||Zira Island is indicative of a trend in the former Soviet Republics. As the country becomes wealthier, the desire to express a national identity with architecture and urban planning becomes apparent. For Azerbaijan, this is manifested in a resort-style Eco-Island that caters to the very upper echelons of society.
Zira (from Arabic word ‘jazira’ meaning ‘island’) Island, known as Nargin Island or Boyuk Zira (Island), is an offshore island of 3 square kilometres in the Caspian Sea, in the Baku Bay bordering the coast of the capital city of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Baku. It is the biggest island of the island group called Baku Archipelago.
Since the 18th century, the country had been slowly conquered by Russia. In the early 19th century, Russia controlled almost all territory, except the southern part. By the beginning of the 20th century, the country went through several uprisings against the Russian hegemony. The situation culminated in 1917 when the Bolsheviks took over the government. Despite all efforts to break the domination and keep its independence, Azerbaijan, as one of socialistic republics of the Transcaucasian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, became a part of the Soviet Union in 1922. The country regained its independence after 68 years, in 1991, when the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic collapsed.
For several previous decades, the island was a good strategic point because of its lighthouse from 1814. During the both World Wars, the island served as a POW camp. Within the Bolshevik occupation, it became known as ‘the island of death’ where many Azerbaidzhani intellectuals were executed. Later, during the 1920s and 1930s, Nargin Island was home to a small Soviet naval base. According to local historians, the island was the site of thousands of executions during the Stalinist era, and there are rumours of mass graves on the isle.
Azerbaijan is a country loaded with oil and natural gas reserves. It has long been known as ‘the land of fire’ because of the hillside fires formed from natural gas. One of the most famous natural gas fires is Yanar Dag, burning non-stop on a hillside near the capital. Currently, the country produces more than one million barrels of oil and gas per day, and it is considered as one of the most important sources in the world. Despite many financial problems that Azerbaijan has faced, thanks to its rich sources it was always able to ‘stand up’ and restore its economy.
The country has been facing many of environmental problems resulting from a chemical production of the former Soviet Union, as well as from a current oil production and extraction methods, causing a lack of drinking water in Baku and other major cities; pollution of the Caspian Sea and other water reservoirs; damage made as a result of changing levels of the Caspian Sea; excessive discharge of hazardous gases into the atmosphere; erosion and salination of agricultural lands; failure to ensure effective waste management in major industrial centres and human settlements; and a lack of disposal facilities. On the other hand, without the oil production the country would be doomed.
The first effort to protect the environment and produce sustainable development at a national level was expressed in 2001 when Azerbaijan began development and implementation of the National Program on Environmentally Sustainable Socioeconomic Development by the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources.
The project Zira Island falls in line with national ambitions to diversify from an oil-based economy into tourism and technology, as well as to refashion the Azerbaijani identity on the global stage. In 2006, the president of Azerbaijan, Aliyev, announced the Comprehensive Action Plan for Improving the Ecological Conditions in the Azerbaijan Republic during 2006-2010. As part of this initiative, the master plan for the Zira Island was approved two years later (2008). In addition to Zira Island project, the Executve Administration of Baku elaborated two other projects, such as Baku White City master plan and Baku-Azerbaijam Eco-Cultural Master Plan.
The Copenhagen and New York based group of architects, designers, builders and thinkers, BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group), has proposed a master plan to re-envision the island as a zero-energy resort and entertainment city for 10,000 residents. The island is imagined as a carbon-neutral community and model for future sustainable urban development, entirely independent of external resources, bringing a new level of luxury to the country and becoming one of the most exclusive developments in the region as a sort of extension of Baku.
Much effort was put into the creation of an autonomous ecosystem where the flows of air, water, heat, and energy could channel in almost natural ways. All of this is supported by a mountain that creates biotopes and eco-niches, channels water, stores heat, provides viewpoints and valleys, and access and shelter.
The greatest sensation of the island is seen in a modern reinterpretation of Azerbaijan’s seven peaks, presenting actual living models of the mountainous ecosystems of the country – Shahdagh, Babadagh, Beshbarmaq, Kapaz (meant as the main arrival point on the island), Ayidagh (with commercial and residential spaces), Ilandagh and Salavan (containing shopping streets, restaurants, pavilions, a park café, water park and a series of sports fields), placed around the perimeter of the western edge, as well as residential and leisure facilities. Each peak should wait to see its representation in the form of building of various shapes and textures. As for the eastern end of the island, it is built over by different types of villas – terraced, beach, luxurious, water and cliffy ones, with individual docks and private beachfronts. Every three houses share a centrally-located helicopter landing pad.
In comparison, the central part seemed to be free from any built forms. The space is used for recreational activities, such as golf; a park and a hall, providing a huge interior public venue.
Moreover, the island includes a small urban beach between two false peaks.
The city is titled as an eco-city. Under this term the island’s proposed self-sufficiency relies mainly on the use of various technologies. Photovoltaics should supply energy to heat water and power recreation sports such as swimming pools and water parks. The Caspian Sea itself will play a role in heating and cooling all buildings on the island. The seawater will also filtered in an on-site desalination plant to provide the residents with fresh drinking and bathing water.
Wastewater will be used to irrigate the landscape, and solid waste will be processed into fertilizer that, according to BIG, should support the lush green condition of a tropical island, with a minimal ecological footprint. An offshore wind farm of sixteen wind turbines will provide the city’s CO2-neutral power supply. As for a production of food or management of an inorganic waste, or materials used to build the city, no information is yet available.
The development is made possible by state financing, private sector sponsorship and individual investors that, however, take the shine out of the project and leave many obscurities behind.
Since 2009, the project has been, unfortunately, on hold status. According to Kai-Uwe Bergmann, one of BIG’s partners, the intent is to attract foreign investment to be able to cover expenses.
Despite the negativism, within the preparation phase for the development, the Oil and Gas Construction Trust and the Caspian Oil Fleet of the state Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) laid water and gas pipelines, connecting the uninhabited island. Furthermore, Zira has already awakened an interest of world media. Even, the project was exhibited at a French architectural centre, Arc en rêve centre d'architecture, in Bordeaux, France.
A paradox is that the future of the carbo-neutral eco-island is ultimately connected to the flunctuations of the crude oil market. The future for the market seems to be favourable. According to the forecast, the price of oil for barrel should steadily rise over the coming years. However, this fact is not pleasant to the environmentally friendly Zira Island.
source: Rachel Keeton