Baku’s Kubinka district is not an accidental neighbor to Teze Bazar. The district got its name from a pre-revolutionary marketplace here, where merchants from the Northern Azerbaijani town of Quba sold their wares. In the Soviet days, Kubinka was a hub of criminal activities, widely known for the fact one could buy any rare items here. Every resident of Baku knew - if something was amiss at regular stores, you would have found it at Kubinka. Alcohol and tobacco, foreign currency and clothes - the variety of goods sold by illegal merchants was deemed as legendary and anecdotal.
We have asked young architects Udzhal Gorcha and Rahima Rustamli to take us for a walk along the district they’ve called home and tell us how it’s been changing and what has its life been like nowadays.
We get to know our cities in very different ways: through planned tours, spontaneous encounters, statistical analysis, urban studies or simply neighborhood rumors. All of those methods can be legitimate ways of understanding urban space and more importantly every neighborhood has its own distinctive characteristics that need to be approached differently. When it comes to Kubinka, looking back, I couldn’t have hoped for a better way of getting to know this district.
Even though at the time I was too young to understand it but a lot of my current urban sensitivities came from the fact that I spent my childhood in very specific neighborhoods of Baku, namely Sovetski and Kubinka. I still remember how I would lead a group of 6th-grader-rebels to run away from school and roam the narrow alleys of Kubinka with no specific purpose observing the everyday-life of the district.
Kubinka had a rhythm of its own. If you came early in the morning, you could see how fresh fruits and vegetables being brought in and how the lady making “pirojki” would prepare for a long day, or those annoying kids that would loudly fill the neighborhood schools in tho morning. Seasonal changes were always felt as well: the district looked and smelled differently in summer than it did in winter. You’d buy alcha and sunflower seeds in summer and tangerines and pirojki in winter. Tea? Year-long.
Kubinka is truly a place of hidden beauties. Onlookers have always taken a particular liking to it because of its hospitality, vibrancy and embracing human scale. Yet it is important to avoid blind romanticization since it hugely misrepresents reality leaving only the “pretty” things that fit the desired understanding. So let’s see if we can go through some things that comprise the Kubkina I remember.
Until recently Kubinka was a self-sufficient urban unit meaning that people lived, worked and spent their leisure time there without having to ever leave. So it makes sense to look at these main components that comprise the life of this district.
As a result of several decades of organic growth, Kubinka has developed a set of inhabitation patterns as well as distinctive architectural types. One of the things one encounters straight away is the abundance of stairs on the street level. This may look quite arbitrary but it comes from the fact that these organic settlements are in a constant state of change (or at least used to be until very recently) where everyone could add an additional floor to be leased and this necessitated an extra stair to accommodate the new tenants and ensure the privacy for the landlords.
Interestingly enough the whole district can be defined in terms of small investments made for extra income yet not investing too much due to the current uncertainty about the district’s future.
Courtyards are another product or a pleasant side effect of these organic or ad-hoc settlements. We can’t argue that these courtyards were “designed” to be social spaces but initially they definitely served as semi-private gathering spaces for the residents. Their current state unfortunately leaves some things to be desired.
If we look at the street facades we see all kinds of extrusions, voids, cables and all kinds of irregularities in general. For most of us, these irregularities are considered to be undesired imperfections but these imperfections often set the rhythm, texture and the scale of the street which is arguably absent from most of the new developments in Baku.
But the city is not only about buildings but it is primarily about people and how they utilize these spaces for their different needs. Every profession has its own spatial intelligence that has developed over the decades. The family selling fruits occupies the space in a specific way and it is different depending on the weather, the amount of products they receive that day or how many family members are able to contribute. The car washes have their own spot in the district that is well connected to the busy auto artery right outside the district from which they get their clients. The “pirojki” lady opens is located by the schools cause she knows that kids will be happy to see her before and after school. Eve though the diversity of occupations seems to be decreasing you can still find people doing all kinds of things: selling fruits and vegetables, street food, artisanal works, barbershops, car washes, bakeries, small neighborhood shops etc.
The last component is of course recreation. This is probably one area where Kubinka struggles the most. Leisure time was always segregated between men and women: the very few options like the historic teahouses, small sports centers or gaming areas were almost always exclusively for men. So the recreational areas for women and children tend to be more impromptu: children play football on the street while women socialize either in their own street, front porches or the semi-private courtyards.
All of this of course was bound to change. Regardless of how wholesome this community might have been in its heyday, just like Sovetski it was not immune from the forces of capital. As the city around was changing and eventually started infiltrating the district. We can clearly see how the borders of the district are the first to transform through high rises, chain stores and supermarkets.
Times have changed and regardless of how attached we are to that romantic image of Kubinka in our head we cannot stop the district from evolving. Kubinka is currently going through a period of gentrification: investments into a neighborhood tend to raise the land value and drive away the economically vulnerable segments of society. Whether that be because of new investments, demographic changes or simply the spread of credit cards that completely change the way people interact with each other.
All of this to say that it is important torethink what Kubinka of the 21st century could be like. How can we preserve the history and vernacular traditions that made this community unique while creating a new layer of economic and cultural value. As several largescale renewal projects are underway we hope that this provides an opportunity for growth and self-realization for newcomers as well as the local population. Through creation of new jobs, improving public infrastructure and supporting local practices there is an opportunity to breathe a new life into this unique district that charmed so many over the years.
Text author is Udzhal Gorchu, who grew up in Kubinka and Sovetski and has always been interested in the urban fabric of his city. He went on to study architecture in Spain and currently doing his postmaster in TU Delft (Netherlands).
Photos for the article provided by Rahima Rustamli, who is an architect, designer and a photographer currently working with Baku based studio Manarch.