GSD Thesis: Neft Dashlari: Architecture, Oil and Urbanism in the Trans-Caspian Union
Location: Baku, Azerbaijan
Advisor: Toshiko Mori
My thesis research examines the relationships between architecture, oil and urbanism in the post-Soviet Caspian, focusing on Baku, Azerbaijan and the re-purposing of Neft Dashlari, an offshore oil extraction city and Soviet design experiment.
I approached this thesis with a series of questions regarding architecture’s agency in constructing narratives of transformation – to sites of industrial invalue and political consequence – into sites of cultural and historical benefit.
The goals of this project were:
To document and understand contradictions and contestations of the site
To record a unique moment in the history of urbanism and technology
To problematize – rather than solve – the political, social and economic issues of the Caspian region manifest in Neft Dashlari
To propose architecture that does not occupy the site as an object but rather engages as building, landscape and infrastructure – a design process not controlled as a totality but instead projected into the future and allowed to grow over time.
To establish a physical context for the project: Azerbaijan is located at the nexus of three contemporary empires: the European Union, OPEC, and the Commonwealth of Independent states. At the crossroads of the historic Silk Road – defined in the negative as being not of Europe, not of Asia and not of the Middle East.
This geography produces a cultural blending that deeply influenced the country’s capital Baku. The space produced by these forces results in multiple cities – providing a spatial precedent for Neft Dashlari:
One, a practical urbanism, located by geographic necessity, oil extraction and distribution networks. Shown here by the oil wells scattered between the houses, and the 3 dimensional local oil distribution system.
Second, the city resulting from the petrodollars funding the modernization of Baku’s skyline. Shown here are BIG’s Zara Island Project, Zaha Hadid’s Cultural Center, Norman Foster’s master plan and a growing collection of flame inspired towers.
Third, the post-Soviet city – where Soviet buildings are expanded and enclosed by the addition of a new façade. Or by addition of floors over time – a precedent for an architecture that changes over time.
Neft Dashlari, located 60km east of Baku – in the contested territory of the Caspian Sea, is a microcosm and magnification of the issues facing Baku. To introduce you to the site I’ll show a short video of historic film and footage from 2009.
For additional footage of the site see: OIL ROCKS – City above the Sea / La Cité du Pétrole.
The site demonstrates a collapse of the issues facing the Baku and the Caspian Sea: the transition of the region to a post-oil economy, the nature of the post-Soviet city, building in a politically charged region and the spatial ramifications played out in the conversion of industrial space to a cultural landscape.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union produced three new players in the fight for the Caspian’s resources, an estimated $12 trillion worth of petroleum assets – more the scale of the North sea reserves than those of the Middle East. Now Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan vie with Russia and Iran for the Caspian, which they once split.
Therefore, the territorial space of the Caspian itself is under dispute. This dispute ranges from the surface of the sea, which is patrolled by the Russian Navy, to the water itself, to the sea floor and to the sub floor geology home to the sought after reserves of trapped petroleum. Whatever the outcome of these disputes, one thing is certain – the resource will be exploited. Rigs will be installed, pipelines will flow, and the oil will be sold.
What then can and should architecture do?
What is the agency of architecture to act on this site?
Is it possible to extend the life of the place rather than passively anticipating a post-industrial wasteland?
Should a decaying post-Soviet oil city – be preserved and why?
Can and should the tension between decay, preservation and remediation be resolved?
With these questions in mind I propose a preservation of Neft Dashlari that accepts and engages with the decay of some aspects of the site, conducting and harnessing that decay to produce a landscape of transition and renewal.
I began by internalizing and fictionalizing the impossibilities of the site into a productive landscape of possibility and potential. Rejecting the inevitable flirtations with disaster and Dystopia.
I instead propose a fictional political entity – the Trans-Caspian Union – defining the site as a place – rather than in the negative – the Union is composed of the 7 countries- which connect China and the European via rail, bypassing Russian’s influence and the conflicts in the Middle East.
I propose an approach which rather than projecting a possible solution to an impossible contradiction instead works to reconstruct the problem and the contradiction posed.
Moving out of the typical context of sustainability allows the site to engage in a more useful dialogue about what a sustainable oil city might look like – installing windmills on active oil wells certainly isn’t the answer.
The site offers several architectural strategies:
The found tectonics of the place (steel, stilts, engineering efficiency and repeated structural unit),
The logic of the sites construction which uses circulation to connect points of interest – translates to system embedded with a logic of building and un-building
The pre-fabrication heritage found in its Soviet era housing
Architecture which changes over time – or creating space through adding layers – as seen in Baku
The production of architecture and the associated influx of people transform the site from an isolated island into a node on a global rail network. The architecture, rather than functioning, as an object is an extension of the site, a system, a process, a method of thinking, framing the water, sky and surrounding landscapes of oil, and human activity:
2012 A rail hub, unlocking a future economy of exchange of goods from East to West, capitalizing on Azerbaijan’s position as a geographic nexus
2012 A border crossing in disputed territory of the Caspian
2014 A landscape of research and remediation
2016 Restored Housing
2020 A headquarters for the Trans-Caspian Union
2022 A ferry terminal and tourist site
To return to the original question: What is architecture’s agency to provide a narrative of transformation to this and other industrial sites?
Design here is expressed not as the invention of new forms, but as the reformulation of existing constraints. By describing a problem in a new way, an unexpected solution emerges. Rather than impose a structure, leading to closure and more precise definition, the design process remains open as long as possible continuing and evolving in a changing landscape.
Because known solutions are incapable of solving the problems posed this project instead aims to make visible the forces, shaping those problems. In articulating the specific means available to architecture to encode social, economic and political information – the ambiguity of surface, programmatic adjacency, place making- the project aims to open architecture to other discourses, without losing what is specific to architecture.
Unable to predict with certainty the needs of the future occupants – changing work patterns, new economies, undoing hierarchies and political structures – the project reads and re-iterates an existing language of spaces and surfaces – flexible enough to evolve over time, while specific enough to give a direction to that future growth.
Architecture here blurs the boundaries between city, landscape, and architecture between production and tourism, observation and action, the governed and governing, living and working, policy and research.
Landscape is aligned with infrastructure and urbanism. It works to construct the ground for future occupations and events. It is not designed and controlled as a totality but instead projected into the future and allowed to grow over time. The design process extends – a model for process.
The design establishes a framework and a provisional set of relations among the parts, but these determinations are made with the full knowledge that these forces will act upon one another and change over time. Not so much the process of design – but the process of negotiation, implementation and construction. The life of the building unfolds over time, ultimately beyond the control of its authors.