Architectural Wonders of Baku and the Cost to the Common Man

At the beginning of the 20th century, 10 million tons of the Russian Empire’s oil production was concentrated around the Baku oilfields in Azerbaijan. By 1938, the share of the Baku fields in Soviet oil production was a staggering 74.4% (Schwarz, 1946).

A Baku oil field in 1891
A Baku oil field in 1891

Despite its wealth of natural resources, Baku was by no means the most desirable Russian city to live in during the first half of the 20th century. Despite possessing several well-preserved historic buildings and being located on the shores of the Caspian Sea, much of the city remained poor. As with all great empires, the Russian and Soviet versions successfully rediverted riches from their peripheries to their centres. Oil wealth from Baku was no exception.

Throughout the post-WWII Soviet period, Baku remained deprived of its true wealth. Even today, in an era of independence, there is a serious concentration of wealth in the hands of only a small percentage of the population. Indeed, Azerbaijan ranks at only 87th in the world when it comes to per capita income ($11,044) (World Bank, 2013).

Despite the traditional deprivations suffered by Baku’s residents, the city has always been a bastion of original and appealing architecture. From the early Islamic mosques and palaces to the European-style mansions of Imperial Russia and the Eurasian designs of the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic, Baku has been blessed with a series of interesting buildings.

The Muhammad Mosque dates from the 11th century
The Muhammad Mosque dates from the 11th century

Even during the Soviet era, notorious for its bland, imposing structures of ‘socialist realism’, architecture in Baku was not completely sterile. Whilst many of the buildings remained fairly austere and functional, they incorporated elements of local culture, with a heavy Persian influence evident.

The House of Government, mixing local culture with Soviet minimalism
The House of Government, mixing local culture with Soviet minimalism

Today, Baku is a centre of modernist and post-modernist architecture and has won several awards for its innovative buildings, most designed by foreign architects. 

Whether such expenditure is worth it, however, remains a contentious issue. Throughout the modern history of Azerbaijan, ever since the drilling of the first oil wells in the mid-19th century, Baku’s people have not had a fair stake in its wealth. 

Today, when there is no overlordship from a distant power, the pursuit of architectural extravagance at the expense of social spending seems rather unjustified. Whatever its appeal, and it is hard to deny that it has one, beneath Baku’s vibrant facade lies a more depressing reality.

The extravagant Heydar Aliyev Center, one of Baku's modern buildings
The extravagant Heydar Aliyev Center, one of Baku’s modern buildings


Schwarz, S.M., ‘How Much Oil Has Russia?’, Foreign Affairs (1946)


Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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