Azerbaijan International

Winter 1998 (6.4)
Pages 46-47

The Soviet Period of Architecture in Azerbaijan
The Twists and Turns of the Career of Mikayil Useynov (1905-1992)

by Ilham Aliyev, President of Architects Union

Mikayil Useynov - Azerbaijani architect

Academy of Sciences building in Baku

Left: Mikayil Useynov.

Right: Academy of Science Building the crown of which was not completed because Khruschev came into power.

As a leading architect in Soviet Azerbaijan, Mikayil Useynov (pronounced oo-SEH-nov) was especially vulnerable to changes in the political sphere. Praise for his work could quickly turn into harsh criticism depending upon the tastes and preferences of whoever happened to be in power. By looking at the twists and turns of Useynov's long and distinguished career, we can trace the curious path that Azerbaijani architecture took during the Soviet period.

If you have a chance to pass the Academy of Sciences complex on Hussein Javid Prospect in Baku, you'll notice that one of its buildings looks a bit peculiar. Take a closer look and you'll see that there's something not quite right. Except for its arched entranceway, the building has a fairly "boxy look" in keeping with much of Baku's Soviet-era architecture but the four towers are squared off at the top, like pedestals waiting for something to be mounted on top of them. The building looks that way for one simple reason-it was never finished.

Akhundov library in Baku

Left: Nizami Cinema.

Right: Akhundov National Library

The architect, Mikayil Useynov, had something much different in mind when he originally designed the building. The four towers were to be adorned with pergolas (archwork) and topped with domes as many of the other buildings are throughout the city. But Khrushchev came into power (1955) while the building was being erected, and these final ornamental elements contradicted Party policy. There was a great need at that time for housing and according to Khrushchev, aesthetics were extraneous. People simply needed a place to live - never mind what it looked like. And thus, the Academy fell victim to the same dictatorial mandates and thus stands today, unfinished-a reminder of a time when fancy "ornamentation" was not politically correct.

Useynov was a prominent Azerbaijani architect caught in the middle of a struggle to meet the approval of the Communist party and yet still do work that he could feel proud of. His body of work, which includes nearly 200 buildings, is very typical of Azerbaijan's architecture during the Soviet period. It reflects the battle between an artist's will to create and the ever-changing will of the ruling authorities.

Baku buildings

Left: Detail from one of the "Vase Apartments" by Uzeynov.

Right: Azerbaijan Hotel

Building a Career
Mikayil Useynov was born in Baku in 1905 and studied architecture at the Azerbaijan Polytechnic Institute. After graduating in 1929, he continued working there as a lecturer. Soviet power had just been established, so its influence on Azerbaijan's architecture was just becoming evident. Since Azerbaijan was a major industrial center for the Soviet Union, considerable construction was going on at the time.

In the late 1920s, Useynov and his colleague Sadikh Dadashov became well known for their study of the Shirvan Shah Palace, a 14th century complex in Baku's Inner City. They took detailed measurements for the reconstruction of the burial vault (tyurbe) and the palace court (divankhane), and wrote a book about it.

At about the same time, Useynov and Dadashov won first place in a contest to design a mausoleum for 12th century Azerbaijani poet Nizami. The mausoleum was erected in 1926 in Ganja, Nizami's birthplace. The two then worked together on numerous other projects until Dadashov died in 1946, including the Azerbaijan Pavilion at the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition in Moscow in 1939 which won a State prize.

Useynov's early work is associated with a style of architecture called Constructivism, which was popular in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and early 1930s. Constructivism grew out of the Russian avant-garde movement. As part of the revolution to seek new forms and materials, art was stripped down to its most basic elements. In architecture, construction materials were made visible as part of the overall design, illustrating the importance of industrial power. Some examples of Useynov's buildings from the early portion of his career include the Nizami Cinema (1934), the dormitory for the Azerbaijan Medical College (1934) and the Maternity Hospital in Bayil.

Left: Music Academy named after Uzeyir Hajibeyov.

Top: The Scholars' Residence

Changing Tastes
Constructivism soon fell out of favor. In 1934, the Communist Party issued a decree criticizing this style of architecture, calling for a return to national traditions and roots. From then on, buildings were designed in a "national style," incorporating elements like those found in the medieval Shirvan Shah Palace; specifically, arches, columns, inner courtyards and fountains.

Azerbaijan's unique regional climate was also factored into this "national style." Buildings were designed to provide protection from the sun and harsh wind. Closed courtyards, oblique streets and roofs with wide, sloping ledges all helped to shield inhabitants from the elements.

There are many examples of Useynov's work from this "national style" period including the Palace of Soviets of Azerbaijan (1934), Azer-baijan State Music Academy (1936), Nizami Museum (1940), the Akhundov Public Library (1947) and the complex of buildings at the Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences (1948-1960) (including the unfinished building mentioned earlier).

