Azerbaijan’s landscape features an amazing diversity of architecture, due to the country’s tumultuous history and unique cultural heritage. The rapidly modernizing country has a unique balance of ancient civilization and modern evolution, nowhere more evident than in Azerbaijan’s architectural styles. In Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital city, Medieval Islamic domes, minarets, and ancient stone walls are juxtaposed against modern glass skyscrapers, apartment complexes, and office buildings. There are five styles of architecture that can be seen in Baku and across the entirety of Azerbaijan. The five styles are as follows: Zoroastrian, Christian, Islamic, Soviet, and Post-Modern. Architecture from the First and Second Oil Booms are also to be noted.
Zoroastrian (10th century B.C.E –4th century AD)
The most prominent feature of the Zoroastrian period is the ateshgah, the fire altar. During ancient times, repeatedly lighting a fire was a difficult task especially without an abundant resource of trees. Zoroastrian communities therefore developed community firehouses that housed an ever-burning flame tended at all hours by fire keepers; these houses were the ateshgahs.
Zoroastrian temples were open, four-column structures that were built to correspond with the four cardinal directions. The ateshgah is a tier-based structure meant to represent the tree of life. The fire burning atop of the altar signified bliss. The buta, an eggplant-shaped totemic symbol that corresponds with fire was rendered with most ateshgahs. The Zoroastrian emphasis on fire is still utilized in modern Azerbaijani design.
Christian (4th Century AD –705 AD)
Late Caucasian Albanian Christian architecture plays a large role in Azerbaijan’s architectural portfolio, especially in the Karabakh, Sheki, and Zaqatala regions. When Caucasian Albanians, the ancestors of modern-day Azerbaijanis, adopted Christianity, pagan and secular buildings that featured basilicas were repurposed for Christian worship. These long buildings were organized around a single nave and aisles. The basic four-column form of the fire cult temples had their impact on the formation of Christian architecture. Over time, Christian basilicas and churches became more complex and featured multiple naves, domes, and ornately decorated interiors. Circular temples and mausoleums were introduced as alternatives to the basilica, such as:
- The Kilisadagh in the Gabala district
- The Mamrukh in the Azqatala district
- The Lekit in the Qakh district
Some of the world’s oldest churches were built in Caucasian Albania, such as:
- The hall and single nave basilica temples of Gyaurgala in the Aghdam district of the Karabakh region
- The Mazymgaray in the Belokan district
- The Khotavank cloister in the Kelbajar district of the Karabakh region
Note that these objects came out of traditional forms in Caucasus Albania and influenced the development of the entire architectural aspect of the country.
Islamic (705 AD –1870)
The Muslim conquest of Caucasian Albania and Atropatena (a state that originally appeared in South Azerbaijan following the collapse of Alexander the Great’s empire in 323 B.C.E) transformed ancient Azerbaijani culture and architecture by 705 AD. The conquest shaped the architectural design of Azerbaijan in stages identical to the Christian influence: initial remaking of the temples of the previous religion into cult representations of the new religious outlook, gradual and consecutive evolution as a result of the development of religious views, the improvement of architectural building technologies, and finally the crystallization of already-shaped architectural design and decorative devices. Azerbaijani cities adopted new Islamic styles of architecture that would dominate the landscape for over a millennium. Scholars have identified two principal schools of Azerbaijani architecture in the early Islamic period, the Nakhchivan School and the Shirvan School.
- The Nakhchivan School of Azerbaijani architecture is named for the architect Ajami Ibn Nakchivani, who lived in the 12th century AD, when Azerbaijan was an independent state (Atabakan-e Adarbayjan) within the Great Seljuk Empire. He is best known for constructing mausoleums, which were designed to emulated the power and wealth of the feudal lords. A key characteristic of Nakhchivan’s style was to use towers with several identical sides. Noted structures such as the Tomb of Yusif Ibn Kuseyir and the Momine Khatun Mausoleum are examples of the Nakhcivan School style.
- The Shirvan School of architecture developed in the region of Shirvan, a semi-independent state in Eastern Azerbaijan, ruled by an Arab dynasty between the 9th and 16th centuries AD. The Shirvanshah Palace in Baku is the largest example of Shirvan architecture. The Shirvan School is best known for its use of stones as the main building material and an asymmetrical carving style. The Shirvanshah Palace complex contains pavilions, courtyards, a mausoleum, a mosque, and a bath house.
First Oil Boom (1870 –1920)
From about 1870 to 1920, Baku experienced its First Oil Boom and investment flowed into Azerbaijan. As the city industrialized, oil barons began commissioning Russian and European architects to create expensive, modern, Western-style buildings in Baku. In the decades after Azerbaijan’s First Oil Boom, Azerbaijani architects mixed Safavid and other Azerbaijani architectural elements with elements from Italian Renaissance, Neo-Classical, Venetian Gothic Revival, Vienna Recession, and French Islamic Maghreb styles.
Soviet (1920 –1989)
Early in the Soviet period, architects favored Constructivism, a style based on Communist artistic theory. By the 1940s, this style had fallen out of favor and the Soviet Azerbaijani architects emphasized Classical, Baroque, and Rococo styles designed with a more nationalistic spirit. Examples of this style include:
- The Nizami Museum,
- The Mirza Fatali Akhundov National Library of Azerbaijan,
- House of Soviets (Dom Soviet) and
- The Azerbaijan Musical Academy.
Popular architects such as Mikayil Huseynov began studying abroad, and upon their return created a stylistic blend between traditional Azerbaijani architecture and contemporaneous Western designs. The Narimanov Metro Station, the Azerbaijan Science Academy, and Kapaz Hotel in the city of Ganja are examples of this stylistic blend between traditional Azerbaijani architecture and Western design.
Another style of architecture that should be mentioned occurred during the political reign of Communist General Secretary Nikita Krushchev in the early 1960s. A housing crisis caused by economic hardship spurred the construction of many simple, low-cost apartment buildings made of cement or brick. This style of architecture, known as khrushchyovka, is immediately recognizable and ubiquitous across the former Soviet Union. Today, modern Azerbaijanis see this tract housing as an ugly reminder of past economic turmoil.
Post-Modern (1990 –Present)
In the past two decades, architectural trends have evolved from Modern to Post-Modern. In Baku, building designs have become more complex as rectangular skyscrapers are replaced by aesthetically diverse, curvilinear structures.
In 2010, city officials approved a master plan for Baku’s downtown development, entitled Baku’s White City. Plans included 11 Post-Modern skyscrapers, a business district, a waterfront, a mall, parks, and a commercial center, with a Parisian-inspired residential villa at the center of the development. The White City project is a modern reimaging of Baku’s Black City, an industrial district of oil fields and refineries that arose in downtown Baku during the city’s First Oil Boom.
The first Oil Boom created a Baku that was heavily industrialized and polluted, suffering from a lack of vegetation and plant life. To create green spaces in Baku, Baku oil barons imported trees from Lankaran, an Azerbaijani city, as well as from Tbilisi and Batumi, Georgian cities. The collection totaled nearly 80,000 trees and plants that never before had been cultivated in Baku. After the beginning of the Second Oil Boom, Azerbaijan began an extensive renovation of Baku’s parks to maintain the city’s new lush vegetation.
Second Oil Boom (1994 –Present)
In 1994, the Azerbaijani government signed a contract with several foreign oil companies, dubbed the “Contract of the Century” by media outlets. As foreign investment buoyed the Azerbaijani oil industry, sleek, glassy skyscrapers sprang up in Baku, as the country experienced a Second Oil Boom. Many of the Bakuvians resent the modern buildings, preferring pre-Soviet architecture.