As I stepped into the 47th floor garden room of a new luxury apartment in Istanbul, a cool breeze caught my hair and made the curtain in the sitting room behind me billow like a sail. Suddenly feeling uneasy, I grabbed hold of the sliding glass door. I was inside, correct? There wasn’t a wide-open window nearby I could fall out of? The sensation I had was that I had just walked onto the windy veranda of a country house or a boardwalk by the beach. The breeze ebbed and flowed, moving the trees and shrubs in the garden. The air felt fresh and clean and at least 5 degrees cooler than the crowded sidewalks below at street level.
The Istanbul Sapphire, which opened in March, is introducing Turkey (and Europe) to a new kind of “breathable,” green high-rise apartment building, with two skins of glass, one vented to the outside every three floors, circulating fresh air. Every apartment either overlooks an interior garden or has direct access to one. On the 62nd floor, there are two public terraces—one is an open-air restaurant—in addition to an indoor café, gift shop, and a room with a dizzying helicopter simulator ride over the city. The terraces and below ground shopping mall attract a steady stream of visitors. The building, Istanbul’s tallest at 656 feet, boasts stunning views of the city from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and, at night, the delicate lights of the suspension bridges across the Bosporus. The apartments, ranging from $1 to $8 million, are being bought by Istanbul’s business elite who are riding the wave of the booming 6% annual grow rate, which has earned Turkey a seat at the Group 20 Economic Powers. If this growth continues for ten years, Turkey could be the second largest economy in Europe after Germany.
The country’s heady self-confidence is reflected in the ambitious agenda of re-elected Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who in addition to wanting to revamp the old (junta-inspired) 1982 constitution, is also planning some enormous public works projects for Istanbul: a third bridge across the Bosporus; two new tunnels under the Bosporus (one for cars, one for trains); and an extravagant 28-to-30 mile long canal from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea to ease the Bosporus’ nonstop cargo traffic, dubbed “gilgin proje” (crazy project).
“Istanbul is back,” Vasif Kortun, director of research and programs at SALT, the country’s leading contemporary art institute, founded by Garanti bank. “We are again a commercial city, an international city, a powerful city. Everywhere you look in the city there is some business that wants to expand and scale up.”
SALT itself is in the process of scaling up, of re-creating itself from three former Garanti entities and renovating two new buildings—the 6-story SALT Beyoglu, located in the Taksim district, which opened this year and is an exhibition space for contemporary Turkish art; and a research and library facility, SALT Galata, housed in the former 19th century imperial Ottoman Bank headquarters, which expects to open next year. Both facelifts are emblematic of the bank’s stunning recent success. Garanti is now the second largest private bank in Turkey with over $90 billion in assets and ten million customers worldwide.
Architectural traditions in Istanbul run deep, from the Roman hippodrome and Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia to the 12th century Seljuq caravanserais and the flamboyant 19th century Baroque Dolmabahçe Palace on the Bosporus. Everywhere in this city between east and west is evidence of the waxing and waning of Ottoman and European influences. But since 1950, when the population ballooned from one million to over 17 million today, building, until recently, has been at such a frenetic pace that creative design considerations and city planning have been mostly an afterthought. Rapid rise of skyscrapers, particularly in Istanbul’s financial district, continues unchecked, though periodically there are loud cries to protect the city’s historic silhouette. The hills of Istanbul are covered with mazes of undistinguished low-rise, cement block apartment buildings with little open spaces.
But now young architects, many of whom have worked abroad like Selva Gürdoğan and her Danish-born husband Gregers Tang Thomsen, are returning to the city to live. They sense an opportunity to be part of what they believe will be the city’s dynamic future. Recently, the city passed a new zoning plan. In their Karakoy design studio called Superpool, they are working on a variety of residential and commercial projects in the city.
“Yes, there is a lot of history here,” said Thomsen, “but also no set agenda. The agenda is evolving. It’s exciting.”
“And we have something new to say, “ added Gürdoğan. “We are less concerned with the question of identity. Is it European? Or is it Ottoman? We are more concerned about—just solving the design problems.”
Where is there evidence of this new design sensitivity in Istanbul?
Thomsen and Gürdoğan took me to the Naval Museum on the edge of the Bosporus near the Besiktas ferry where a new, $50 million building is under construction to house the museum’s unique collection of some 40 Ottoman wooden boats. The museum was founded in 1897 and the original stone building contains over 20,000 artifacts and memorabilia related to the Ottoman and Turkish navies. The new building, jointly commissioned by the navy and the city of Istanbul, abuts the original building but is more than twice its size.
It is not surprising that as Turkey steps out onto the world stage again it should take particular pride in the history of its navy, which was responsible for Ottoman Empire’s period of greatest expansion in the 15th to17th centuries when Turkish fleets gained territory in the western Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean and even, briefly, the North Atlantic. The museum breaks with traditional building codes on the Bosporus, which usually demand that new buildings be built on the footprints of old ones. This one has a unique footprint.
Mehmet Kütükçüoğlu, the Turkish architect in charge of the project, met us in the large, central hall of the new building with enormous two-story high windows facing the Bosporus. The largest boats, some over 400 years old, are on the floor of the hall; others are positioned on ramps suspended by steel beams from the ceiling. The ceiling is elegantly faced with bright copper. A wide concrete ramp connects the ground floor to ramps, making it possible to view many of the boats from an array of angles—above and below as well as at eye level. Many of the sleek, Ottoman imperial boats, used to ferry the sultans between residences, have elaborate carved prows and sterns and beautiful, inlaid covered cabins.
“We designed the museum to fit like a glove around the boats,” said Kütükçüoğlu. And indeed it does. In plan, the building even resembles a glove with uneven “fingers” of concrete peers jutting out from the front façade. A shallow pool will surround the projections, making it appear as if the boats are about to be launched on the Bosporus.
The new museum will open some time next year.
Not everyone is enamored with Istanbul’s new self-confidence. When I was in Istanbul in July, SALT Beyoglu was displaying a large sculpture by young Turkish artist Ahmet Ögüt entitled “Across the Slope” (2008). The piece depicts a life-size black car stuck on a large road bump with its front wheels in the air. It’s a reference to the disaster of the introduction of the first Turkish car, the ill-fated Devrim, during the Republic Day celebrations in1961. Someone forgot to fill up the tank of the demo car that was to carry President Cemal Gürsel on a ceremonial ride. The car went a hundred yards, then stopped. The embarrassment was the butt of jokes for years. Ogut seems to be injecting a little self-deprecating humor into these heady times and perhaps a warning to the business community—to keep the wheels on the ground.
© Louise Levathes, 2011