Azerbaijan International

Winter 1998 (6.4)


Architecture of the Oil Baron Period

Introduction by Betty Blair
Compilation and building descriptions by Fuad Akhundov
Shamil Fatullayev, Fakhreddin Miralayev
and Jala Garibova

Baku Oil Barons

Baku Oil Barons

Baku Oil Barons

For specific buildings of Oil Baron's period, click below

Academy of Science Presidium
American Embassy
Architects' Union
Art Museum

Ashurbeyov Residence
Baksovet (City Hall)
Friday Mosque
German Lutheran Church

Hajinski Residence
Mammadov Residence
Manuscript Institute
Mitrofanov Residence

Old Department Store
Opera and Ballet Theater
Philharmonic Hall
SOCAR Building

Taghiyev Residence
Wedding Palace

Short Story - Mammadguluzade "Maybe They'll Give It All Back" (AI 7.1).

If buildings could speak, the palatial mansions built by Oil Barons at the turn of last century would, no doubt, leave us spellbound with their tales. At that time, Azerbaijan was producing more than 50 percent of the world's oil. It was a veritable "oil boom" and set off a frenzy of architectural activity. Hundreds of luxurious residences were built between 1885 and about 1915 until everything came to a sudden halt when the Bolsheviks took power (1920) and set up a communist government.

Entrepreneurs who had been so admired and emulated were branded as bourgeois and "enemies of the people." Most of them fled the country. Others committed suicide (Mukhtarov, page 40) or were killed (Ashurbeyov, 34). Those who survived saw their properties confiscated, and with few exceptions, residences were sub-divided into multiple dwellings. Perhaps, the word "carved up" would be more accurate.

Baku Oil Barons
When we began researching the architecture of the Oil Baron period, we thought it would be a very easy topic. Hundreds of these mansions are concentrated in the center of Baku. Thousands of people pass by them everyday. But the subject turned out to be extraordinarily difficult. An incredible amount of the history has already been lost. Here and there, a few female descendents in their late 80s and 90s offer some insight. But more and more, their memories are failing. After exhausting all known experts in the field, we reluctantly arrived at the conclusion that much of the information of the Oil Baron period is absolutely lost.

Understandably, when the Bolsheviks took power, any identification with Oil Barons could put one in jeopardy. Few wanted to risk being "politically incorrect." The consequences were too severe. The philosophical basis for the new Soviet man was antithetical to the entrepreneurial individualism and capitalism that the previous epoch had built upon. Now 80 years later, many of the details have been erased from the collective memory. For example, it's impossible to find out who owned many of these buildings and what happened to them after the Bolsheviks came to power.

Nevertheless, the buildings of the Oil Baron period are among the most vibrant samples of architecture in Baku and are clearly differentiated from all other buildings before and after. Here we define some of their distinguishing features:

Distinguishing Features of Oil Baron Period

1. Ornate
Characteristic of Eastern aesthetics is a love for intricate detail. Fortunately, limestone, the construction material that is indigenous to the region and which has been quarried near Baku since ancient times, yields itself easily to being sculpted and hewn. One of the quickest ways to identify buildings of the Oil Baron period is by the elaborate carvings that grace the facades of these buildings, especially the entrances. The sculptured patterns are endless-fauna, flora, fruit and even imaginative creatures of fantasy-griffins, dragons and more.

2. Plasticity of elements
Almost like putty or clay, the shapes of the basic elements are very three-dimensional. Arches, cornices, columns, domes, balconies all "pop-out" from the flat surface of the building. Shadow and shade create even more perception of depth. This style contrasts most dramatically with the Khrushchev period of the 1960s when ornamental features were forbidden.

3. Synthesis ­ East and West
Eastern and Western styles are creatively synthesized into a new form. Rich eclectic combinations result from merging Neo-classical, German and Italian Renaissance Revival, French Gothic, Art Nouveau with Eastern styles of Safavid, Persian, Cairo, Ottoman and Magrebi. No two buildings are identical.

4. Treatment of corners
Because the streets were relatively narrow in the center of the city, there was a tendency to avoid sharp corners on buildings, especially where streets intersected. Many architects created a design with "cut corners". In fact, this solution draws even more attention to the building itself. Also corners are often emphasized with balconies and domes.

5. Climactic Conditions
The inner courtyard is indigenous to the region and provides an opportunity to create a garden-like atmosphere. As Muslim women at the time traditionally wore veils and could not go out in the streets unaccompanied, this architectural feature also provided the women and children a protective environment out-of-doors. Often, the side of the building facing the courtyard consists of a hallway filled with rows of windows providing ample light to the living space.

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

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