Inspiring Istanbul

In a city bridging Europe and Asia, global ideas rise amid mosques and minarets

The restaurant 360 Istanbul reflects an increase in international design in Istanbul.
The restaurant 360 Istanbul reflects an increase in international design in Istanbul. (Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / November 11, 2007

The public restroom in Kadikoy Park, a small strip of green set between the ferry port where commuters crossing the Bosporus step onto Asian land and a market neighborhood with buildings that recall Ottoman times, seems to shrink from its surroundings, as though unsure of its place.

The bathroom, in fact, is intentionally submerged: From one side, except for a door, only a few feet of the circular structure - a translucent band of windows, a steel border, and a flat, grass-topped roof - rise above the ground.

It may seem odd in such a colossally cosmopolitan city as Istanbul, where architectural riches span centuries, to spend time considering the high art of a restroom designed in the mid-1990s. Indeed, many outsiders arriving amid the urban swath of wood, concrete, and steel spiked with centuries-old minarets and quickly-climbing skyscrapers marvel instead at the sum of it all. One fictional traveler to Istanbul, a character in "The Emigrants," a book by the late W.G. Sebald, noted in a diary entry soon after arrival: "No one . . . could conceive of such a city. So many different kinds of buildings, so many different greens."

But decade after decade, one century layering upon the last, the physical identity of this urban axis straddling two continents is constantly being reconsidered, if only bit by bit, piece by piece. So a visitor curious to understand contemporary ideas and influences in Istanbul, to know how the storied city is falling and rising today, should focus on individual elements.

Gokhan Avcioglu, architect: "How can you deal with 5,000 years of history? I'm not afraid of it. I think I'm building a kind of history. I'm human, and I can add something."

When designing the restroom in the park, Avcioglu, whose firm has created offices, homes, stores, and more in Istanbul and other Turkish cities, wanted to celebrate the traditional role of bathhouses and fountains in Anatolia. He also wanted to create a place with clean, safe facilities that took up less space - something, in other words, that has historical identity, looks nice, and does its job.

Yet the firm, Global Architectural Development, also has an office in New York and incorporates influences from around the world as well as around the Mediterranean: The restroom's above-ground muted glass and crisp stainless steel borders give passersby quick notice that the subterranean design is working on many levels.

Should one feel the need to descend a ramp to enter the restroom, stall doors swing in natural light from the ring of translucent windows, which frame the top of the room. Beyond the windows lurk shadowed tufts from the grassy rooftop. Even the most proximate pieces of Istanbul skyline, though, are obscured by the glass's constant fog.

For a clearer view of the city's evolving mix of old and new, cross the strait to the eastern edge of Europe, climb the narrow streets of Beyoglu, a district on land once home to Genoese merchants and defined now by narrow streets crowded with buildings, some standing straight and proud, others wheezing badly. On Beyoglu's main pedestrian thoroughfare, one of many centers of the city, enter a building with a fancy facade a century old and ride an elevator to stairs that lead up a final flight, past a doorman, and into a glass-walled, rooftop restaurant called 360 Istanbul.

On most evenings, the place could be South Beach in the sky. Funked-up beautiful people linger with an inward air indicating that, perhaps, they do not notice the domes, minarets, and rooftops all about them. Yet beyond the windows and the Golden Horn, the historic harbor to the south, the Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, and the Suleymaniye Mosque loom like a row of architects' models in golden lamplight.

Megacities elsewhere - Shanghai comes to mind - may be morphing toward modernity at a faster rate, and more completely, but most of their architectural heritage is razed to make way for today.

The Suleymaniye Mosque, though, was created in the 16th century by Sinan, chief architect for one of the Ottoman Empire's leading rulers. The arches and angles of Sinan's works - mosques, schools, tombs, bathhouses, palaces, and more - were built upon political might and Islamic faith. Sinan's relics represent structures from only one period of Ottoman rule that still stand amid masses of modernist construction that came after the formation of the Turkish Republic in 1923.

Form follows function, and in the decades after Ataturk's revolution buildings rising with Turkish takes on modernism told tales, in part, of a sweeping cultural shift: from deep-rooted religion toward nearly a century of secularism.

Sibel Bozdogan, architectural historian: "Since the 1980s, there isn't that kind of search for a modern Turkish style. There is either a very kitschy Ottoman, or a very international style."

There were proposals in the 1990s to build a new mosque near Taksim Square, but none was built. Istanbul, in any case, earns raves today not for minarets, but for bold angles climbing higher and sleek interiors nestled beneath. The British design journal Wallpaper this year called Istanbul "The World's Best City." (Other happenings among the 10 million Istanbullus - whether innovative rhythms, gourmet takes on succulent street fare, or all-night boozing by the Bosporus - no doubt pad the voting.)

Yet to live within Istanbul's evolving architectural tableau is not always a party. Consider the words of Orhan Pamuk, the Istanbul native who won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. Pamuk's novels traverse Turkey's political and literal landscape. In "Istanbul: Memories and the City," the author plumbs the personal impact of past architectural eras on his 1950s childhood. He seems often to have been trapped by the city itself.

