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Zaha Hadid Architects’ Cinegenic Masterpiece

Following a competition in 2007, Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) won the commission to design the national culture centre in Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan. After its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the new government has since invested heavily in modernising and developing Baku with a multitude of architecture and infrastructure projects. ZHA designed a billowing white single-surface showpiece that rises elegantly from the ground – known as the Heydar Aliyev Center.

Story by Henry Gunawan Tjhi Photo by Iwan Baan, Hufton+Crow and Luke Hayes


Driving down Heydar Aliyev Avenue towards Baku’s city centre from the airport, the Centre’s voluptuous form came into view in such contrast to the surrounding stoic buildings from the Soviet era. Its fluid gesture dissolves the distinction between ground surface and building. Zaha Hadid frequently blurred the distinction between field and object in her projects. The sloping site, outside of the centre’s building footprint, contains a multi-level underground parking facility topped with continuous networked paths embedded amongst meandering landscape formations – a design solution that avoided additional landfill for a sheer drop in topography, which formerly split the site in two.

The landscape design elicits a sense of dynamism and openness through the precise distribution of open spaces and successive terraces – shaped by geometric reflecting pools, cascading waterfalls and perimeter stone wall benches – capable of hosting large scale outdoor events. In April 2014, for example, the White Sign video mapping installation by Hypnotica Visual Performance was projected onto the centre’s undulating building envelope, depicting significant forms of Azeri arts from the Gobustan rock paintings to the present day – along with music composed by Azerbaijani jazz pianist, Isfar Sarabski. More recently, the park has hosted a number of activities such as outdoor band performances, athletic events and public arts installations.


The concept of fluidity, drawn from the regional Islamic architecture and culture, is widely evident. The floor surfaces seamlessly turn into walls, walls turn into ceilings and so on, as sinuous as calligrahic patterns. Saffet Kaya Bekiroglu, Project Designer and Architect at Zaha Hadid Architects, explains, “Our intention was to relate to that historical understanding of architecture, not through the use of mimicry or a limiting adherence to the iconography of the past, but rather by developing a firmly contemporary interpretation, reflecting a more nuanced understanding.”

Stepping into the interior spaces, visitors will experience an aqueous environment. Natural light bounces off the undulating white walls and ceiling over a pristine white floor. The interior’s soaring and luminous foyer retains an urban feel as it transitions from the exterior plaza and forecourt. Visitors can move freely between the three main functional zones – the museum, the library and the conference auditorium – laid out underneath this expansive free-form atrium, which can accommodate separate events simultaneously.


The Centre’s building skin is a feat of advanced engineering, driven by the project’s demanding design. By combining a concrete structure with a space frame system, the architects could create dramatically curving column-free spaces. Unconventional structural solutions such as curved ‘boot columns’ handle the inverse peel of the surface from the ground to the West of the building, and the ‘dovetail’ tapering of the cantilever beams that support the building envelope to the East of the site, notes Bekiroglu. The space frame system – weighing 2,500 tons less than the originally proposed structure – allowed for significant time saving during the construction process.

The architects explored and developed panelisation geometry and their seams for internal and external cladding so that practical construction issues of manufacturing, handling, transport and assembly became more manageable.  Seams between panels maintain visual clarity of scale and the rhythmic flow of building and landscape. Full construction mock-ups turned out to be essential in evaluating the appearance as well as performance of various building details. The external cladding consists of 13,000 unique fiberglass reinforced polyester panels (40,000 sqm) and 3,150 fiberglass reinforced concrete panels (10,000 sqm) covering the plaza and the transitional zones, with the envelope reaching as high as 80 metres from the ground. These specialised panels resolved technical concerns, such as movement due to deflection, external loads, temperature change, seismic activity, and wind load.

