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Short history of architecture

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The development of architecture in the Republic of Turkey has been tied to the shifting demands of politics and economics. Since the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, trends in architecture have been determined either by the top-down dictates of the state as part of nation building, or by the expansion and diversification of Turkey’s economy which began in the 1960s.

Early 20th century modernism

The project of Modernism in Turkey took on the larger role of building a modern system in the entire country, and on many different levels in society. Modern architecture aligned with these goals. Turkey is not a unique case in this regard, as similar developments can be seen in countries such as Brazil, India or Mexico in the 20th century. Architecture in Turkey may be unique in the way that the many concurrent themes of the modern projects are both negotiated and merge together in a very brief period. East/west, north/south, Europe/Asia, Islam/Christianity, sedentary/nomad, industrial/agrarian, modern/primitive, for the last 100 years Turkey’s geography has been the site of critical convergences of these basic issues determining ideology, culture and hence architecture. The constant shifting of social forces has made architecture in Turkey in the 20th century largely a reactive pursuit. Architects in Turkey have reacted to the overriding forces of the moment to produce what could be labeled as a secondary or by-product architecture. Throughout the 20th century architecture in Turkey vacillated back and forth between styles that were either based on the concept of Turkish nationality or international modernism.

Republican Period 

If we look at the early Republican Period, particularly in the work of architects from the First Republican Architecture movement such as Kemalettin and Vedad Tek, we see an attempt at resolving Ottoman forms with the dictates of function and an understatement of early modernist architecture in Europe of the 1910-1920s. This architecture utilized the classical Ottoman style of architecture as a basis for a more regular and standard idiom for large public buildings in the major cities, and was not applied to domestic architecture. In the 1920s, as state building started to gain momentum, Turkey imported a number of German speaking Central European architects to design governmental buildings both in Ankara and the rest of Turkey. Abandoning historicism altogether, this period was heavily indebted to the architecture of the Neue Sachlichkeit and of figures such as Bruno Taut, Ernst Egli, Clemens Holzmeister, Theodor Jost, Hermann Jansen, and Martin Wagner, who came to Turkey in the 1920s and 1930s to work. The effects and influence of these foreign architects would be seen in the work of the Turkish architects of the 1930s, such as Şevki Balmumcu, Rüknettin Güney, Seyfi Arkan and Sedad Hakkı Eldem. These Turkish architects, who were influenced by the work of the German architects, made the first attempts at a modernist vocabulary in an abstract and geometric architecture with no connections to Turkish or Ottoman precedents. This architecture was successful in so far as it was utilized for more than the architecture of the state, in the construction of public and private housing, leisure and cultural buildings.

National Architecture 

As the tides of nationalism increased in Europe, so did it in Turkey with the appearance in the late 1930s of the second National Movement in architecture led by the major figure of 20th century architecture in Turkey, Sedad Hakkı Eldem. His National Architecture seminars at the Academy of Fine Arts looked in detail at the “Turkish House” and similar Turkish issues to influence a generation of architects to produce a modern yet stylistically Turkish architecture. Eldem applied his Ottoman and modern fusion well into the 1940s and 1950s throughout Turkey in reinforced concrete buildings parallel to the work of other figures of the day, such as Emin Onat and Doğan Erginbaş. Like its predecessor, this second National Architecture, which was in a style that in some instances was close to the Fascist architecture of the Italian Giuseppe Terragni and the cold and rational Stalinist architecture of the Soviet Union, did not survive long because it was being overwhelmed by the next wave of global architectural currents.

High Modernism in the ‘50s and ‘60s

Although Eldem continued to create works in the National Architecture style and was a popular architect through the 1950s and 1960s, his architectural vision was soon to be replaced by another group of young architects, some of whom were trained in Europe and worked there, which gave them a taste for the then current style of modernist architecture. Figures such as Turgut Cansever, Aburrahman Hancı and later Cengiz Bektaş and Hayati Tabanlıoğlu were practitioners of an austere brand of modernist architecture which they had encountered in their experiences in Europe. They erased any lingering interest in the historical past to focus on regularized and spare geometries that echoed the work of modernist masters such as Le Corbusier. Others such as Utarit İzgi, Nevzat Erol, Enver Tokay and Nevzat Erol in the 1950s and Doğan Tekeli, Sami Sisa, Metin Hepgüler, Behruz Çinici, Şevki Vanlı in the 1960s were active in developing this modernist architecture in a formally looser and programmatically (?) less disciplined way. They did this for all types of functions, from hotels and housing to offices and shopping complexes, and in line with the expansion of the Turkish economy in these decades. The two major figures in this period, Cansever and Bektaş, were especially able to continue their vision in a disciplined way well up into the late 1980s – the former developing an interest in metaphysics and Islam, and the latter a deep understanding of vernacular architecture in Turkey.

