One of the strangest cities and offshore metropolis’s in the world sits just off the coast of Azerbaijan near the city of Baku, abandoned and dilapidated. ‘Oily Rocks’ began with a single path out over the water and grew into a system of paths and platforms built on the back of ships sunken to serve as the city’s foundation. Imagine: 2,000 oil rigs, 300 kilometres of bridges, rusty old Soviet trucks rolling back and forth, nine-storey building blocks and thousands of oil workers … sixty years on, two-thirds of the infrastructure has been regained by the sea. It was all created to serve the oil industry, and before long, it contained housing, schools, libraries and shops for the workers and their families. Now, only part of it remains as many of the paths have disappeared into the surf. Whats even more interesting is that this dystopian place scene has a varied history with Soviet initiated development in the late 1940′s. A vast, sprawling web of oil platforms in the middle of the Caspian Sea, commissioned by Stalin. A kind of Oil Atlantis, only real.
La Cité du Pétrole is a documentary recently made about the project and its inhabitants – quite beautiful, architectural and reminds me of scenes from reading The Giver.
Oi Rocks is functional urbanism and disorienting. This project could almost be described as a failed utopia – a metropolis of pure purpose for resource extraction. Yet even though the industrial utilitarianism of the projects goals manifested – so does human occupation. Supplied with houses and lifestyles people have to create lives in this perverous landscape. This dualism is most interesting.
The facility is poorly maintained, with miles of roads now submerged beneath the sea. Around some workers’ dormitories, the waterline now stands at the second-floor windows. Although a full one-third of the Oil Rocks complex’s 600 wells are inoperative or inaccessible, operations have continued without a significant increase in investment. The site, despite its imperfections, still produces over half of the total crude oil output of Azerbaijan. The government has striven to attract foreign investment into Oil Rocks, resulting in several new additions being grafted onto the existing structure.
Today I recieved Fuel by John Knechtel’s Alphabet City, and reading through it there is a proposal by architect Maya Przybylski called “Occupying the Caspian Sea: A One Hundred Year Plan.” The project addresses the derelict – or soon to be derelict – infrastructures of the Caspian Sea. She approaches the project “through the filter of oil operations: concession systems, contract blocks, pipelines, tanker ports and routes, national boundaries, bathymetric and climatic conditions, and the oil fields themselves.”
The chapter in the book does not reference Oil Rocks, but this stilted metropolisis similar “When the oil companies begin to wind down their operations, the key to the proposed renewal of the sea will be the reexploitation of the relics they leave behind.” Does architecture have a role in this crumbling palace of symbolic iconic-ism?
Besides, in my opinion, is a banal conversation of subjecting these types of offshore infrastructures into transformed into resorts of furthered capitalist expansion, what might Oil Rocks become? Is it an historic preservation project or is a fling in time?
Here is a link to an article done by NBR, a non profit organization giving policy related research. Quite in-depth if interested further. It even appears on a stamp.
[A Soviet Stamp commemorating Oily Rocks]
[Roads and Pipelines integrated into each other]
Here is an excerpt from a man who worked, lived and reflects on his time up to present day. I apologize – I found this a long time ago and never tracked down the source.
THE EARLY DAYS
It was the stuff of legends, that night of November 7, 1949. Out there on the trestles hovering over the depths of the sea, nobody could sleep that night. If their calculations were correct, it would be the historical night everyone had been waiting for, the culmination of years of work. There, off the coast of Azerbaijan, would mark the first time oil had been recovered from depths in the sea. And just as predicted, it happened. Oil was struck at a depth of 1,100 meters beneath the Caspian. And when that black, thick fountain started to pour forth, no one could contain their excitement and exuberance. Everyone rushed to feel it, to put their hands in it and smear it all over their arms and faces, hugging each other and shouting for joy. Their hard work had finally proved successful. Members of that first expeditionary team often used to recall that night that took place nearly 50 years ago. The group was led by Aghagurban Aliyev, a geologist and Yusif Safarov, Deputy Head of the Exploration Drilling Trust, who was responsible for determining exactly where they should drill. Mikhail Kavyorochkin headed up the Exploration Drilling Trust. My own professional career in the oil industry began a few years later and was directly influenced by these pioneers who had been the first to challenge nature beneath the surface of the sea. The following morning after oil was struck, the Soviet Minister of Oil, Nikolai Babakov, himself, headed to Baku. A former Baku oilman, he held the first technical meeting right there next to the first well. Soon a base for the development of Oily Rocks was set up. A managing office “Glavmorneft” was established in Moscow headed by Sabit Orujov, a Deputy Minister, and another Azerbaijani who was especially talented as an organizer. A state research-production institute “Gipromorneftegaz” began scientific supervision of the project.
