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Eastanbul, Westanbul - or just Istanbul?

Ahead of INN London’s four-day event celebrating the business and culture of Istanbul, Rory Olcayto ponders appropriate urban designs for Europe’s biggest city

Istanbul is chock-a-block. It always has been. From the seventh century, until the 19th century (when it was eclipsed by London) it was the biggest city in the western world. The mantle slipped as its empire declined – Istanbul was the Ottoman seat of power – and when its rich Balkan hinterland was cut-off for 50 years, the Cold War too froze its growth and cultural reach. Today however, with a population of 14 million, it is once again Europe’s biggest city. And it’s still growing.

That’s why INN London, an organisation focused on building links between the UK and the so-called BRICT nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and Turkey) is holding a four-day event later this week centred on Istanbul. In Victoria House in Bloomsbury Square, visitors will be presented with a ‘pop-up version’ of Istanbul and the: ‘chance to experience the best of the city’s contemporary art and architecture, fashion, food and drink whilst creating essential business links between London and Istanbul’s creative industries.’

Visitors will be presented with a ‘pop-up version’ of Istanbul

You may struggle, like me, to imagine that a ‘pop-up version’ of a 14 million-strong city is even possible, but that shouldn’t distract from what should be interesting event. One panel debate, planned for Friday for example, will focus on urban design.

Alongside Turkish architects Superpool and Emre Arolat, Murray Fraser (Professor of Architecture and Global Culture at the Bartlett School of Architecture) and I will discuss the city’s future. With a working title of Eastanbul, Westanbul or just Istanbul?, the panel will consider how architectural and urban design can avoid the usual clichés the city inspires even among admirers.

We’ll be asking how planners and architects should consider Istanbul. What’s appropriate in terms of design? Is it eastern? Western? Or neither? And do these labels even matter when the city – growing faster than any other in Europe – faces more pressing problems such as housing, infrastructure and earthquake-proof design.

What’s appropriate in terms of design? Is it eastern? Western?

Those who know something of Istanbul and its many challenges often cite typical concerns: a lack of public space, a neglected heritage sector, and with a third bridge crossing for the Bosphorus forever looming, a refusal to engage with sustainable infrastructure and urban design. But in a city as big as Istanbul, and with a historical architectural culture that runs deeper than perhaps any other inhabited city today, answers can be found to all these problems.

I realised this during my student years when I was lucky enough to work in the office of a singular, brilliant architect, Hüseyin Basçetinçelik, whose firm HD Mimarlik refurbished the grand wooden Ottoman villas on the Prince Islands in the Sea of Marmara, a forty minute ferry ride from the city’s bustling centre. And while it’s true that many of the same sort of villas have since been cleared away from the coastline within the city, Hüseyin opened my eyes to refurbishment of a more pragmatic kind too, such as the overhaul and extension of hans, courtyard buildings combining workshops and retail. My job that summer, among others, was to survey Sark Han, and prepare working drawings for its (sustainable) refurbishment. It is still there today in the Eminönü district between the Egyptian bazaar and Sinan’s Süleymaniye mosque, fully functioning, refurbished and extended. And while Istanbul has its fair share of anchor stores and popular global brands, projects like Sark Han manage without them. Could London perhaps learn from Istanbul in this respect?

The car problem in Istanbul – a hillside city – is far worse than London’s where public transport takes much of the strain. The third Bosphorus bridge crossing is a problematic solution – but there are some points in Istanbul’s favour too. The rail link under the Bosphorus is nearly complete, a new subway has been running for nearly a decade and the city’s mayor Kadir Topbas this month promised that 641km of subway and rail systems will be in place by 2016. At 226 vehicles for every 1,000 inhabitants, car ownership is less than the European average. Where once that would have been seen as a negative, today Topbas happily declares that: ‘Istanbul residents will choose mass transportation over private cars.’ London offers an obvious model for the mayor to emulate.

And public space? There’s no Hyde Park. But there is the ‘blue field’ Bosphorus

There’s no Hyde Park. But there is the ‘blue field’ Bosphorus, whose shipping could be thinned by a parallel grand canal. And there are the Prince Islands, the small coastline towns and villages upstream, and the hundreds of historic mosque courtyards throughout the old city.

The future of Istanbul’s public spaces however can be found in central districts, such as Besiktas, home to the occasional Champions League football club of the same name, and at the centre of a network of cobbled streets – revitalised in recent years with cafés, shops and bars – the utterly brilliant fish market by Global Architectural Development (GAD). The triangular concrete-roofed structure, marked by bare light bulbs that hang down over the fish displays, perfectly captures the essence of public life in the city. Football fans gather there before games to sing their team’s songs, competing with the fishmongers whose songs praise the freshness of their catch, while thousands who live and work in the age-old neighbourhood walk by. It can get busy. ‘Çok Kalabalık’ – pronounced Chock Kalah Balik – as the locals might say. The literal translation is ‘full of fish’, but Turks use it to mean ‘very crowded’. English traders back in the Ottoman heyday heard it so much they began to use it too. Where do you think chock-a-block comes from?

Exhibition: Istanbul INN London 2013, Victoria House, Bloomsbury Square, London WC1, 12-15 April

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