Baku, Sunday 26th February 2006
It’s half past eleven on a Sunday night and as I sit down to write I can still faintly discern the groan of the cement mixer motor fifteen floors below. There’s a plot of land on the corner of my street that is being transformed from urban wasteland to new building at a frankly alarming rate; or so far any way. Building sites are definitely the ‘must have’ accessory for any Baku businessman these days but the need to actually complete the building process appears to be debatable: colleagues are often pointing out part-finished tower blocks to me and commenting on how they seem to have languished untouched for months or even years. Perhaps the plethora of incomplete towers is testament to some grand tax fiddle and we expats just aren’t fully in on the joke. It wouldn’t be without precedent: there has for example been a variation going on in Cyprus for years. All the modern concrete buildings there have flat ‘roofs’ and concrete reinforcement rods sticking out of the top of them like rusty tufts of hair. The reason for this unsightly stubble? The owners of the buildings can claim that the buildings are unfinished and have a floor to be added before the roof finally gets constructed. Until construction has been thus ‘completed’ the government can not charge the usual taxes on the building. Jolly good wheeze eh? Reminds me of the old window tax in England.
If tax avoidance really is the name of the game then I would conjecture that the tax point in Baku is on cosmetic rendering rather than on roofs or windows. Many of the buildings I see here have a full roof on them and frequently have double-glazed windows fitted, often with the maker’s plastic film still stuck on the frames. The sight is made incongruous however by the fact that these windows are surrounded by bare concrete and brick work which is barely finished, often full of holes and in obvious need of some finishing layers of concrete and plaster to seal it. Double points go to the buildings where electricity has obviously been connected and you can see lights on through the windows (and the holes) at night. Surely the rooms can’t be sold or rented for use so soon…? One of Baku’s many little mysteries…
At this stage in the proceedings it is too early to tell what the nascent building on my corner is intended to become but if its growth continues with the current rapidity we should all find out pretty soon. It’s development is comparable to that of a child in that it has appeared very rapidly (after an apparently brief period of labour) and it requires regular nourishment at all hours of the day and night.
Three weeks ago there was nothing. Two weeks ago there was a hole about twenty metres deep with perfectly square, flattened sides and floor and a roller and a bulldozer seemingly abandoned at the bottom of it. Looking down as I walked past that night I was forced to conclude that the only way those machines could be recovered was by crane. Two nights later at about midnight the crane was there along with a low-loader and the roller was already out. How did the workmen who had used it make their escape I wonder…
Once the pristine hole had been emptied the real action started and last weekend came several tonnes of rough timber and concrete reinforcement rods, again in the middle of the night. Somehow the workmen have spent the last few days laying down a framework with the rods and creating an irrigation system with the timber – either they have invisible ladders or they are capable of levitation. Their moment of triumph was last night when I came home from town at four a.m. to find not just one but three concrete trucks formed up on the street pumping a huge tonnage of ready-mix into the timber channels. Thankfully I was too tired not to sleep, otherwise the sound of three mixer motors and three truck engines combined might have proven rather challenging. Goodness only knows what my neighbours nearer the ground floor made of it all.
Not being and architect or an engineer I’m unable to comment upon the merits and demerits of the construction process I am witnessing: it could be a superb piece of work or it could be a collapsing embarrassment waiting to happen. Regardless, it’s mildly fascinating to watch the birth of a new building literally from the ground up and see it all happening so fast. Builders in London would be shocked at the progress; in fact didn’t I read a headline a couple of days ago saying that the new Wembley stadium is behind schedule and won’t be ready in time for the FA Cup final?
A little over an hour has passed and the sound of the mixer motor downstairs is starting to resemble whale song: definitely time for bed I think!