say.

Fact File

Architect: Zaha Hadid Architects
Photographs: Hufton + Crow, Hélène Binet

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