Monthly Archives: June 2014

New-Old Architecture in Istanbul

PC June 22Istanbul is one of those cities that grew fast and furious in the mid-twentieth century when so many municipalities were investing in truly dour architecture: the city is lousy with mid-rise concrete apartment blocks that are a grim ring around the vibrant and messy historic center.  So it was refreshing to see this new development of contemporary housing based on Ottoman residential traditions.  It’s a giant development up by the Theodosian walls, a bit west of the Chora Church (my destination when I ran across this new construction).  They’re not “revivals” to be sure, but certainly recall the scale, proportions, materials, and massing of the timber houses that still stand in various places around the city (click here for more info on this interesting vernacular).  I wonder if the architects also followed through with not just the old-looking shells, but also the way those older homes must have been planned, not just for daily domestic functioning (which would be interesting to see how that has changed since the time of the Ottomans), but also in terms of the way they manage local climate.  Would love to know more about this project, and would really love to see more of this kind of smart and humane (and potentially more sustainable) development–and not just in Turkey.

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Lengthening the Short Story

PC June 14 BursaIf I have learned one thing through prep for the trip to Turkey, the actual travel there, and my beginning reflections on the experience, is how inadequate my understanding of the region’s history is.  Most of what I know about Turkey–and I suspect this is true of many people educated in the US–is those parts of the story that conveniently rub up against the grand Western narrative.  Even so, the great mosques of the Ottoman Empire present a particular problem for architectural historians, since they don’t fit super-neatly into that narrative and require a detour of sorts–although that detour is eased by the association of the Sinan tradition with Justinian’s great cathedral, Hagia Sophia.  But even that link is wobbly, since there is little sense of what was going on, architecturally, with the spread of Islam before that time–at least through a majority of texts (aside from those that, more or less elegantly, squeeze those early hypostyle plans into the story).  So it was important, and helpful, to first study the Ottoman mosques before the Conquest of 1453, and better yet, to be able to walk in and around these great buildings that non-specialist architectural history has forgotten (or just ignored).  On our way back to the hotel from dinner one night we stopped in at the Bursa Grand Mosque (Ulu Cami), finished just before the year 1400.  It’s a massive hulking thing, with huge piers supporting twenty domes of equal dimension.  Its connection to the even earlier Seljuk tradition became apparent later in our travels.  But also it was not hard, in this dim and heavy place, to really understand what it must have been like for the conquerors of Constantinople to come upon Hagia Sophia and see a whole new opportunity for architectural grandeur that is clearly affecting to a broad portion of humanity, regardless of creed, nationality, or chronology, for that matter.

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Looking for the Ladies Who Lunch in Istanbul

PC lunchEven if it is one of the more West-leaning (& -situated) countries of the Middle East, Turkey remains a predominantly Muslim country and with that there comes a certain amount of traditional behaviors that may strike a traveller hailing from the West, especially a female traveller. I expected different gender vibes than those that are common in the States, but I’ve been surprised by the shape they’ve taken. Men have been uniformly deferential, even kind, and I haven’t felt any kind of judgement about my clothes or hair, as I expected might ne the case. The only place I have felt ill at ease is when looking for a place to eat when I’ve been off the tourist trail. All the cafes seem populated by men, which suggests a kind of social code that would be bad manners to break. I think the first rule of travel, especially foreign travel, is to not be a jerk when you’re in a different place. (The second rule of travel is: when you see a bathroom, use the bathroom.) And that means figuring out what your host country thinks is jerk behavior. So, just as I avoid bringing up politics when I visit certain family members, it seems reasonable to steer clear of these male domains in my host country, even if the fact of apparent segregation bugs me. So far, it hasn’t been a huge burden to keep walking, and finally come upon a place that for one reason or another ( and I’d really like to know what that is), is acceptable, and suddenly you’ll find the ladies: old and young, covered and not, all responding to some code that makes this place appropriate in the midst of an abundantly male-oriented city.

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