The Flame Towers of Baku: Gaudy showpiece, or cultural landmark?

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Globalization has brought us many things. Cheap t-shirts. Exotic houseplants. The odd proliferation of yoga studios and trendy sushi joints.

But on the downside, it’s also brought a whole lot of homogeneity. Combine the popularity of Western fashion sensibilities with the ease of mass-manufacturing from concentrated production centers, and you get a world that wears jeans pretty much wherever you go. You can also enjoy Christmas in China, witness Japanese brides and grooms in “traditional” black and white Western dress, listen to Michael Jackson in Baghdad, and find all sorts of other idiosyncrasies that would have been unthinkable even fifty years ago.

One of the more annoying effects of all this is that it has the potential to make the world far more boring. You can find pop music in every dance club on the planet, Irish pubs in Peru, and by-the-numbers Hollywood action flicks everywhere you go. On the one hand, there’s never been more cultural exchange than today, especially since digital sharing is revolutionarily instant; but there’s never been more of an apparent drive toward the convergent evolution of everything look the damn same.

Take, for instance, skyscrapers. Sure, many of them look different. But if you’re going to build something tall, on a standard city block that’s square-shaped to begin with, chances are you’re going to end up with a big, boring rectangle that looks just like everything else.

Unless you’re Azerbaijan, where the combination of potentially-hubristic levels of oil wealth and the desire to make its mark on the world stage have produced this:

Flame Towers and cloudy sky
Those HDR settings just make cloudy days look gorgeous.

Those are the Flame Towers of Baku, in all their flickery glory.

Finished in 2012 for a total of $350 million, these 180ish-meter towers now loom over the city as a brand-new symbol of the newly renovated Baku, shimmering in the distance like a conspicuously shiny sports car parked in the driveway, instead of tucked away in the garage.

Flame Towers up close
They do look kind of bulbous from certain angles…

It can’t be a coincidence that they were placed so prominently on a hilltop, visible from all over the city center, right at the end of the waterfront boulevard where Baku citizens hang out all the time. If you’re trying to show off how cool you are, center stage is where you go.

Baku Boulevard and Flame Towers
I was pretty happy with this photo.

They’re certainly not without their detractors, though. Some say the towers are over-the-top, gaudy showpieces that scream for attention and might as well have their price tag displayed on the side for all to see. And sure, they’re not subtle.

Flame Towers along the Boulevard
Not pictured: Subtlety.

But I’ll put in a vote for their defense. Because if there’s anything that life should be, it’s interesting. And as gaudy as you might think they are, it can’t be said that they look just like everything else out there.

The glass, sure. But the flickering shape of the Flame Towers probably isn’t something you’ve seen elsewhere––and, though not particularly well-known, it’s also culturally relevant.

Though not present on the flag, Azerbaijan’s national emblem prominently features a flame, and fire has been a national symbol of Azerbaijan for centuries. Even the name Azerbaijan roughly translates to “land of fire,” and with all the burning gas vents and exploding mud volcanoes and everything else that’s creeping up out of the surface all the time, it’s easy to see why. The architects of the Flame Towers simply chose to reflect that.

Flame Towers and Palace of the Shirvanshahs
Old and new, all mixed together.

With tiny buildings, it’s easy to maintain traditional design. Materials, shapes, decorative elements and other details are a lot easier to experiment with when you’re only building a few stories tall. But the higher you go, the more sense it makes to build a giant, vertical rectangle out of concrete and steel. It’s structurally sound, and it won’t fall down. And it’s also easy to leave it mostly blank, because people need windows to see outside, and nobody can see anything all the way up there anyway.

And it’s certainly true that plenty of other buildings in Azerbaijan are built this way, with several looking like they’d be right at home in Las Vegas, or basically wherever. They might look nice, but you wouldn’t necessarily think Azerbaijan when you look at them.

But with the Flame Towers, they took a cultural element that’s been a prominent symbol of their history and economy for a long time, and built that symbolism right into the cityscape.

Flame Towers and broadcast tower
They look like they have a nice view, too.

This is part of the reason I’m also a big fan of Taipei 101, the centerpiece of Taiwanese architectural marvels, which looks indisputably as though it belongs exactly where it is, in East Asia. Despite the fact that it’s one of the world’s tallest buildings, they took the time to pack the design with cultural elements, as well as an immediately recognizable kind-of-pagoda-esque silhouette that could not possibly be mistaken for a German building, for example.

Though it’s somewhat more subtle, the same is true of the Flame Towers. You have to be told that Azerbaijan means “land of fire” for the buildings to make sense as more than just a fancy attempt at showing off, but after you know what’s going on, they’re at least a culturally relevant attempt at showing off.

Baku old town and Flame Towers
You can really see these from all over.

And that’s why I like them. No matter how modern a city might be, no matter how much the residents love jeans and t-shirts and iPhones and whatnot, there’s still room for this sort of culturally unique architectural monument. And if architecture can still have a local flair, so can everything else.

So I don’t think we’re doomed to a future of cultural convergence. Culture just doesn’t seem to work that way. It yearns for its own identity. Sure, everyone loves pizza, but something tells me we’re not going to get stuck in the predicament of everything looking and feeling the same all the damn time.

To an extent, sure. And perhaps it’s something to lament. But monuments like the Flame Towers remind me that we need not despair quite yet at the decline of global diversity. We just need to get a little creative.

Flame Towers lit up at night
They’re fun when they flicker, too.

So the next time you’re designing a wondrous monument, think as loftily as the architects who produced the Hanging Gardens, the Taj Mahal, or the Eiffel Tower. We’ll all be happier for it.

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