The architectural identity of a city depends very much on economic and political conditions. Faced with the changing balances of power, Baku's urban landscape thus underwent profound changes. From the development of oil extraction in the 19th century, the heart of the future Azerbaijan fell prey to Swedish, English, German industrialists... For instance, the Nobel brothers made the "Black City" a vital heart for their commercial empire. But the October Revolution of 1917 put a stop to this foreign exploitation, bringing oil drilling under the control of the Communist regime.
Before that, architecture in Baku depended heavily on exogenous fashions. Under Tsarist rule, a historicizing eclecticism prevailed. The very neo-Russian Aleksandr Nevsky Cathedral – designed by Robert Marfeld (1852-1921), of German origin – was a shining example, while the Opera and Ballet Theater – the work of Nikolai Baiev (1875-1949), of Armenian origin – testified to an assimilation of Art Nouveau. After the USSR advent, the context changed dramatically. Like other Soviet capitals, Baku then opened up during the 1920s to constructivist innovation.
It is in this style that two Azeri architects, trained at the Polytechnic Institute of Baku, Mikhail Huseynov (1905-1992) and Sadiq Dadashov (1905-1946), made their debut, signing soon after their diploma a stolovaïa (collective canteen) with abstract forms. Amazing duo! Because, coming from a wealthy family of Azeri aristocrats – his father owned a significant number of factories and ships – his origins classified him as a potential "enemy of the people", Huseynov could never have received a proper education. His comrade Dadashov arguably came from a more modest background: their cooperation probably helped to overcome the ideological obstacle. Their shared passions for the Italian Renaissance, international modernity, and their own national heritage, gave them the tools to adapt to the demands of Soviet power.
So, this tandem quickly transformed its creative approach, as in the early 1930s the spread of socialist realism called for other paradigms. In architecture too, the Stalinist vision of nationalities required the creation of works, with supposedly socialist content while citing national elements. The 1934 competition for the government building of the Transcaucasian SSR (then comprising Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia) brought this creative approach to Baku with fanfare. The projects received all meditated on the recent Moscow Palace of Soviets competition, with an auditorium topped by a tower. Also trained in Baku, Konstantin Senchikin (1905-1985) proposed a very neoclassical monument, while a team comprising the Russian Yakov Syrychtchev (1886-1954) and Azeri B. Revazov (?-?) mixed neoclassicism and arches deriving from ancient mosques.
Following a similar approach, Huseynov and Dadashov imagined a monumental ensemble of several wings behind facades with neoclassical colonnades and pointed arches inspired by those of the Shirvanshahs palace. During their studies, the architects had carefully analyzed this 15th century complex in the Baku old center, publishing their surveys thanks to the support of Aleksey Shchoussev (1873-1949) – influential author of Lenin's Mausoleum, who built in the Azeri metropolis the modern Hotel Intourist.
However, the Russian builders had still the leaders confidence, since this major order was entrusted to Lev Roudnev (1885-1956). After his academic training in Saint Petersburg, he had struggled to adapt to modernity after the revolution – before gaining resounding revenge when the architectural milieu reverted to a more traditional approach. His work also meditated on the Shirvanshahs palace, but in a more massive volume. The construction of the building was yet rather slow, finished in the early 1950s – imposing then on the Baku center a great symbol of a neo-Azeri identity.
Meanwhile, the end of the Transcaucasia Federation in 1937 allowed Azerbaijan to gain autonomy. As for Huseynov and Dadashov, their failure in this competition nevertheless had happy consequences, affirming them in the Azeri architectural community, thus multiplying fine achievements. The Institute of Medicine flats have a delicate Italianate inspiration, while the Nizami cinema and its neighboring building frame a major thoroughfare in the center with an effective synthesis between classical forms and modern abstraction. These experiences soon combined with the deepening of the neo-Azeri style of their projects drawn up during the perilous years of the 1936-1938 Stalinist purges. A manifesto of this aesthetic, the Azeri pavilion at the Moscow VDNKh agricultural exhibition in 1939 won them a Stalin Prize. This supreme award ideologically validated their fusion between sober volumes, classical culture, and oriental ornaments of national inspiration.