The ‘60s and ‘70s

Turkey of the late 1960s and 1970s suffered from a number of political and economic crises that had a major effect on architectural practice. Military coup d’états, political violence, the war in Cyprus, and an endless string of ineffective coalition governments combined with inflation, unemployment and uncontrolled urbanization all weakened the architectural production. While architects continued to produce some important works in the modernist idiom in buildings, such as the Atatürk Kültür Merkezi and Atatürk Airport in Istanbul designed by Hayati Tabanlıoğlu, or the Turkish Language Foundation designed by Cengiz Bektaş, architecture in Turkey up into the mid-1980s was designed in a competent but undistinguished style motivated by the interests of the construction sector, or to a lesser extent, the state.

The ‘80s and ‘90s

While the liberalization of the economy in the 1980s did spur some new ideas, particularly copies of the post-modern architecture of the U.S. and Europe, the architecture culture had not developed in any meaningful way since the flowering of the modernism of the early 1960s. Architects active in this period such as Sami Sisa, Doğan Tekeli, Doğan Hasol, Şaziment Arolat, Neşet Arolat, Sevinç Hadi, Şandor Hadi, Mehmet Konuralp, Atilla Yücel, and Filiz Erkal produced capable work of a generally neutral character that liberally used modernist, post-modernist and historicist styles, but with no significant architectonic rationale or formal innovation. These architects would be joined in the later 1980s and early 1990s by the likes of Turgut Alton, Tuncay Çavdar, Turhan Kaşo, Yaşar Marulyalı, Levent Aksüt, Erkut Şahinbaş, and Doruk Pamir in producing what could be termed corporate architecture for the now strengthened private sector in Turkey. A small group of architects taking advantage of increased opportunities to building in the 1980s and 1990s were figures such as Atilla Yücel, Merih Karaaslan and Kaya Arıkoğlu. They pursued more refined modernist typologies based on the awareness of regional contexts, especially outside Istanbul. Noteworthy was the continuing investigation into the connections between typology and architectonics in the work of Atilla Yücel, who for example in his ‘7 Houses project’ in Sapanca skillfully fused type and structure in a formally robust way. Later he was able to apply this in Albania and Montenegro as one of the very few Turkish architects to work there.

Architecture & urban development in the ‘70s and ‘80s

The hodge-podge of architectural styles of the 1970s and 1980s, mirroring the ups and downs of Turkish economics and politics, is perhaps less important than the larger urban dynamics of the major cities of Turkey. Istanbul, İzmir and Ankara were hit by waves of migrants from the country side producing what is perhaps the most important architecture of the period, the squatter houses known as ‘gecekondu’, the most enduring legacy of later 20th century upon the built environment of Turkey.

Contemporary architecture in the ‘90s 

It is only in the 1990s that contemporary architecture started to gain its own identity, deriving and driving an agenda based on architectural concerns distinct from socio-economic trends. Modern architecture as a basis for an economy of practice in developing countries such as Turkey presents the challenge to build efficiently using materials and techniques at hand. But beyond this focus on praxis there always lies the important question of the basis of architecture and building itself, the raison d’être of building, or better, the systems of knowledge guiding architectural thought. To assemble a rationale for building architecture in countries outside of the western traditions presents the fundamental question of resolving the old with the new.

Rethinking modernism & local building

Starting from the early 1990s, a group of architects based in Istanbul, Nevzat Sayın, Emre Arolat, Han Tümertekin and Şevki Pekin, were able to articulate a distinct style and way of working unique in the country’s history. It was a negotiation between modernism and a bottom up understanding of the nature of local building in architectonic and pragmatic terms. Coming at a time of economic expansion and internationalization, after many years of stagnation in architectural practice this group was able to build in a way that met longstanding aesthetic and ethical concerns. This historical moment started in the early 1990s and was successful in as much as the confluence of economic, political and most importantly, methodological issues produced a number of buildings of architectural distinction that had relevance to global practice and to everyday society.

