Salt Galata, Turkish modernism, and Topkapi Palace: Max Thompson reports on the first day of a fact-finding briefing trip to Istanbul
We begin with a session in Salt Galata, a cultural venue popular with Istanbul’s architectural and design communities and a lecture from Bilgi University’s Ali Onat Turker, tracing the 8,000-year history of ceramics on the Turkish peninsula. Turker offers some interesting asides, such as one on a Roman clay children’s doll: the first Barbie dolls, he says. We learn of the various epochs of Turkish ceramic tile manufacture: ranging from the sublime Iznik period during the 16th century golden age of Ottoman architecture to the less well known Kütahya and Çanakkale eras.
Next, architectural critic and occasional AJ writer Gokhan Karakuş gives an overview of Turkish Modernism since the 1920s. After his talk, we mingle with our hosts, Turkishceramics, and much is made of the work of Karakus’s friend Peter Lu, a Harvard physicist, who has drawn parallels between decorative Girih tile patterns found in Turkey and Iran dating from the 15th century and the Penrose tiling patterns ‘discovered’ in the 1970s by mathematician Roger Penrose, noted for their remarkable mathematical properties.
We travel around Istanbul by bus and the talk turns to Istanbul’s traffic. The city has installed a new tram system, the world’s first tunnel connecting two continents and is building a third road bridge across the Bosphorus – but it’s still not enough. ‘Çok kalabalık’, as the locals say, meaning ‘rammed, stuffed, busy as hell’ – or ‘chockablock’ as the phrase was adapted into English.
When we free ourselves from the traffic, we finally arrive at Topkapi Palace, once the beating heart of the Ottoman Empire. We disembark outside the imposing Imperial Gates. With a running commentary from our engaging tour guide Nisa Semiz from Istanbul Technical University, we approach by the Mese, the Byzantine-period processional main thoroughfare of ancient Constantinople, and so begins a marvellous few hours of information overload and endless inspiration for the Kiosk challenge. We visit the famed Tiled Kiosk and numerous other follies and fountains beautifully finished in marble and ceramics.
Lunch next, overlooking the Bosphorus. We walk it off with a stroll to the Yeni Cami, or New Mosque, at the southern tip of the Galata Bridge, taking in more drinking fountains, kiosks and buildings as we go.
After admiring the mosque’s central dome, marble columns and intricate tiling, the group is buffeted through the Spice Bazaar, eventually arriving at the 16th century Rustem Pasha mosque, by the sultan’s chief architect, Mimar Sinan.
One by one we disappear up dark, narrow steps and wind our way up above the bustling alleyways below. The visit is calming and we take time to sit and chat on the steps and low stone walls around mosque and its little courtyard.
At this point the group splits: Eric Parry, Studio Weave, AHMM’s Will Lee and Saffet Bekiroglu from Zaha Hadid Architects, along with AJ deputy editor Rory Olcayto, head to a Sinan-designed hamam for a Turkish bath, while the rest retire to the hotel. We meet again that evening in a fish restaurant as guests of Turkishceramics’ chairman, Bahadir Kayan.