Early on, he writes about the "tarnish of history":

"Even the greatest Ottoman architecture has a humble simplicity that suggests an end-of-empire gloom, a pained submission to the diminishing European gaze and to an ancient poverty that must be endured like an incurable disease. . . . To see the haze that sits over [Istanbul] and breathe in the melancholy its inhabitants have embraced as their common fate, you need only to fly in from a rich western city and head straight to the crowded streets; if it's winter, every man on the Galata Bridge will be wearing the same pale, drab, shadowy clothes."

Or . . .

Fly in from a rich Western city and turn not toward the historic center, but head straight for Levent, a glittering district even on rainy days that sprawls northward toward the Black Sea. There, thousands live unburdened by poverty, ancient or modern.

Stop for a security search at the entrance to the Kanyon shopping complex, then wander into the open-air interior that is also submerged, its walls carving wave-like, Frank Gehry curves, but more subdued. It is safer, perhaps, not to shake too much the familiar surrounds of international luxury: Starbucks, The Apple Store, Le Pain Quotidien, Motorola. (There is a similar feel across the strait, in Asia, where on Baghdad Street chic boutiques and open-air cafes trail toward Mesopotamia.)

On one misty morning in Levent, a small bit of the past, a concrete building standing for decades across the street from the Kanyon site, crumbled quickly beneath the jack-hammer claw of a bulldozer. As Kanyon shoppers idled, the dozer next door climbed a pile of rubble and punched chunks of concrete and rebar that dangled from the old building like exposed bones of a long-decayed corpse. Traffic on the boulevard rushed past.

Not far away, a skyscraper called Sapphire Istanbul rises with more pomp and publicity than most. People arriving in Istanbul on Turkish Airways need only open the pages of the in-flight magazine to spot the Sapphire design in a two-page, color ad. It reads, in English: "A brand new life is beginning . . . ."

Sapphire boasts of becoming the tallest skyscraper in Levent, and the most green, with "vertical gardens that preserve the relationship between humans and nature." Apartments with a view of the Bosporus, to be completed in 2009, sell at an international scale: from $1.65 million to more than $6 million.

Melkan Gursel Tabanlioglu, architect: "The new culture is an international culture. You can't say you are just Turkish, because people have an international brain."

The Tabanlioglu firm, which did Kanyon and Sapphire, designs for Cairo and Oslo, too. Han Tumertekin, another Istanbul architect, creates in Amsterdam and Tokyo. Ken Yeang, a native of Malaysia, and Zaha Hadid, an Iraqi who relocated to London, win commissions in Istanbul. And Gehry, the US architect who has shifted skylines everywhere from Bilbao to Wayzata, Minn., is said to have his sights on a site overlooking the Golden Horn.

In the central neighborhood of Karakoy, behind a row of shops where locals and tourists gather to smoke water pipes, and just against the wider waters of the Bosporus, the Tabanlioglu firm designed conversions to an old warehouse that became, in 2004, Istanbul Modern, an art museum.

The waterfront still teems with working life, whether heavily-loaded passenger ferries shuttling toward Asia, cargo ships steaming from the Black Sea toward the Mediterranean, or trawlers tethered to the dock just outside the museum's second-floor windows.

The exterior of the museum retains many of the warehouse's traditional high-walled, broad-lined features. But stand inside and look through a window, with a piece of abstract steel sculpture by Osman Dinc in the foreground, for example, and creative forces converge.

Contemporary creations continue in structural details, such as the steel chains and broken safety glass of "Stairway to Hell" by Monica Bonvicini, which connects the two floors, and in the exhaustive collection of Turkish art that adorns walls and pedestals. Ideas accompany exhibits, and some statements, such as this on a wall, push temporal boundaries:

"History has made the city a focal point for fierce, endless struggles between the obscene impalpable forces of abstraction and the mechanics of the flesh."

For more concrete considerations, hop in a taxi and trace the Bosporus north several miles, past the low-slung stadium home of the Besiktas soccer club (BJK to its fans), and stop in the neighborhood of Ortakoy.

There, another of Avcioglu's designs sets a two-story, glass-walled building within the exposed brick walls of the former palace of a sultan's wife.

The 200-year-old brick building had fallen into disrepair, like so much that Pamuk mourns, until developers came calling for Avcioglu. The Marmara Esma Sultan, as it is now known, is rented for conferences, weddings, and more.

On the evening I asked a security guard to let me in, a cold rain spat. A steady hum of traffic descended from the bridge overhead. We entered a door and climbed stairs to the second floor of the glass box Avcioglu had designed.

Suspension rods connect glass and brick, and it seemed from many angles as though the glass walls were floating. Wind on the terrace outside bent potted plants. Inside, caterers set tables and a man tested an overhead projector for a PowerPoint presentation.

I exited the palace and walked around a wall, behind which rose two concrete minarets of Ortakoy's main mosque. The mosque was built in the 1850s, in an ornate, "neo-Baroque" style, with the common high dome.

Wide marble stairs led to a door that opened into a foyer, where a man I had followed set his shoes in one of dozens of cubbyholes. I did the same, and then stepped into the main room of worship, beneath the dome.

The ritual bowing in prayer here was as it has been since the early centuries of Ottoman rule. On that evening in 2007, the mosque need not have been so vast: Only three men prayed.

Tom Haines can be reached at

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