Baku, Azer­baijan, sits upon vast oil deposits on the Caspian Sea. Giant oil der­ricks can be spotted from the center of the city, which houses 2 mil­lion people.

An oil boom in Baku in the early 20th cen­tury, says Ivan Rupnik, an assis­tant pro­fessor of archi­tec­ture in the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design at North­eastern, defined much of the city’s urban design.

During this period, wealth gen­er­ated by the city’s pro­duc­tion of roughly one-​​fifth of the world’s oil output, he says, spurred the cre­ation of avant-​​garde build­ings, the­aters and even one of the first schools for girls in Cen­tral Asia.

Baku’s oil economy led to the con­struc­tion of cul­tural build­ings in a mod­i­fied Art Nou­veau and a unique cos­mopolitan cul­ture,” Rupnik explains. “The city had trans­formed into a melting pot, attracting pro­fes­sionals from all over the world.”

But this par­tic­ular moment of cul­tural pros­perity was short-​​lived, ending with the October Rev­o­lu­tion in 1917. Three years later, in 1920, Baku became part of the Soviet Union, and did not regain inde­pen­dence until 1991, fol­lowing the Soviet’s col­lapse. Over this period of time, oil fields were nation­al­ized, oil barons were driven out and the city’s archi­tec­tural focus shifted from extrav­a­gant cul­tural insti­tu­tions to mon­u­mental gov­ern­mental build­ings and multi-​​unit housing for oil workers.

Rupnik, who has thrice vis­ited Baku, is cur­rently working on an archi­tec­tural study of the rela­tion­ship between oil and urbanism in the city from the begin­ning of the 19th cen­tury to the present day. He is col­lab­o­rating on a forth­coming book on the topic with Eve Blau, a pro­fessor of archi­tec­tural his­tory in the Grad­uate School of Design at Har­vard Uni­ver­sity, and Sasa Randic, the prin­cipal archi­tect at Randic and Asso­ciates, who has prac­ticed in Baku.

We are inter­ested in devel­oping a method­ology for how to under­stand the rela­tion­ship between oil and urban iden­tity as both a pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive reality,” says Rupnik, who has gath­ered infor­ma­tion for the book through site visits, archival research and dis­cus­sions with archi­tects and his­to­rians in Baku. “We want to know how nearly two cen­turies of oil exploita­tion have impacted such a unique urban culture.”

Azerbaijan’s inde­pen­dence from the Soviet Union, Rupnik says, gen­er­ated new wealth and spurred a desire among gov­ern­ment offi­cials to trans­form the city’s urban iden­tity. Mass pro­duced apart­ment blocs con­structed by the Soviets between 1950 and 1990, for example, are cur­rently being reclad with local stone and locally-​​inspired ornamentation.

People talk about these apart­ment build­ings the way we talk about the make and brand of our cars,” Rupnik says. “They say, ‘I live in a Leningrad’ or ‘I live in a Moscow,’ des­ig­nating the city where these build­ings were first manufactured.”

City offi­cials, he explains, view Baku as a kind of Euro­pean metrop­olis, with gor­geous parks, exclu­sive shop­ping cen­ters and lavish housing com­plexes. In some ways, the city has already returned to world­wide promi­nence, hosting the 57th Euro­vi­sion Song Con­test in May and sub­mit­ting a bid in Sep­tember to host the 2020 Summer Olympics.

As Rupnik puts it, “Baku is a place in the middle of nowhere that desires to be a world city.”

But the pri­mary reason for the con­sid­er­able opti­mism — the city’s robust oil industry, which Rupnik calls Azerbaijan’s “major eco­nomic driver” — has also been the source of sub­stan­tial polit­ical and envi­ron­mental problems.

Think of Baku as an oil swamp,” Rupnik explains. “You find oil wher­ever you go. It’s a fact of life.”