In the United Arab Emirates, cladding manufacturer Arabian Profile developed and produced the fiberglass reinforced concrete and external polyester panels. Off-site fabrication maximised quality control and precision. In his essay “ Rising To The Occasion”, Felix Mara observed that once reinforced with fiberglass in three layers: undirected, scattered fibers at top and bottom and the ones in between with bundles following the intended form, concrete panels can be slimmed down to 8-13 mm without losing their flexural strength. Arabian Profile recommended reinforced polyester for the rainscreen panels to the architect’s team by demonstrating that the appearance and performance matched those of the much heavier concrete panels. Fiberglass reinforced polyester panels were produced at a rate of up to 70 unique panels per day, halving production times and trimming 80 per cent off their weight. All rainscreen panels were fitted with microchips for exact placement and speedy installation. London digital panelisation specialist, Newtecnic, developed bespoke 3D software for Arabian Profile.


Elaborate secondary support installation of inner and outer skin finishes required labor-intensive site work to fine-tune fixing plates at the interface with the space frame. Many interior skin panels needed to be bent on-site and detailing of the skin was done with precise care. The three-metre high space frame cavity practically conceals much of the building systems, such as lighting and ventilation, and is fitted with service catwalks. Special lighting details on the smooth ceiling surface bring to mind a celestial sky present at all time.

The library is located at the back of the building with its nine-storey high void climaxing at the restaurant space. The view up entices visitors to explore the different levels. The ground floor to the third floor are being used as exhibition spaces for “Azerbaijan Treasures: through the wave of history” highlighting the country’s history, carpets, traditional costumes and musical instruments; the Art Doll Exhibition featuring Indonesian wayang puppets among 230 international doll collections, and the “Mini Azerbaijan” Exhibition presenting a set of scale models of the country’s most revered heritage landmarks along with cutting-edge designs conveying the message of modern Azerbaijan’s rapid development. Starting from the 4th floor up, each floor is currently unused.

The Centre is named after Heydar Aliyev (1923-2003), the founder of modern Azerbaijan, who lead the country when it was part of the Soviet Union from 1969 to 1987 and then, as an independent nation, from 1993 to 2003. An extensive exhibition of Heydar Aliyev’s legacy and personal life takes up the first floor museum space, while the rest of the museum space remains closed. Since its opening, the Center has held many significant art exhibitions showcasing the works of Richard Deacon, Tony Cragg, Yayoi Kusama, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Wim Delvoye, Bernard Buffet, Laurence Jenkell, Andy Warhol, and Jorge Marin.


The conference auditorium is a hidden gem within the building. Narmin Jarchalova, Senior Specialist of International Relations Department at the Heyder Aliyev Center, gave a personal tour of the 1000-person conference auditorium. The interior is lined with strips of American Oak selected for its acoustical performance, which also produces a warm polished glow. A critic and architect, Joseph Giovannini, suggested it as “perhaps a reference to the cult of fire associated with Azerbaijan’s native Zoroastrianism.” Ribbons of curving wood panels consist of smaller sections which peel off and create gaps for lighting, balconies and the interior stairs down below. The auditorium is designed to accommodate conferences, theatre productions, and a variety of musical concerts. Musicians Itzhak Perlman and Kitaro performed here in 2014 at separate events.

Ilham Aliyev, current president of Azerbaijan, officiated at a soft-opening ceremeny for the Heydar Aliyev Center on 10th May 2012. President Aliyev also attended the official opening of the Crans Montana Forum on 29 June 2012 and the ceremony of official seeing-off for the Azerbaijani delegation to the Summer Olympics in London in July 2012, both held at the Heydar Aliyev Center. On 20 July 2012, a fire incident started on the roof from careless use of welding equipment. Following 16 months of repair work, the Heydar Aliyev Center finally reopened on 5 November 2013.

Zaha Hadid was awarded Design of the Year 2014 by London’s Design Museum for the Heydar Aliyev Center. She was the first woman to be given an award in its seven-year history and this was also the first architecture project to be lauded. Her untimely passing on 31 of March 2016, left the architecture community in mourning. Hadid was a forerunner in her field and what a national building she created for Baku, offering a more immersive and diverse experience to engage people with architecture more than any depiction in a book or magazine. Its seductive beauty and compelling civic presence exemplify design ingenuity fit for the country’s aspirations and progressive future.

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