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Eastanbul, Westanbul or just Istanbul? If you’re looking to work there, engage with it like locals

Black Box: Opportunities in Istanbul for British architects and urban designers are huge

Istanbul is not east, or west, or even both: it’s just Istanbul, which is something you can only begin to understand when you visit this incredible city, which I was lucky enough to do last weekend.

Along with a bunch of British architects and designers, I was guest of the Turkish Ceramics Promotion Group and, despite a detailed itinerary, including meetings with leading architects, insightful lectures on the country’s 8,000-year history of ceramic production and 20th century Modernism as well as tours of the spectacular old town, repeat visits will be necessary for all of us to truly begin to understand how the place – with its 14 million citizens – works.

Why? Because the opportunities in Istanbul for British architects and urban designers are huge – but only if they are prepared to engage thoughtfully with the city’s unique qualities.

One moment stood out for me. Our group (we were about 20-strong) had walked from the Egyptian bazaar where we had eaten a fantastic meal at Pandeli’s (do the same, should you visit) past Haji Bekir’s Turkish Delight shop (which has occupied the same unit since 1777), uphill to Sultanahmet, the royal district dominated by Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, and Sultanahmet mosque (AKA the Blue Mosque, on account of its soothing, cool blue Iznik tiles). We paused for a moment in front of Hagia Irene, the first church built in the city by Constantine, in 381 AD, while our tour guide explained a little of the surrounding area. We were in the outer garden of Topkapi Palace, a space bounded by two fortress-like doors, the inner one charmingly named the Gate of Felicity, when one of our group expressed disappointment at the park’s layout, because ‘the desire lines’ were all wrong.


It’s true. The arrangement of buildings here is quite different from, say, the classical geometry of Parisian royal sequences, but also from the rigid ordering found in the Sultanic complexes of Isfahan in Iran or in Arab Spain’s Al Hambra. Indeed, beyond the Gate of Felicity, western architects are often puzzled by the form and layout of the interior palace buildings, the harem, the kitchens and so on, because they refuse to conform to any European, Arab or Persian Islamic rules. Yet, as Gülru Necipoğlu, director of the Aga Khan Program of Islamic Architecture at Harvard University, has proved, this is because the overall layout of Topkapi (pictured) was governed by the organisation of a tented encampment, which not only signposts the Sultan’s Central Asian roots but also mirrors the Ottoman army’s mobile cities, which would pitch up outside settlements it planned to conquer.

To begin to understand contemporary Istanbul – with its ancient layered history and impossibly huge growth rates (it has grown fourteen-fold since 1900) – is equally challenging. The first thing to do is bin the clichés of East and West and be like Antoine-Ignace Melling, the German architect who captured the city with compelling engravings of its buildings and citizens in the early 1800s. As Orhan Pamuk writes in Istanbul, his love letter to the city, Melling saw local details and materials as Istanbullus themselves saw them, with a fidelity other Western artists, influenced by western ideas of presentation, never achieved.

If you want to win work there, and effect real change, you should do the same.

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