With the rise of a new government, Azerbaijan wanted to break past its history of Soviet architecture, and start afresh. During this revival, Zaha Hadid Architects won the competition to design the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.
The centre was the primary station for the nation’s cultural programs, an indicator of them letting go of their soviet past and looking into future with the optimism and sensibility of the Azeri culture.
ZHA looked further into the region’s history and took inspiration from Islamic architecture. While not directly visible, the creation of fluidity is prevalent in Islamic architecture. Often, we can see examples such as in calligraphy or the ornate patterns that flow from walls to ceilings, where they blur the distinctions between architectural elements and the ground. At the very first glance, the structure rises from the earth, blending in seamlessly within the expanse of its public plaza outside.
The Centre is a multifunctional venue consisting of a 1000-seat auditorium, temporary exhibition spaces, a conference centre, workshops, and a museum. These span out over 57,000 square meters and eight stories high.
The three key components all revolve around the central atrium and around a courtyard. These three functions and the varying required heights helped create the final shape of the structure. At the back, you have the tall library with many floors, to the side spans the conference centre and the auditorium.
The three programmes merge around a lobby which can hold several events at the same time. The rest of the pathways and parts melt into each other, flowing seamlessly both inside and out. The final effect is where of continuous architectural form, merging into its landscape.
The array of column-free spaces have been created by a mix of a load-bearing framework that supports the double-layered space frame skin.
Reinforced Concrete has mainly been used to create shear walls to partition spaces, support the space frame and also construct the footing of the structure. As Baku is an earthquake-prone zone, the building has been reinforced with massive 150-foot long piles that must withstand earthquakes up to 7.0 magnitude.
The space frames that define the structure’s form have also been time-saving. Curved ‘boot columns’ have been used to achieve the inverse peel of the surface from the ground. Cantilever beams that taper towards the free end help support the building envelope. Furthermore, the substructure allows a flexible relationship between the rigid structural grid of the space frame with the free-formed cladding seams.
A variety of special measures needed to be implemented to account for the sheer scale and grandiosity of the design. The large span of the space frame links to the reinforced concrete structure to maintain stability. This has been done by extending the steel core from the reinforcement tube core and connecting the vertical reinforcement member to the joist. To help combat the excessive bending moment faced by the framework certain areas thicken to multi-layered frameworks.
This form was then cladded with Glass Fibre Reinforced Concrete (GFRC) and Glass Fibre Reinforced Polyester (GFRP). The cladding needed to meet both aesthetic and functional requirements. While it needed to help elevate the monolithic design, it also needed to offer UV resistance and light reflectivity, resistance against air pollution from the oil refineries within the proximity in addition to being easy to clean, manage and offer high durability.
These cladding panels have intermediate joineries which have been designed to run parallel in one direction that has added to the movement and fluidity of the final form.
These finer details are the most striking and powerful that set the structure apart.
Another such example is the way light and shadows have been softly incorporated into the design. During the day, the volume reflects the light and the overall shadow pattern of the sun dominates, with no sub-textures interfering in the smooth surfaces. At night, the interior light flows onto the exterior surfaces and exterior flood lights enhance the building geometry. The same softness can also be seen internally. In opposition to the starry-sky luminaire arrangement at the Guangzhou Opera House, the lighting in Baku is subtly integrated into the wooden ceiling and walls—almost out of view of the audience. Cove lightings diffuse light adding an ethereal value to the spaces throughout the design.
The immense amount of thought, consideration, design and innovation that have gone into the design of this structure is truly unique. The Heydar Aliyev Centre has earned it right today as one of the most iconic pieces of architecture from this century. And it has been recognised as such too. Zaha Hadid remarks this as her “dream design. Among the many accolades this structure has received, it has also bagged the honour of Design of the Year in 2014, making Zaha Hadid the first woman to do so.