A Room in a City With A Fast-Changing View

Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, welcomed back one of its most famous families last week as a descendant of the Nobel brothers returned to the city where his ancestors made huge fortunes during the Caspian Sea oil boom more than a century ago. The event was the official reopening of the newly renovated Villa Petrolea, the ornate residence built by the Nobels in the 19th century, where a new museum celebrates the oil barons' glory years.

The Villa Petrolea has reopened in the midst of a new oil boom in Azerbaijan, and one Azeri official insisted that the museum was another sign of Baku's growing wealth and self-confidence. Fortunes are again being made in the rush for black gold, and oil money is once more transforming the capital. Huge cranes crowd the Baku skyline as hundreds of new tower-blocks surge upward, accompanied by the relentless drone of electric drills.

But the new constructions, with their garish or simply bland concrete-and-glass facades, have little of the architectural elegance of the baroque-style mansions built by tycoons like the Nobels. Some of them may not last as long, either. Last year, a scandal erupted when a partly finished block collapsed in downtown Baku, killing about 20 people. After a series of similar disasters, concerns were raised about low safety standards, shoddy building work, and corrupt officials taking backhanders from construction companies.

Like Baku, the Georgian and Armenian capitals, Tbilisi and Yerevan, are also going through turbulent periods of architectural change. In Yerevan, part of the old city was gouged out and hundreds of people were evicted to make way for the new Northern Avenue development, which slices through the heart of the capital. With its imperious, brutalist design, Northern Avenue is a symbol of the potency of Armenia's elite.

In Tbilisi, too, expensive apartment buildings, business centers and luxury hotels are being built as the Georgian authorities attempt to transform their capital into a modern, European-style metropolis. At the same time, the chaotic, picturesque old town, wracked by earthquakes and post-Soviet decay, continues to crumble. Georgian officials may be trying, with their limited resources, to preserve some buildings which encapsulate the mysterious charm of old Tbilisi. But others are already too far gone to save and seem destined for collapse or demolition.

From my window in one of Tbilisi's oldest neighborhoods, I can see a historic sulphur bathhouse, neglected and falling into ruin. Opposite that are the rapidly-rising foundations of an apartment complex for the nouveau riche. In five years, the view could be very different indeed.

Matthew Collin is a journalist in Tbilisi.