Understanding the potentialities of local knowledge, this group was able to articulate a new type of modernism that integrated local building practices with vernacular architecture. They mixed this indigenous archaism with a forward looking new organization of space and form. The work of these architects was at once home with the informal every day building practices that produced most of the building of the day in Turkey - an architecture that is able to use these ancient strains of thought as a basis for an approach - but yet provide a modern architecture that is symbolic, neutral, pragmatic, rational, and creates the open space and transparency required of modern society. Work such as Nevzat Sayın’s experimental and on-going group of stone and concrete buildings in the rural Aegean village of Dikili, or his earlier concrete and steel Gön Leather Factory in Istanbul, Emre Arolat’s exposed concrete office building in Kozyatağı, Istanbul or the crystal concrete geometry of his Minicity theme park in Antalya, Han Tümertekin’s basic stone and concrete synthesis in the B2 House in Ayvacık, Şevki Pekin’s amalgam of elemental forms in stone in his Bodrum House. These buildings represented a new formation that was methodologically, aesthetically and most importantly architectonically in line with the mass culture of Turkey. This was architecture that worked from the realities of everyday life. These buildings, despite not being known outside Turkey, were important examples of a mature and resolved modern architecture appearing in an important emerging second world nation coming into its own.

The 2000s 

At the turn of the millennium, the architectural culture in Turkey started to have its own form alongside the building boom of the period that lasted well into the 2000s. Architects active since the 1960s were able to participate in the boom utilizing a number of styles and approaches, some outdated and retrograde and some genuinely forward thinking. The Istanbul group of Sayın, Tümertekin, Arolat and Pekin continued to build projects with a similar methodology but now on a bigger scale. Behruz Çinici was joined by his son Can Çinici in an Istanbul practice with an interest in extending modernist morphologies into a more innovative localized architectural language. Hayati Tabanlıoğlu’s firm was passed onto his son and his wife, Murat and Melkan Tabanlıoğlu, who sustained the firm’s interest in later Modernism with a corporate oriented practice that became one of Turkey’s largest ones. Younger architects such as Bünyamin Derman, Tülin Hadi & Cem İlhan, Boran Ekinci, Emir Uras, Gökhan Avcıoğlu, Mehmet Kütükçüoğlu, Arif Suyabatmaz, Celal Abdi Güzer, Boran Ekinci, Adnan Kazmaoğlu - Mutlu Çilingiroğlu, Serhat Akbay, TRafo, Kerem Erginoğlu - Hasan Çalışlar and Alişan Çırakoğlu took advantage of the local boom and regional opportunities in Central Asia and Arabia to produce architecture in line with global trends. Each produced a sophisticated reworking of these global developments in architecture with a certain degree of influence from the history of architecture in Turkey. Proficient, contextual, and pragmatic, these architects met the needs of the government, but primarily corporate clients, especially the robust real estate development sector which grew significantly during the 2000s. In terms of contextual awareness it would be prudent to mention the efforts of regional architects such as the Viennese trained Ahmet İğdirligil, who focused on traditional stone building in the Aegean or the Mediterranean modern of the U.S.-trained Kaya Arıkoğlu in Adana. While these architects represented the top of the profession, thousands of architects throughout Turkey continued to produce work of an uneven nature in the continuing urbanization of the country that, despite the efforts of many architects, suffers from a built environment of a generally undistinguished and banal character. The blandness of this type of architecture results mostly from the sheer number of buildings built. Turkey’s urbanscape and built environment is, to put it plainly, dull and unseemly no matter how many decent buildings are built.

The 2010s

Today, a new generation of young architects has started to raise the level of architecture through an interest in discourse and information. The likes of Nilüfer Kozikoğlu, Alexis and Murat Şanal, Superpool, and Boğaçhan Dündaralp represent a generation that understands that architecture has to be produced with a distinct technical, ideological or architectonic rationale that is explicit and documented. Each of these groups has come to produce architecture based on their studied methodologies and is likely to extend their building practice and knowledge base in pursuing an intelligence and discursive driven architecture. Their vision is firmly locked in the optimization of the possibilities of the information age. It is interesting to note that they are joined in the increasing specialization of architecture in Turkey by architects emerging from interior design, specifically Autoban and Tanju Özelgin, who bring sophisticated understanding of craft, local building techniques and computer assisted visualization to produce advanced design. This group, along with continuing efforts of advanced architects such as Sayın, Arolat, Tümertekin, Pekin, and Çinici, promise that Turkey’s contemporary architecture will start to develop based on its own dynamics, yet with a widened eye attuned to universal progress. As Turkey asserts its position in the center of the newly forming geopolitics of Europe and Asia, the regional leadership provided by these architects will be important in setting standards for how architecture can balance the needs of the modern world and the pragmatic approach required at the local level.