As the traffic-induced crescendo of another Istanbul weekday evening reaches its climax, the residence of Altuğ Çinici, located in a gated community in Ulus, is exceedingly calm. The balcony view of the Bosphorus Bridge, clad in its cloak of artificial red light, is the only reminder of one’s whereabouts. The 83-year-old architect sits at a large glass table in her dining room and pages through a photo album. Above her is a glass chandelier attached to an ornate wooden ceiling rose saved from a fallen Istanbul mansion, which she bought from an antique dealer in Ortaköy.
Çinici is among Turkey’s most respected female architects. In 1963, she and her husband Behruz founded Çinici Architects in Ankara, and went on to represent one of the country’s prominent wife and husband architect duos. Their most renowned project continues to be the campus of Ankara’s Middle East Technical University (METU), where the Department of Architecture building they designed was the first architectural work in Turkey to adopt the principles of the worldwide brutalist movement of the 1960s. ‘We went to Ankara for three years to do the METU buildings and ended up staying for 25 years,’ says Çinici. Their other works in the capital include the public relations building of the Grand National Assembly complex and an Iranian primary school. ‘Ankara is a city that we’ll always love. We lived the most exhilarating days of our career there and our children were born there.’ They also participated in the Venice Biennale’s second ever architecture exhibition in 1981.
Speaking with sincere loquaciousness, Çinici recalls growing up at a time when women weren’t encouraged to study. ‘When I went to university, from 100 students, around 10 of them were women,’ she says. ‘Our ateliers had a lot of windows, and the male students would peer in to see the new girls.’
Çinici’s fascination with architecture began in her childhood with the magazines her brother brought home that had photographs of historic monuments, and with the walks she insisted on taking through the Fatih Mosque while visiting relatives in Istanbul simply because she loved its courtyard. It was also Hollywood starlet Esther Williams who inspired Çinici to become an architect. ‘We were quite interested in films as a family and every Sunday we would go to the cinema with my father,’ she says. ‘I remember Williams’ films and especially the grand villas with sliding doors and pools. I think my deep wonderment about how those houses were made and who made them led me to become an architect.’
Much like METU, the complex where Çinici lives – which the couple also designed almost 35 years ago – is another example of structural and aesthetic originality. Past a gate, 40 apartments are housed in five identical structures, made of concrete and weathered wood, overlooking a garden dotted with semicircular concrete and brick seating booths. Pillars with globe-shaped glass lamps seem to sprout from the manicured hedges and flower bushes. Inside each structure, the most striking feature is the concrete spherical stairway that winds perpetually up towards a deep-set hexagonal relief ceiling.
Rising from her seat, Çinici walks up the stairs leading to the second floor, where a wooden desk and glass shelves are covered almost entirely with awards that the couple received over the years. From the lime green antique tile stove she brought with her from Ankara to the dark turquoise porcelain Chinese guardian lions she acquired during her travels, Çinici’s home strikes a balance between contemporary design and antique touches of décor. ‘I like simplicity but also objects that divulge their agedness,’ she says. ‘I’m not much of a minimalist – I want my books and objects to be on display.’
On the wall of Çinici’s bedroom is a small painting that was given to her by Clemens Holzmeister, an Austrian architect who designed many government buildings after the establishment of the Turkish republic, most notably the Grand National Assembly complex. Photographs of Çinici’s children and grandchildren are ubiquitous in the bedroom as in almost every room of the apartment. ‘Having grandchildren – that’s the world’s sweetest thing.’
Of course, before the tranquility that came with retirement, Çinici’s life was quite different, especially during the years she lived in Ankara with her husband during the height of their career. ‘Back then, I would send the kids off to school and then go down to the office. By the time it was lunch, I would eat very quickly because I would also run errands,’ she says. ‘There was this one time while I was pregnant that I was busy doing a sketch, and Behruz suddenly turned to me and said, “Altuğ, it’s two in the morning. Don’t you think it’s time for you to go upstairs?” But that’s how it was, because when you love your work you become immersed.’
Nowadays, Çinici spends her mornings reading the newspaper and doing crossword puzzles in her home study overlooking the Bosphorus. Even though her son, who now leads the family’s architecture practice, still seeks her guidance on projects, she sees herself as a retired partner. In the summer, Çinici spends all her time on the large balcony facing the kind of pool she once saw in the Hollywood films of her childhood, except now she has memories of designing it herself alongside her husband and partner in all her architectural endeavours. ‘Behruz was an architect with a very strong imagination,’ says Çinici. ‘I was more of a realist, and sometimes he would say, “Altuğ, I’m flying away and you are pulling me back down.” That is how we created balance.’
Brownbook, January-February, 2018