Zaha Hadid Architects’ light-as-air Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center in Baku, Azerbaijan, seems to be all form and no structure, but its swooping shapes mask extreme engineering. A very nimble two-layer space frame plays supportive bridesmaid to the double envelope that curves smoothly along the top and bottom of the exterior shell, hiding the skeletal frame and emphasizing surface rather than structure, as though the building were all effect and no cause. The 619,000-square-foot cultural center—for which the client, DIA Holding, also served as the design/build contractor—manifests the lightness of a handkerchief billowing in free fall.
You can’t miss it. Anyone coming into Baku’s city center from the outlying airport passes the cultural center, sited as it is along the main trunk road. Even taxi drivers turn their heads because its forms curve and churn, its undulating shapes morphing from every vantage point. The front crests in a balletic sweep, alighting en pointe in what the architects call a “Nureyev moment,” only for the back to sheer off like a cliff. The building—whose smooth, distorted grid of glass-fiber-reinforced polyester panels has no visible connections—looks less as though it was actually built, and more as though it landed.
Eventually, after a planned subway line connects to the site, visitors will approach the building through a long, sloping park that leads them to the building at the crest of a gently rising hill. Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA, with her partner Patrik Schumacher and project architect Saffet Kaya Bekiroglu, has extrapolated the fluidity of the center’s forms into the site itself, with a series of terraces interlaced with reflecting pools and waterfalls. From the start, Hadid immediately takes you under her spell, like a master storyteller, working in space rather than in words: Visitors must suspend disbelief as they step into an abstract and hypermodern world of her creation. The journey along the zigzag path that climbs through the site culminates in a plaza of white concrete squares; this turns up seamlessly to start the contours of the exterior shell of the cultural center itself, on which Hadid operates like a Bauhaus student with scissors and a sheet of paper, cutting and bending, opening the roof for apertures and entrances. A canyon cutout at the front of the shell leads up to a bank of glass doors that opens into a hall of whiteness.
Starting with this welcome hall, the building’s interior continues the theme of merging object and field into continuous surfaces. Hadid’s floors turn into ramps and walls, twisting into soffits and ceilings, only to then turn further and move out of sight, forming white vistas without end: The forms recall the shell of a brilliant precedent, the TWA terminal at JFK, about which its architect, Eero Saarinen, said: “It’s all one thing.” Hadid’s structure is also about the variations within its oneness. With a design continuously self-transforming in all directions, there is little sense of boundary and no indication of terminus: It’s an immersive bath of space. The immateriality of a building that varies between white, whiter, and whitest—depending on how the sun strikes its radial surfaces—seems weightless, releasing visitors from gravitational obligations. As an object, the building is subjective, provoking strong feelings cued by the physics of suspending gravity.
The building’s form does not originate with Euclid, but rather is influenced by mathematically continuous topological surfaces: In Baku, the architects have transformed the principles behind the MÖbius strip and the related Klein bottle into real, habitable space. “We wanted to take the plaza and shape it into an architectural environment, to create a continuous flow between inside and outside, to create a certain infinity,” Hadid says. “You don’t know where it all starts and ends.”
The voluminous main hall, an interior landscape of many levels and ramps, serves as a public plaza for the cultural institution’s tripartite program of museum, library, and conference center. “The three parts fusing around a central atrium and around a courtyard meant three different shell-like protrusions,” says Hadid, who describes the requirements, and the effect they had on the structure’s form, with surprising practicality. “Each program has a different look because of its required height: The tall one at the back is the library, with its many floors, and the rise to the side accommodates the conference center, with the auditorium’s fly tower.” (That fly tower supports a 1,000-seat performance space that is designed with overlapping, curving, backlit lamellae of oak that lick the hall like flames, perhaps an evocation of religious traditions from the region’s Zoroastrian past.)
“The three programs merge toward the center, which becomes the lobbies, which can handle several events at the same time,” Bekiroglu says. These events are supported by a large, open banquet space between the library and conference area. “The rest becomes a cascading landscape, parts melting into each other fluidly and seamlessly, until the building eases into the ground,” Bekiroglu adds. “The idea was to fuse the three institutions in a seamless figure with three identifiable parts, blending inside and outside. It’s a single surface working as an entire architectural landscape.”
The core of the building, then, is the public space, and the celebration of public life in an atrium that acts as what the Russian Constructivists called “a social condenser.” As in the Paris Opera, in Baku, the show starts in the public spaces of the building, and like the Opera, the center’s architecture dignifies and dramatizes the public life inside, giving it civic value rather than acting simply as a stage set. The atrium is a shared public event.
Hadid has said that she does not want to repeat her successes of the 1980s, and indeed her oeuvre overall has been surprisingly varied: The apparent complexity of fragmentation from her first, angular, designs has transformed into the apparent simplicity of curves in her buildings in more recent years. Although her early work anticipated the computer, the calculus of computer programs has, over the last decade, liquefied form and space—she has smoothed the three-dimensional force fields of exploded forms into flow fields. The cultural center is the latest in a series of related designs that includes last summer’s London Aquatics Centre for the London Olympics and, at a different scale, even her flowing Aqua table.
The remarkable beauty of Hadid’s buildings has often invited the accusation of formalism. The aesthetic can send the senses into overdrive, understating the complex infrastructure of ideas that consistently sustains her buildings. But she does build theory—in this case a spatial theory of flows. For many years, Hadid has worked with the idea of blurring object and field, foreground and background, and the sheer scale of the center and diversity of its programs has given Hadid the opportunity to prove her ideas of working the ground and building together. The experience of the building is immersive because it is environmental—physically buoyant rather than simply retinal.
The impressive beauty of what is essentially a gesamtkunswerk only augments the interior’s success as a public forum linking the museum, library, and auditorium. The plan pools people as they circulate on three-dimensional promenades architecturales that recall the Piazza di Spagna in Rome.
Built by the Republic of Azerbaijan—with strong support from the country’s controversial first family, including the culturally motivated first lady, Mehriban Aliyeva—the building may be a monument to a region, and a symbol of an emergent national culture of a newly liberated country, but even more immediately, it is a great gift to the public. Throughout Baku, Beaux-Arts architects at the turn of the last century created civic spaces through the language of classicism. More than a formal exercise, the center treats people, both as individuals and as crowds, with enormous respect. Hadid’s design creates civic space of an entirely different, original, and unexpected order.
Project Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center, Baku, Azerbaijan
Owner Republic of Azerbaijan
Client DIA Holding
Architect Zaha Hadid Architects, London—Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA, Patrik Schumacher (design); Saffet Kaya Bekiroglu (project and design architect); 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, Michael Grau, Deepti Zachariah, Ceyhun Baskin, Daniel Widrig, Murat Mutlu (project team)
Local Architect/Main Contractor DIA Holding
Structural Engineering AKT; Tuncel Engineers; MERO
Façade Consultant Werner Sobek
Mechanical Engineering GMD Engineers
Acoustical Consultant Dbkes, Mezzo Studyo
Lighting Consultant MBLD
Fire Consultant Etik Engineering
Exterior Skin Panel Contractor Arabian Profile
Auditorium Fabricator Sanset-Ikoor
Multipurpose Hall Contractor Betako
Interior Skin Contractor Lindner Group
Prefabricated Roofing Panel System Contractor Limit
Façade Contractor Dekoral Aygun
Pool Consultant Wet Design
Size 57,519 square meters (619,129 square feet)