If there has ever been a country defined by wealth and power, in both positive and challenging ways, it is Azerbaijan.
Though independent now, the country has been occupied by multiple conquering hordes: those of Cyrus The Great, Alexander The Great, the Seljuks, the Mongols, the Persians, the Russians, the Ottomans and the Soviets. But since 1991, Azerbaijan is free, and exceptionally wealthy due to their vast oil and gas reserves. The country is on the western tip of the Caspian Sea, and is literally at the crossroads between Western Asia and Eastern Europe, as it borders Russia to the North; Georgia and Armenia to the West and Iran to the South. It is generally Muslim, also with deep roots in Zoroastrianism and Fire Temple worship.
To Understand the Design, Understand The Baku Flame Towers History
This précis of Azebaijani history is a necessary precedent to understanding the architectural design of the Baku Flame Towers, in Azerbaijan. Opened in July 2013, the Fairmont Hotel occupies one of the three Flame Towers; the other two are residences/serviced apartments, and retail space. The tripartite design is a direct homage to the Zoroastrian Fire Temple history of this area, as well as a subtler yet still fire-associated dimension of the vast supply of the area’s natural gas. Azerbaijan is often called the Land Of Fire and has an historic Fire Temple in the suburbs of Baku.
The Flame Towers are on a hill overlooking Baku Bay and the old city center. These buildings both transform the city’s skyline and promote its historic identity. They are visible from most vantage points in the city. The 39-story residential tower — the tallest of the three — sits to the south, accommodating 130 luxury apartments with stunning views.
The hotel, operated by Fairmont Hotels, is located on the northern corner of the site and consists of 318 rooms over 36 floors. Located on the west side of the complex, the office tower provides more than 33,000 square meters of flexible, Class A commercial office space. The retail podium acts as the anchor for the project, providing leisure and retail facilities for the three towers’ residents and visitors.
Architecture with Deeper Meaning
The Flame Towers was architecturally designed by HOK, with DIA Holdings serving as design-build contractor. The lead architect was Barry Hughes of HOK Architects in London. Barry is a Texan, who said in a recent interview, that he wanted to do something both spiritual and structural, and the Flame Tower concept seemed to combine both. In another discussion, this time on the HOK Associates Blog, he discussed his design philosophy, saying, “I believe one of architecture’s greatest challenges is to give meaning and a sense of place to the large, complicated projects. The super modern style uses the best elements of modernism: a cinematic flow of space, a lightness of structure, mixed with vernacular materials and a tourist’s sense of context combined with the occasional moment of whimsy to create a warmer, richer place.”
Certainly, this set of architectural flames has cinematic flow, in terms of drama and color. Indeed, It has been described by some as one of the most audacious buildings of modern times. Yet to Western eyes, the structures look simple, and unique bordering on peculiar, seemingly coming out of nowhere as they appear to do. But to Azerbaijanis, and those who are adherents to the Zoroastrian belief system, these towers respect the not only the perpetual flames of the Fire Temples, but also the spiritual and cultural underpinnings of this region’s history. Though Fire Temples are sometimes considered things of the past, there are still Fire Temples in the area, and one in Baku itself.
But for the Fairmont, this was an exceptional opportunity to create a respectful hotel footprint in this multi-cultural area. It is a rare project that links the skyline of the capital to the existing urban context, and to the history of the area, but the Flame Towers design succeed with such a combination. It defines a dynamic architectural vocabulary, allowing the region’s natural resources, cultural identity, and symbolism of the spirit to become a focused, purposeful whole.