As we lurch inexorably forward to final reviews next Monday, I wanted to add a little more context to our time in Istanbul. We’ve been visiting offices (some offices visited us…) and a little while ago we posted about our trip to the Sancaklar Mosque by Emre Arolat. That was our first office visit in the city and we followed that with a couple more.
Among the largest offices in Istanbul is Murat Tabanlioğlu’s office, founded in 1990 by the father and son team of Hayati Tabanlioğlu and his son Murat. Now run by three partners (Murat and Melkan Tabanlioğlu and Özdem Gursel), the office has 130 architects and is located in Beyoğlu – a short walk to our center near the Galata Tower. Murat is a member of RIBA (The Royal Institute of British Architects) and regularly directs an atelier at Bilgi University in Istanbul. The office is responsible for many of Istanbul’s recognizable projects – including the Ataturk Culture Center (in Taksim Square), Istanbul Modern – one of the country’s premier art institutions – as well as partnering with Emre Arolat on the Zorlu Center project. More recently, Tabanlioğlu has been commissioned to design the Istanbul Pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year. We had the opportunity to spend some time with Çağrı Akay and Sena Altundağ – two key people in Murat’s office. Çağrı is one of the senior architects for Studio I (the office has 5 project studios) and Sena works in the administrative division under Özdem. Çağrı has a strong Minnesota connection, having won a scholarship to study for his M.Arch at the University of Minnesota’s College of Design, and spent several years in the Twin Cities – working at ESG and MSR Design before returning to Turkey and Tabanlioğlu’s office. We hung out in Murat’s office for a presentation of selected office work – which spans all scales – and followed up with a question and answer/conversation session with Çağrı, talking about the nature of design practice in Istanbul and on design methodologies, focusing particularly on issues of surface, facade and on the particular challenges of shifting ways of working/seeing/making when engaged in design work in unique cultural contexts. The office has a spectacular location, with a view towards the Golden Horn, skimming over the top of the Kasimpaşa neighborhood with the skyline of Sultanahmet in the distance.
From the large to the small. We also had the opportunity to connect with a couple of really dynamic younger offices – Superpool and Şanal Mimarlik. Superpool is a small office (in the up and coming Karaköy neighborhood – about a 10 minute walk from our studio), whose principals – Selva Gurdoğan and Gregers TengTang Thomsen met in the New York office of OMA. They worked there for three years before settling (returning in Selva’s case) to Istanbul and opening up Superpool. They have an unassuming office in a simple building, and broad, open studio space, well worked in, well used. They talked about their work in Istanbul, about shifting from the organizational structure of the American city to the fluid, ever-changing and contingent spaces of Istanbul. They highlighted the varied scale of their projects – one of their first (a beautiful dolmuş map) was an attempt to understand one of the many transport infrastructures of the city; an introduction to navigating the urban organism of the city. They work across scales and disciplines too – developing a set of research questions that translate into book projects (“Mapping Istanbul”), design competitions and mobile applications (the Audi Urban Future Initiative) as well as design/construction research; they are part of an ongoing research project with multiple partners (including the ETH Zurich) called Tailorcrete – a fascinating exploration (prototyped at full scale) to use on-site robots for bending complex re-bar systems and on-site fabrication for complex geometry formwork, too. They also find time to run “Studio X/Istanbul – a Columbia University platform that explores questions of architecture, design and urban space through symposia, meetings, exhibitions and workshops.” We bumped into Selva when we meandered through Studio X one afternoon and met Mark Wigley; they were hosting an event that evening (featuring Jorge Otero-Pailos) on new thinking in heritage preservation processes. They, as you can imagine, are pretty busy. Nevertheless, we’re trying to rope them into to joining us for reviews on Monday…
We also connected with Alexis Şanal – one of the principals of Şanal Mimarlik – a small office in Arnavutköy, a beautiful little village on the European side, north of the historic district. Alexis and Murat both spent time in the US (Alexis graduating from Sci-Arc and MIT, and Murat from YTU in Istanbul and UCLA) before settling back in Istanbul. Alexis talked to our group about an (almost!) completed public park and parking garage project called “Park-Turk” just up the street from the Galata Tower. The project (“a forgotten piece of the city, given back to the city” as Alexis described it) is a pretty terrific piece of urban design; an elegant park – complete with a soon-to-be food market, public space and city-gazing platform and a deftly inserted six-story below-grade parking structure with a (soon-to-be) connection to the metro line (a remarkable feat to coordinate with all the various stakeholders at play). The project negotiates a really challenging site – difficult grading, highway spaghetti and lots of noise – beautifully, creating a serene and quiet little space in the middle of a hectic thoroughfare around the Şişhane metro stop (and the accursed Tax Office where I encountered the joys of registering my mobile phone for a Turkish cell-number…). A really deft project, Alexis also talked about the particular challenges of an effort like this – engaging with multiple municipalities (including the local one and the Metropolitan one, the Metro Transport commission, local communities, the Turkish Historic Commission…) Almost complete, Alexis, Murat and the office are now working with local craftspeople and fabricators (there is a phenomenal maker culture in Şişhane) to design and install small-large scale urban furniture in the plaza – which is already becoming a favorite in the city. Alexis also talked about a recently opened exhibition at Istanbul Modern (designed by Tabanlioğlu) that featured another of their little projects – in this case, the “Ephemeral Library,” an installation on learning spaces and ad-hoc spaces for learning in and around Istanbul. She concluded her talk by emphasizing how important it was for architects and designers to be actively engaged in design-research, to think across scales and disciplines, to work in global contexts with interdisciplinary partners, to connect thinking with making and making to thinking. All of the offices we visited emphasized how challenging it was to work in a city like Istanbul – and all of them seemed to relish that challenge as an opportunity to engage in a complex urban context in a unique, interesting and fulfilling way. Gregers (Superpool) observed in our post-lecture Q&A that they (Superpool) placed second in a competition to design a new high-school school in Istanbul; one that they designed (for Istanbul certainly) quite radically as a public space, as a school that transforms its classrooms, gyms, labs and libraries into an open-source community and urban amenity for everyone. He laughed and said “They said to us – ‘We know this is the right future. We’re just not ready for it yet.'” When asked about how they ‘find,’ projects, Gregers mused that “We have to look for questions that interest us, that allow us to constantly understand and re-understand where we are. We dig through these curiosities and these ideas until we can isolate a trajectory that we need to explore, something that keeps us motivated and energized in the changing city.”