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Until Dec. 23: Ghost Buildings of Istanbul

December 14, 2010

[I didn’t bring my camera this go-around, and apparently there are no real good exhibition pictures online. So I’ll update this with pictures when I have better ones]

When you walk into a widely-advertised art exhibit, the last thing you expect to smell is…cardboard. Lots of cardboard. The Cumhuriyet Sanat Galerisi smelled like someone was packing it up and moving it out of its wonderfully understated locale. The first reaction an attendee has is that he must have gotten there too late.

Which is one of the intentions of the Ghost Buildings of Istanbul Exhibition. The exhibition is about what would happen if these buildings, these monuments of Istanbul’s past were still around today. It’s part Turtledove-esque revisionist, speculative history and part architectural dream. It was an interesting enough exhibit on its face: here are 3d renderings of these beautiful buildings, and multimedia fly-throughs so we can imagine the buildings from every perspective. But there’s also more to it than that. The exhibition discusses how monumental architecture shapes a city and how the citizens (and tourists) of Istanbul interact with their monumental environment. It’s heady stuff. And more importantly, free entry from 10:00 am – 7:00 pm, all days but Sunday.

The cardboard set-up is pretty fantastic. When you walk in, you see cut-out silhouettes of the buildings, and everything is printed on cardboard. They really go the whole way: even video screens are covered in cardboard. They’re really emphasizing this whole “impermanence” thing, and even with the really beautiful cut-out silhouettes, Ottoman miniatures, and photographs of riots past, it’s remarkably well-executed.

And the renderings? Gorgeous, of course.

There is also a list of them at the bottom of this webpage.

Each building’s story is divided in half: the past and the revisionist present. The buildings’ pasts contain the basic info: when it was built, by who, and what did it look like. There are also satellite images of the locations to give some context for the more obscure ones. Followed by a few paragraphs on the building, some of which I had no idea about. Did YOU know that there was a Russian War Memorial for the Russian dead of the Russian-Ottoman War? Yeah, that didn’t last long.

The future, though, is far more interesting than the present. Using the renders, architects came up with different plans for the buildings based on different projections of the future city. The results (which are, of course, un-find-able online) are pretty awesome. Ayastefanos as a Russian Village and Crafts Center. Sadabad as a waterpark. Direklerarasi as the new music and theater hotspot. Lots of fun and speculative stuff. My favorite, though, is a plan turning the Bosphorus-side Eski Ciragan Sarayi into a Soccer Stadium. Traffic and safety be damned, it’d be like a more honestly classical Soldier Field.

Like a little of this…

…and some of this, as well.

The different cities are grouped in different types of futures: The Open City, Orientalist City, Phantasmagorical City, and the Practical City. There may have been a few more. Each of these typologies are marked by what sort of community they imagine. Polyeuktos Church, for example, could house workshops or a grand library. Taksim Barracks could be a public green or a government building. It depends on what sort of city you want to imagine Istanbul as. And we’re flexible here. Considering the exhibit is housed in a gallery under the heart of the city, in a caravansaray turned into an art gallery, we’re allowed to be quite dextrous.

Of course, you could always run the problem of having the citizens of Istanbul disagree with your public work. The history of the city has been marked by three great riots: Nika (532), Patrona Halil (1732), and the 6-7 Sept. Events (1955). Each involved wonton destruction and looting, as well as the destruction of public works and monumental architecture. And then, of course, there’s the Fourth Crusade, which deserves its own story. Much how destruction is a form of creation, the history of Istanbul’s architecture is marked and in many ways formed by the destructive elements of its past. Ghost Buildings reminds us of these earthquakes of history without being a hector about them.

What sort of city is Istanbul, and what sort of city do we want it to be? The exhibit has a clear sarcastic, disapproving tone when it talks about the “Orientalist City” full of carpet shops and mediocre restaurants with prices listed in Euro. Though the exhibitors want more museums, more culture, it has an obvious distaste for tourist culture and how Istanbul has mortgaged bits of its present in order to create a stylized past. And as much as they would want those museums and libraries, they realize that a city full of museums is ossified and inoperable. That Istanbul needs its Galata workshops and Zeyrek kebabcis in order to stay alive. Istanbul as it stands is imperfect, but it works. And for an exhibit that is going to avoid discussion of traffic problems or of housing, it is always going to stand on the verge of bombast. It’s an exhibit for the BLDGBlog crowd, one just as interested in the theoretical as in the practical. And trying to bridge the gap between the two.

There is also the laconically hilarious description of Darulfunun – the University cum-Parliament building buil tright next to (and towering over) Aya Sofya. The text reads something like, “It burned down years ago. But you will not hear anyone shed tears over it, as it was a bit ugly and did not fit next to the majesty of Aya Sofya.”

But the exhibition does ask demanding questions, questions I don’t know the answer to. Why has Beyoglu survived as the nightlife district while Direklerarasi has been chopped up? Why does the tourist city stop abruptly at Beyazit Meydani, leaving Sehzadebasi and Fatih Parki solely in the hands of Istanbullular themselves? How has city life, political expediency, and, yes, sharp snaps of violence shaped the city in ways that blue-ribbon architecture panels have not? Why did Prost fail and why shouldn’t the AKP? Istanbul’s architecture is just as important as as any of its tales. Melling‘s city was a direct father to Orhan Pamuk’s iteration.

We’re all trying to figure out what kind of city, what kind of country, we are in right here at Istanbul Alti. It’s a city that lives with ghosts and a city that has shadows of buildings that fell long ago. But it’s also a city running full-kick into the future. In other words…its complex. But the built environment lasts longer than governments and as long as the stories and poems. It’s just as important in understanding this city as the people who inhabit it.

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