John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Despite broken bridges and submerged apartments, the Neft Dashlari oil platform remains inhabited to this day.
Sail out into the western Caspian Sea and you'll soon encounter an incredible sight: spires of steel rising from the waves, connected with miles of decrepit pipes and wooden bridges. This is Neft Dashlari, an inhabited, Soviet-era structure that's said to be the "largest and oldest offshore oil city in the world." It remains a productive source of petroleum to this day, as well as a token of interest to esoteric-architecture fans or parents wanting to punish bad children with the worst theme-park vacation ever.
The crusty mega-platform, whose name translates to Oil Rocks or Oily Rock, stands roughly 40 miles east of Baku, Azerbaijan, on pillars mounted on the carcasses of sunken ships (including history's first oil tanker, the Swedish-built Zoraster). The Soviets built it in 1949 after engineers struck black gold thousands of feet beneath the Caspian's floor (Joseph Stalin came to rely heavily on the Caspian's energy resources during during World War II).
But whereas Neft Dashlari was meant to hold a population of 5,000, with attractions including a cinema, soccer field, lemonade factory, and a tree-dotted park, today it harbors less than half that number and constantly fights against natural forces that want to drag it down into the dark waters.
Der Spiegel has a fair rundown of how this jewel of Soviet energy exploration came to its current state:
The collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in the decline of this floating city as new oilfields were discovered elsewhere and the price of oil began to fluctuate. The workforce has halved to 2,500, and most of the rigs are now out of use or can't be reached because the bridges leading to them have collapsed. Of the 300 kilometers of roads, only 45 kilometers remain usable, and even they have fallen into disrepair. During a flood a few years ago, many apartments were submerged up to the second story.
A worker on Neft Dashlari still earns some $130 a month, twice as much as someone employed in the same job on the mainland. But the plant hasn't been operating efficiently for years. Submerged steel constructions pose a threat to shipping, oil leaks abound and equipment is falling apart.
Why's this creaky antique still exist? Simply because taking it apart would be more pricey than allowing it continue operations in its diminished state. And the government still considers it to be the "proud, closely-guarded secret it was in Soviet times," notes Der Spiegel. It is reportedly hard for foreigners to gain access, and take this what you will, Google Maps doesn't zoom in on Neft Dashlari.
This trailer for the 2009 documentary La Cité du Pétrole gives a glimpse of what it's like to visit the artificial, oil-splattered island. (So do these great photos.) It's incredible to think the bridge structure once held a battalion of Soviet trucks above the waves; regarding its crazy-quilt design, one of its builders explained she lived under the dictum of "every day, build one new span of a bridge."
Top image: Bruno Girin / Flickr