In recent weeks, more and more political parties, members of the intelligentsia, and media outlets have begun to criticize the haphazard, chaotic construction boom in Azerbaijan’s capital city, Baku. Increasing oil revenues and the growing demand for new apartments have turned the city into a huge construction site. Yet, the majority of the city’s residents are complaining that the mayor’s office neither follows basic principles of urban planning nor protects historic buildings, which are being destroyed by profit-seeking companies.
The newly founded Party of Democratic Reforms organized two roundtable discussions on this topic last week, inviting well-known politicians, economists, engineers, and members of the intelligentsia. Participants expressed deep concerns about the destruction of the city. “Our interest in this problem is connected to the horrible condition of the city. I mean the changing face of Baku, and to be honest, [the changes are] not in the right direction. I mean dangerous conditions of the city center and the destruction of the historic monuments, which created the image of Baku,” says Asim Mollazadeh, chairman of the party and a member of parliament (Day.az, July 19).
On July 17 Turan News Agency reported that an historic building, across from the downtown seashore park, was being torn down to make way for construction of a new skyscraper. The building had housed health-care workers and was built 100 years ago. Turan called this act “another architectural ‘surprise’.”
The destruction of ancient buildings, especially in the UNESCO-protected Walled City, which dates back to the 14th century, has raised many eyebrows among both experts and ordinary citizens. In addition to the damage to the Walled City, Baku’s distinctive amphitheater design is also being destroyed as many skyscrapers rise and tower over the downtown area, where property prices are the highest. Unregulated and chaotic construction has already significantly worsened the traffic jams in the city, as many roads are closed to accommodate construction cranes. The situation with traffic became so bad that President Ilham Aliyev personally decided to take care of the issue and ordered the construction of nine new overpasses in the city. However, these bridges are being built in the outskirts of the city and therefore will not resolve the traffic jams downtown.
Another point of concern is the structural integrity of the new skyscrapers. Buildings in Baku, which is located in an active seismic zone, need solid foundations built to precise standards, especially in terms of the quality of the construction materials. Yet many construction companies, eager to maximize their profits, often purchase cheap, low-quality construction materials. According to Bahruz Panakhi, head of the department of seismology at the National Academy’s Research Institute on Geology, an earthquake measuring 4.5 on the Richter scale could destroy the city.
The former head of Baku’s city construction department, now “honorary architect of Azerbaijan,” Emil Akhundov agrees with this statement. Speaking at the Party of Democratic Reforms roundtable, Akhundov said that the companies are using substandard materials to make concrete, and do not check the quality of the cement. In addition, he noted that there is little time allocated for the floors to set before the next one is constructed (Echo, July 15). In April Akhundov summed up his opinion of Baku’s mayor with a phrase now often repeated: “Every minute that Hajibala Abutalibov, who is guilty in the destruction of the city, spends in his position equals death” (Day.az, April 6).
Naturally, many people put the blame on the mayor’s office. Mayor Abutalibov had a favorable reputation when he was appointed to this position in 2000. He was credited with clearing most of Baku of street traders and repairing many parks and fountains. Yet, the growing construction chaos and the popular displeasure with the situation will continue to erode his popularity. Several politicians have already suggested that the position of mayor should become an elected one, which would increase the sense of responsibility and accountability in the mind of the elected mayor. Mollazadeh supports this idea. Several months ago, experts from the Council of Europe, Carlen Martini and Owen Masters, also spoke in favor of an elected mayor at a roundtable devoted to the problems of local municipalities.
Meanwhile, Baku’s urban planning problems continue to grow. Earlier this month UNESCO sent an official letter to the Azerbaijani government, calling upon it to take active measures to prevent the destruction of old Baku.