Everyday life on the offshore metropolis

Film review (2009) Oil Rocks – City above the sea, Marc Wolfensberger, 2009 for the AFFR – Architecture Film Festival Rotterdam

A panoramic view is revealing a network of platforms floating above the sea amidst the Caspian. A Rolls Royce, as if from another world, is driving along these dark wooden platforms, with stairs leading to other levels, wooden sheds and cables running along the accesses. The owner of the fancy car needs to inspect his property, meets a beautiful girl and an unexpected guest that is waiting for him behind the door. Soon after they are all attacked by helicopters with giant spinning saws, forcing them to a spectacular chase, along the misty platforms and bridges. In this typically exaggerated scene of ‘James Bond – The World is not Enough’ (1999) we get a rare chance to glimpse a landscape that is normally restricted from the common eye: the Oil Rocks, the world’s first offshore oil platform some 100km in the open of Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital.

For less dramatic images but real life incredible stories, “Oil Rocks – City above the sea” (Marc Wolfensberger, 2009) provides a much better account of the history of the site and the people who work there. Oil Rocks or ‘Neft Daşları’ was constructed on Stalin’s order, in the aftermath of the WW2 when the USSR was desperate for oil. The large black rocks sticking out of the water surface in the Caspian indicated the position, where the 300km of roads and 2000 oil wells would be gradually expanded. The rocks disappeared from the surface of the sea but the name remained and the city itself survived the fall of the Soviet Union.
The documentary is focused on the accounts of people who work in the Oil Rocks. We hear the stories of workers, a former site manager, the baker, the chef, the weather station operator, an engineer, a cleaning lady, even an artist who permanently works there. Their stories talk about their everyday life in the Petrol City, the six hour boat trip from the mainland and the hard work necessary to compensate for the lack of modern equipment. We see them at work, eating, showering, watering their flowers and talking about their simple day-to-day practices. A worker remembers his first day at work, when the landscape looked as part of a dream, simply unreal to his eyes.
An old lady, working in the same post for over 60 years, shares her memories of the site’s construction. “We would build ‘an arch a day’, that was our motto!” she says, explaining the dangerous working conditions. When she first moved there in her early 20’s, the workers were all jailbirds with strange tattoos, “now it’s paradise here!”.
Indeed, eight years after the official opening of the site, a huge storm in 1957 caused the death of many people, the destruction of a significant amount of roads and bridges and a big oil spill. A former site manager, working there at the time recalls how they had to crawl along the pipes amidst the storm to close the oil pipes and stop the spills. Another worker adds: “We live in the middle of a sea of blood”.
But not all was gloomy back then. A manager talks about the lasting effect of optimism after Khrushchev’s visit in 1960 and the open air Bolshoi performances in the squares of the city. A city with 9 story high apartment buildings, sports and cultural facilities, fountains and parks, even a lemonade factory, which was home to 5000 thousand people. The city center was developed in the 1970’s with thousands of tons of soil being transported by boats from the mainland.

A lady, working as an engineer describes how she also asked for a bit of soil to be brought to her, so that she could grow some flowers and make her working space more attractive. After 20 years of working in the station, she is still happy there: “We have fresh air and it’s quiet. There isn’t any traffic like in the city and life is peaceful and without worries. Everything is taken care of.”
The passage to the free market economy was a shock for this Stalinist outpost. But after almost 20 years of pressure, 2005 marked a raise of oil prices and petrodollars started flowing in Azerbaijan, which allowed them to invest again in the Oil Rocks. For the site’s 60th anniversary, a number of renovation projects were planned. Apartments would get a toilet and bathroom in every room instead of shared ones per floor and some common facilities would be added such as a swimming pool and a playroom. “Workers should also feel that they get something in exchange for their hard work” explains the construction manager. His ambition is to continue making the Oil Rocks “the most beautiful oil site in the world”. It is part of the Azeri history and the history of the world’s oilmen in general and there is considerable energy put into its future. As the same manager explains: “We have the sea, the fresh air and the hotels already. We could make artificial beaches and attract tourists as well.” Either a touristic attraction or an abandoned ruin, the oil deposits will run out in 20 years, so the Azeri government will be forced to make up its mind quite soon, concerning the future of the Oil Rocks.