Modernism in Turkish architecture

METU Campus- Photo by me

I strolled through the Hansaviertel last week, spending an inordinate amount of time just staring at the Oscar Niemeyer Haus in disbelief. It reminded me how enthralling the aesthetic of modernism is in architecture. I’ve wanted to create a coffee table book about this subject for a long time, but focused specifically on Turkey, often overlooked since it’s outside the scope of the West.

And so, whether such a project may or may not come to fruition, I’m going to bask in modernist Turkish architecture and its history. I also want to note that I’m not an expert in the subject but an avid admirer who is slowly increasing her knowledge through independent research. For a more scholarly approach to the subject, the books Mid-Century Modernism in Turkey by Meltem Ö Gürel and Architecture in Translation by Esra Akcan are very good resources of a higher caliber.

Let’s begin in the Tanzimat (1839-1876), an era of reforms aiming to modernize the Ottoman Empire, which drastically changed the architectural landscape of Istanbul. With a new openness toward the West, several European and non-Muslim architects such as the Fossati Brothers, Anton Ignace Melling, Raimondo D’Aronco, the Balyan family and Alexander Vallaury were appointed to construct a vast amount of works adherent to the Neo-Classical style of the time. A few of the many examples include the Çırağan and Beylerbeyi Palaces, the Russian and Egyptian embassies, the Pera Palace, the Istanbul Archeology Museum and the Imperial College of Medicine. The Pera neighborhood (now Beyoğlu) and the Grand Rue de Pera (now İstiklal Caddesi) became the epicenter of European aristocratic settlement with the construction of Neo-Gothic, Neo-Ottoman and Art Nouveau residences and embassies.

Beylerbeyi Palace-Salt Research

With such modernization already underway, it can be said that the formation of a republic was the next natural step, with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk taking over in 1923 under a new set of reforms meant to turn Turkey into a secular and modern nation-state. As such, a great many experts from the German-speaking ally countries were invited to help build the new republic’s cities, including the Austrian architect Clemens Holzmeister who designed several of the governmental buildings in the new capital city of Ankara.

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Atatürk did a very shrewd thing by inviting exiles (including city planners and architects) to take refuge in Turkey. In her book, Esra Akcan writes, “most of these architects took part in educating the new generation of Turkish architects and collaborated with local professionals—a dialogue that had an impact that lasted beyond the period of their sojourns in Turkey. Translations in the opposite directions from Turkey to Germany also existed…While in Turkey, German architects and planners outlined the future of postwar Germany and came to influential posts afterward; some returned to Europe and advocated new positions in urban design based on their migrant experience.”

*There’s an excellent documentary about this very subject called Haymatloz, which I recommend highly.

One of the most well-known of these architects-in-exile was Bruno Taut, who spent the last two years of his life in Istanbul as a university lecturer and head of the Ministry of Education’s construction department. His house, a kind of dark-red pagoda with an octagonal tower room on high stilts, continues to sit on the hillside by the Bosphorus Bridge overlooking the strait. 

In light of all the Western influence that altered the country so drastically, movements for a national architecture began to burgeon, the first of which was led by Vedat Tek and Mimar Kemaleddin Bey in the 1920s. Their ideal of a local Turkish architectural aesthetic was created through the confluence of Ottoman and Neoclassical styles with structures such as Istanbul’s Main Post Office in Sirkeci and the Ethnography Museum in Ankara.

In the era after the 1930s, Bauhaus also began to influence Turkish architecture and one of my personal favorites from this time is the often-overlooked Atatürk Marine Mansion in Florya (Atatürk’s summer house) designed by Seyfi Erkan in 1935, a Turkish architect who worked with Hanz Poelzig. When we visited the new Bauhaus Museum in Dessau last year, I was especially pleased to see that it was included in the book Bauhaus: A Photographic Journey around the World, which was on sale in the shop.

In relation to the summer residence Akcan writes the following in her book, “the Florya house was meant to deliver the message to the masses that the new regime’s rulers would do things differently than the Ottoman sultans. This was a house where the nation and the leader came together in their recreational time. It was a symbol to declare that the Ottoman aristocracy, and by extension the hierarchy between the ruler and the ruled, was over. Now the president could have his vacation a few feet in front of the masses: he cold swim and row with them, wave his hand at them from the terrace of his shiplike building.”

Atatürk Marine Mansion in ‘Bauhaus: A Photographic Journey around the World’

By the 1940s, the second national architectural movement in Turkey proliferated with the renowned Turkish architect Sedad Hakkı Eldem at its helm, focused further on the domestic architectural style. In an article, Eldem wrote, “in today’s architecture, there is a movement from internationalism to nationalism. Each country has its own architectural style and it is a very essential condition that its building style is native.” With the traditional Turkish house as the main reference, but re-interpreted through a modern perspective, Eldem constructed some of his most notable works including the Taşlılk Şark Coffeehouse in Maçka, the Riza Derviş Residence on Büyükada and the Social Insurance Institution Complex in Zeyrek.

*For more about Eldem, I recommend browsing through the online SALT exhibits: Understanding Sedad Hakkı Eldem I: 1930-1950 and Understanding Sedad Hakkı Eldem II: 1950-1980.

From the 1950s and beyond, the new wave of Turkish architects continued to flourish and it is during this particular period that some of my personal favorites were created. Particularly close to my heart is the campus of the Middle East Technical University, the most significant work of Brutalist architecture in Turkey. I can definitely say that my love for modernist Turkish architecture began when I had the profound joy of spending an evening chatting with Altuğ Çinici who designed the campus with her late husband Behruz Çinici.

For this era, Meltem Ö Gürel writes, “Turkish architects were deeply interested in belonging to the international community, and their practices were influenced by the re-interpreted version of inter-war modernism that spread from the US following the relocation there of “masters” such as Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. They were also deeply influenced by concrete designs of their European and Brazilian counterparts, Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer in particular, since concrete structures were more feasible in Turkey than American steel construction.”

In light of this, let’s take a look at some of my favorite works of modernist Turkish architecture from the 1950s until the 1970s.

*Photos courtesy of  SALT Research, whose open-access-archive is a celestial gift that keeps on giving.

*To admire some of Turkey’s most important contemporary works of architecture, I recommend watching the documentary series Eşik on TRT (albeit only in Turkish).

Atatürk Library (Sedad Hakkı Eldem, 1974)

Salt Research

Istanbul Textile Traders’ Market (Doğan Tekeli, Sami Sisa, Metin Hepgüler, 1960-1967)

Salt Research, Courtesy of Doğan Tekeli
Salt Research, Courtesy of Doğan Tekeli
Salt Research, Courtesy of Doğan Tekeli

Social Insurance Institution Complex (Sedad Hakkı Eldem, 1962-1964)

Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality City Hall (Nevzat Erol, 1970)

Salt Research, Söylemezoğlu Family
Salt Research
Salt Research

Karatepe Aslantaş Açık Hava Müzesi (Franco Minissi, Turgut Cansever, 1961)

Courtesy of Arkitera
Courtesy of Arkitera

Atatürk Cultural Center (Hayati Tabanlıoğlu, 1969)

Salt Research

(Sadly demolished in 2018)

Salt Research, Tabanlıoğlu Family

Cinnah 19 Apartment (Nejat Ersin, 1954-1957)

Photo by me

Campus of the Middle East Technical University (Altuğ Çinici, Behruz Çinici, 1961-1980)

METU Faculty of Architecture-Salt Research, Çinici Family
METU Rectorate Building-Salt Research, Çinici Family
METU Indoor Sports Center-Salt Research, Çinici Family
METU Department of Physics-Salt Research, Çinici Family

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