Designing Istanbul – Part One.

One of the things that we’ve tried to do with our “Istanbul: The City in Visual Culture Class” this year has been to connect with architectural and design offices in the city – to try to get a sense of how Turkish offices practice, work, build and make – both in Istanbul, but also, how they are trying to make Istanbul itself – shaping the city through parks, parking, information design, exhibitions and architectural projects.  We’ve had a pretty good run of office visits to date – from the large (130 architects) to the small (2 architects).  This is the first of a couple of posts detailing (detailing…see what I did there?) these visits.  By the time we finish up in Istanbul (a little less than two weeks to go until final reviews), we will have visited or visited with – about 6 or 7 of Turkey’s most important offices… This is part 1.

We began a little while ago with a visit to one of Turkey’s most well known offices – Emre Arolat Architects.  A large office of about 60 people, Emre Arolat’s office is responsible for some very well known commissions and projects in Turkey – including a recent project to transform a port (“antrepo”) building – designed by one of Turkey’s most important and influential architects, Sedad Eldem (1908-1988) – into a Museum of Contemporary Art. Eldem, incidentally, is considered to be one of the pioneers of modern Turkish architecture, particularly during the Republic period.  We visited the office a little while ago, got a tour and settled in to a very swank presentation room to hear about three office projects – Zorlu Center (a massive urban project in a prominent location in Istanbul – commercial, residential, public, arts programming…) recently opened in full force – with Apple’s newest (and first official Turkish store) opening in the Central Plaza.  Rumor has it that Tim Cook showed up for the ribbon cutting, along with Abdullah Gül.  We also spent some time learning about the office’s Aga Khan Award winning Ipekyol Textile Factory in Edirne. We learned about the office structure and design processes, how they work and about a couple of other projects – including a religious studies complex they are building in the city of Mardin – in Turkey’s south-east Arolat’s office operates at all scales – from the large to the small.  While Zorlu is interesting – and an important (and not uncontroversial) project, we (certainly I, at least) found a much smaller project that much more interesting.

We also spent some time talking about one of their newest projects – the recently opened Sancaklar Mosque, which we had occasion to visit last week on our way to Edirne. Unfortunately we couldn’t get access to the Textile Factory that day, but the Sancaklar Mosque more than made up for that omission.  The Sancaklar Mosque Competition was won by Arolat’s office and it’s a pretty remarkable change for mosque design in Turkey. Eschewing the Classical Ottoman aesthetic tradition and even the more symbolic architectural ornament of the mosque itself (there is no dome!), the mosque – according to the architect – was meant to reference the essential nature of the Islamic tradition, namely the moment in which divine revelation is first gifted to the Prophet Muhammad – an instance that occurs in a cave frequented by him as a spiritual and meditative retreat from the everyday life in Arabia at the time.

Arolat’s mosque (a good friend noted that this is a very important cultural step for Turkey – as provocative as the project might be, it is a significant shift in the design of sacred space) sits, for now, in a verdant green field on the outskirts of the city, about 25 minutes away from the historic center.  The building has almost no overt presence, defined by a stark and plain minaret of heavy stone.  The majority of the building is actually underground, worked into the sloping landscape and accessed by integrated stone pavers set into the surrounding grass and vegetation.  Arriving at the lower entrance level, the mosque proper is set into the hill and across a long narrow plaza, one can access a small library and gathering space, stepping over a roughened, but beautifully detailed pool.  The mosque itself is also a long space, with a cast concrete stepped roof, and a lightly sloped Qiblah (the wall that orients towards Mecca) wall – also of concrete.  The prayer space itself steps down, in long terraces and the effect on entry is remarkable.  A long skylight directly ahead washes the concrete Qiblah wall with light, the mihrab (a central niche in the Qiblah wall) is a simple pocket and the mimbar (pulpit) is a set of curved concrete steps.  Radical – certainly for Turkey – is the prayer space for women; here at the Sancaklar mosque, it is a raised platform – not at the back of the space as is common with many Ottoman mosques- but immediately to the right of the interior space and separated from the larger prayer area by a perforated metal screen.

Unlike the often well-adorned spaces of the Classical Ottoman mosque, the Sancaklar Cami is spartan.  Directly opposite the women’s prayer space is a backlit piece of monumental calligraphy – the only ornament in the mosque itself.  The experience of the space is remarkable.  It is beautifully detailed and crafted, and after the experience of the great mosques of Istanbul, it is a breath of fresh air, a welcome addition to a new expression of the sacred spaces of the Islamic architectural tradition.  I’d encourage any architecture or landscape architecture enthusiast visiting Istanbul to make the trek out to visit this project while it still has its (diminishing) green context.  In 1 or 2 or 3 years, this will be an urban mosque – and it will be pretty interesting still, but its power – at the moment, lies strongly in part to the relationship that it has with its landscape – a stone and concrete cave, rough lines and smooth surfaces, green grass, a serene, simple and stark interior, looking out over rolling hills.



  1. Pingback: Spring 2015: Program Update! (September 14, 2014) | University of Minnesota Rome -Istanbul Study Abroad Spring 2015

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