When I first went out to Oily Rocks as a student of Oil Academy to fulfill my practicum for graduation in the 1960s, I was amazed at the scope of construction that already existed. Trestles were built up in the sea and stretched for tens of kilometers from the central hub. The entire system depended on those trestles which provided access to hundreds of wells, oil collecting stations, pipelines and moors for tankers to dock at when they loaded on the oil. Two-storied dormitories had been built. There was a clinic and cinema. What amazed me most was the enthusiasm of the people working there. Despite the harsh weather conditions, their spirits always seemed high.
Many changes have occurred at Oily Rocks since I first arrived 32 years ago. Back then, each of the 158 wells had its own mini-electric station. But then we managed to set up a turbine steam electric generator-another first in the world. It has served us 25 years. For eleven years (1980-1991), I headed the Oil and Gas Production Institute there. Despite the difficult work dealing with unpredictable gushers and problems when trestles could not withstand the severe squalls off the Caspian, the oilmen worked with enthusiasm to overcome difficulties. In 1986, a gas turbine station was built to operate off gas extracted from the wells. This station now supplies Oily Rocks as well as the deep-water platforms on the Gunashli field. We had quite a struggle to get this station set up as Moscow insisted on transmitting energy through electric lines from the shore. But in the end, we succeeded in building an autonomous station which has been working successfully for the past 11 years. There has not been any interruption of electricity out there on Oily Rocks, which is more than can be said for onshore fields on the Absheron Peninsula.
NO MORE TANKERS
It was Sabit Orujov who made enormous contributions to the development of offshore oil production and construction of trestles. From the very first days as the Soviet Minister of Gas, he paid considerable attention to the offshore oil production in Azerbaijan and managed to acquire the newest equipment for us. I’ll never forget flying out to Oily Rocks once in a helicopter with him and Qurban Abbasov. Orujov told Abbasov, “You need to lay pipelines as soon as possible and get rid of the tankers.” Reliance on ships had always been one of the weakest production points about Oily Rocks. During storms which can occur frequently on the sea and which can build up to the intensity of hurricanes, tankers had to stop work and so production accumulated. There was always danger that this would cause some of the wells to stop functioning. ”But we don’t have any pipes,” Abbasov complained. Orujov immediately placed the order allocating pipes for the project. The pipeline was laid between Oily Rocks and Dubandi between 1979-83. So, thanks to Orujov, we got rid of tankers. In no place else is the need to care for oil workers greater than at Oily Rocks. About 3,000 men and women live and work there on one-to two-week shifts. Families don’t live out there, nor are children allowed, but great care must be given to maintain the health of these workers, both physically and mentally. I was involved with organizing much of the construction there. One of the dormitories is nine stories tall; four others are five stories. Water is shipped in for consumption. Food has to be brought in although a bakery operates on the premises so flour, not bread, is shipped or flown in.
RISING OF THE CASPIAN SEA
One of the most serious problems currently facing Oily Rocks has to do with the continuous rising of the sea. Because there is risk that the electric station will become submerged, recently a decision was made to build a third station at a new location higher than the previous installation. This is a critical decision because the oil produced from Oily Rocks and Gunashli comprises about 65 percent of Azerbaijan’s total output. Over the years, more than 158 million tons of oil have been extracted from Oily Rocks alone. Because of my experience at Oily Rocks, I later became one of the pioneers of Gunashli and when “28 May Field” was established in 1994, I was assigned to head it. In 1995, I became the Head Engineer of the Production Union, “Kaspmorneftegaz.” In 1995, I was appointed first vice-president of SOCAR. Today, much of my time and energy is spent on issues related to the joint development of the Caspian fields with international oil companies. But Oily Rocks is never far from my mind. Oily Rocks is both legend and reality for me-a combination of passion and romanticism, heroism and routine which all blend together in my heart like a sweet melody.