By this time, Useynov was entering into more and more official roles as part of his career. He helped found the Union of Architects of Azerbaijan in 1936 and served as its secretary for nearly 50 years. By 1939, he was a professor at the Institute and in 1945 was elected a full member of the Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences. In 1948, Useynov became Director of the Institute of Architecture and Arts of the Academy of Sciences of the Azerbaijan Republic, a position he would hold for more than 40 years. He also gained a strong reputation throughout the Soviet Union and on several occasions was elected Secretary of the USSR Union of Architects.

Cabinet of Ministers of Azerbaijan

Nizami Literature Museum in Baku

Right: The Nizami Literature Museum was originally a hotel converted in the late 1940s by Uzeynov.

Left: Cabinet of Ministers near the President's office.

No "Extras"
When Khrushchev came into power, a new stage in the development of Soviet architecture soon followed. The Soviet leader spoke out against ornamentation in architecture. He believed that people needed houses to live in, not fancy decorations. Ornamentation was a luxury that could not be afforded or tolerated.

Useynov disagreed, but had to obey the Party line despite his own wishes. Otherwise, he would have been out of a job. Still he continued to try to make subtle changes that would make buildings more attractive. For example, the austere "matchbox" apartment buildings built in Baku's micro-regions were not supposed to have balconies-a feature that was considered to be unnecessary. Somehow, Useynov managed to convince the authorities to add them anyway.

Eventually, Useynov got into trouble for fostering ideas that were "against State policy." He was criticized for his architectural "extravagances" and was pressured after that, receiving fewer and fewer state work orders. Nor was he re-elected to the Supreme Soviet.

Even his students paid a price. One Azerbaijani youth named Salamzade went to Moscow to defend his architectural dissertation. During the defense, one of the Russian architect - judges noted: "You show here that Useynov is your advisor. But he is against State policy." The relationship was too damaging: Salamzade failed.

During this difficult period of time, Useynov built the Azerbaijan Hotel (1963) and the Absheron Hotel (1965), both on Lenin Square, now Azadlig (Freedom) Square. The hotels were supposed to be built with tiny lobbies, but Useynov pushed for larger ones.

Reclaiming Aesthetics
After Khrushchev was out of office, the Party's policy toward art and architecture relaxed considerably. Azerbaijani architects were able to visit foreign countries and incorporate new ideas into their work. They began to understand that architecture needed an aesthetic aspect as well as a functional one.

From that point on, Useynov could work as he had been used to. He traveled to foreign countries and participated in international congresses of architects in London, Havana, Paris, Madrid and Mexico. At a congress of architects held in Isfahan, Iran, he was appointed vice-president.

Heydar Aliyev also played a role in the architecture that emerged from this period. Aliyev, as head of the Communist Party in Azerbaijan, encouraged architecture that had aesthetic elements, even though the official Party policy was against it. Aliyev also encouraged Azerbaijani architects to combine modern elements from world architecture with Azerbaijan's "national style."

Some Useynov buildings that reflect this "thaw" are the most beautiful Metro stations "Narimanov" (1967), "Nizami" (1970) and the Academy of Science (1976), a guest house in Zugulba (a suburb of Baku), residences on Azadlig Avenue (1970, 1973), and the Kapaz Hotel (1970) in Ganja.

Later Years
The war with Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh (1988-present) affected Useynov very deeply. For a person who had dedicated his life to creating things, it was a tragedy for him to see houses and monuments destroyed, villages burned, people killed and lives ruined. On several occasions he appealed to UNESCO, the International Union of Architecture and the Unions of Architecture of the former Soviet Republics, asking them to protest the aggression and destruction.

In spite of such a tense atmosphere, Useynov continued his work. Before he died in 1992, he founded the International Academy of Architecture of Eastern Countries in Baku in order to encourage contact between architects in other Eastern counties.

Throughout much of his lifetime, Useynov was praised and recognized for his achievements. He was
Azerbaijani architect Ilham Aliyevhonored as People's Architect of the USSR in 1970. On his 80th Jubilee in 1985, he was named Hero of Socialist Labor. That same year, he became a member of the Royal Asian Society of Great Britain and Ireland, the second Azerbaijani to do so - the first had been Mirza Kazim bey (1802-1870), a famous scholar and founder of Eastern studies in Russia.

What was the main force that enabled Useynov during his lifetime not to give up architecture in the midst of all these pressures-turns and twists of political whim? In my opinion, it was his faithfulness and honesty to his own principles which allowed him to search for ways to combine Eastern and European architectural elements and aesthetics. In turn, this made his works easily recognizable-a characteristic of only truly great masters.

Architect Ilham Aliyev worked with Mikayil Useynov for nearly 30 years at the Institute of Architecture and Art of Azerbaijan's Academy of Sciences. After Useynov's death, Aliyev was chosen to succeed him as President of the Union of Architects of Azerbaijan.

From Azerbaijan International (6.4) Winter 1998.
© Azerbaijan International 1998. All rights reserved.

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