Thus the many apartment buildings designed during this period assemble a relative Art Deco abstraction with classical proportions, all adorned with many orientalist elements. Completed shortly after the Great Patriotic War, the Buzovnyneft building is thus adorned with oriel windows on the corner towers, crowned with Moorish arches and battlements... Same logic for the House of Scientists, whose curved facade delicately follows the boulevard overlooking the Caspian Sea, with again a profusion of pointed arches and very prominent oriel windows punctuating the whole. Here the search for national character borders on the whimsical fantasy. Huseynov made one of the apartments his home, joining the cohort of architects living in a building designed by them – moreover, beyond the oriental decor, in the midst of a housing shortage, the place corresponded to the best comfort standards of the Stalin Era.
With more formal stripping, this duo made a significant contribution to major official, cultural and scientific facilities. For the Nizami Museum, their remodeling of an existing caravanserai added floors and above all accentuated the national character of the decoration of the facades, with pointed arches, mosaics, and statues of Azeri poets or writers. For the Conservatory, they used classical volumes but took special care in the design of the muqarnas capitals – similar to those used in 1609 by Sinan (1491-1588) at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.
However, it was after Dadashov's untimely death that Huseynov conceived his major work: the complex of the new Academy of Sciences. This monumental group is the Azeri response to Rudnev’s Lomonosov University in Moscow... In both cases, the central edifice seems like a massive and majestic skyscraper. As Moscow wanted to maintain preeminence in the heart of the USSR, the Baku facility had to stick to more modest dimensions. Within this restrictive framework, Huseynov especially took care of the pointed arches design, resumed his beloved muqarnas capitals, and this time used a beautiful red granite for the columns or the doors. Material of course evoking the color of communism, as Rudnev also did in his Moscow campus. Huseynov stood out above all in the delicacy of the main staircase and the large auditorium enthroned in the central skyscraper, with their columns and overhead lighting – all of the oriental inspiration. Here his Neo-Azeri style reached an unparalleled degree of majesty and grace.
These impressive achievements contributed greatly to the Baku Stalinist urban character since other authors began to produce many monuments in a style similar to Huseynov’s works. Inaugurated in 1951, the Central Stadium – then bearing Stalin’s name – was designed by Leonardo Gonsiorovski (1905-1973), Oleg Isaev (?-?) and Georgi Sergueev (?-?), Russians active in Baku. With Azeri decor and collective use, this facility applied to the letter the Stalinist formula of national form and socialist content… Likewise, a similar logic guided Nikolai Yakovlev (1879-1956) and A. Sarkisov (?-?) for the railway administration building. There too, large arcades with pointed arches, muqarnas capitals… Yakovlev had worked mainly in Riga before the revolution, then integrated the Soviet services for rail infrastructures, cooperating to projects in the Caucasus. However, his use of the neo-Azeri style is more a borrowing from a then dominant cultural current than a sincere creative implication. Here is the key difference with the movement developed by Huseynov and Dadashov. For them, this was a conviction guiding their defense and reinvention of the national heritage.
Strangely enough, de-Stalinization did not put such an abrupt end to this neo-Azeri vein. If Huseynov had designed the National Library at the end of the Stalin Era, he realized it only after the denunciation of the Stalinist cult of personality. Arcades of the porch, statues of Azeri authors – as in the Nizami Museum – and a beautiful central straight staircase with columns again adorned with muqarnas capitals. Rather strange work, continuing an architectural spirit then ideologically banished, pursued here through an unwavering sense of patriotic cultural affirmation.
This was not always obvious, since this aesthetic gave rise to strong criticism from the competition for the Government House. The national style argument remained a double-edged sword, Moscow could see in it a nationalist deviation, even an inadmissible challenge to the Party line... This was the prelude to other perils since Huseynov was harshly criticized in the 1940s for his supposed formalism. Such a personal attack was in truth to target his unproletarian social origins. The fight against "cosmopolitanism" was actually the Soviet version of the witch hunt.
Nevertheless, for a time denying his native culture, he adapted in the 1960s to the Second Soviet Modernity, finally defining during the 1970s a renewed synthesis between modern forms and the Neo-Azeri style. This is evidenced by the metro station he built in 1985 near his Academy of sciences. Between geometric abstraction and fine oriental elements, this last work is a fitting conclusion to its continuous search for an alliance between international innovation and national tradition.