Azerbaijan Counts Human Cost Of Architecture

By Shahin Abbasov
The Guardian, July 14, 2014

Baku is gaining international recognition as a centre of cutting-edge architectural design thanks in part to a major award given recently to London-based architect Zaha Hadid for her Heydar Aliyev Centre. The Azerbaijani capital’s new look has plenty of local fans, but also some detractors.

With its swooping curves, the Heydar Aliyev Centre is certainly eye-catching, but it’s far from the only architectural showpiece in Baku. Over the past decade, the centre of the city has been transformed by such projects as a new seaside boulevard, the modernist Crystal Hall and the “Flame Towers,” glass-and-steel skyscrapers made to resemble burning torches. Also in progress is the “White City,” an urban renewal project that aims to transform one of the city’s grimiest areas.

The catalyst for Baku’s architectural makeover is widely reported to be Mehriban Aliyeva, wife of President Ilham Aliyev. She is said to have significant input in all new construction in the centre of the city.

Aliyeva is known to have a strong affinity for the look-and-feel of Paris, thus it’s not a surprise that Louvre-style pyramids have appeared at the entrance of three metro stations, and Paris-style newspaper kiosks have been installed all over the city. A “Paris Quarter” is also being constructed in the “White City.” Foster + Partners, founded by British architect Norman Foster, is among the firms involved in the White City Project.

Urban renewal often comes with a high human toll, and Baku is no exception. International rights groups, including Freedom House and Human Rights Watch, have documented widespread instances in recent years of forced evictions of local residents to make way for new projects. Protests have occasionally erupted over the forced evictions; police have resorted to aggressive methods to quell such disturbances.

The latest wave of protests occurred in February and March, prompted by a government announcement that 40,000 downtown residents would be evicted to make way for a “green zone” on a 50-hectare parcel in the Sovietskaya neighbourhood. The project is being undertaken in conjunction with Baku hosting the first-ever European Games next summer. Pushback by protesters forced officials to revisit plans for relocations and compensation. Negotiations are continuing. Read more…

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