Following the twists and turns of Azerbaijan′s political history could make you carsick. An oil-rich country located at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, it has experienced a dizzying number of occupations and reoccupations. So let′s just take a deep breath and skip to the end—or what an optimist might call the beginning. Azerbaijan has been an independent modern democracy for just twenty years, since it was freed of the grip of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Political independence was followed by financial independence—which in Azerbaijan means "learning how to tap your oil wells." Once they figured that out, Azerbaijanis had to figure out, after centuries of foreign domination, who exactly they were. What does it mean to be Azerbaijani?
In Baku, the capital, Azerbaijan is answering that question at least in part with an ambitious new landmark and focal point of civic redevelopment: the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center. Designed by Iraqi born architectural visionary Zaha Hadid, the building is simply staggering. In a rebuke to boxy Soviet-era architecture, it is all flowing lines, curvy and asymmetrical, with no distinction between wall and roof and floor. I′ve never seen anything like it and yet somehow it looks like it belongs, like it rises up naturally from its site.
The cultural center will house a museum, a library, and a concert hall—three very different spaces with very different needs, which Hadid manages to resolve in a single fluid gesture. The outer skin of the building, as it dips and curves, connects and divides the three spaces, and interior ramps allow for visitors to move easily among them. The building itself also ripples into the surrounding landscape to become a Cultural Plaza, further blurring the boundary between the landscape and the building.
By design, the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center is a statement about indigenous culture, about the culture that arises from a place, rather than being imposed upon it. Azerbaijanis clearly intend to locate their national character, and this center will be an incredible place to start looking.