Azeris Building Center to Honor Late Leader

BAKU, Azerbaijan -- Azerbaijan's ruling elite has grown rich from oil, and now it is to acquire the ultimate status symbol: a monument to the president's father designed by one of the world's most sought-after architects.

The Azeri government has commissioned Zaha Hadid, an Iraqi-born Briton best known for designing a cutting-edge plant for carmaker BMW in Leipzig, to build a cultural center in honor of Heidar Aliyev, the man who founded the ruling dynasty.

The undulating glass and aluminum structure will rise up alongside oil-blackened Soviet-era factories in the capital of a country that just a few years ago was in economic chaos and reeling from a territorial war with Armenia.

It will also deepen the posthumous cult of personality around the former KGB officer who ran Azerbaijan for three decades until his death in 2003. His son Ilham Aliyev, a reformed playboy, took over the presidency.

"This center will be an example of respect for the legacy of Heidar Aliyev and become a symbol of Azerbaijan's modern capital," Ilham Aliyev said at a ground-breaking ceremony.

The Baku cultural center will be the most distinctive building to go up in the Caspian Sea city in a generation.

Slated for completion by the end of 2009, it will house a concert hall, a library, a museum and underground parking, the developers said.

Although they refuse to reveal how much it will cost, the project, to be paid for by the government, is likely to run to tens of millions of dollars.

It will be a major outlay for a country where, according to the World Bank, the average monthly income is about $250 and 29 percent of the population live in poverty.

Hadid is hailed as one of the world's most important contemporary architects. In 2004, she became the first woman to receive the Pritzker Prize, the architecture world's top award.