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Modern Turkish

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Turkey has more to offer than domes and amphitheatres, as this exhibition shows, says Rory Olcayto

Istanbul and Beyond: Selected Projects of Tabanlioglu Architects. Until 22 December 2008. RIBA GAllery, 66 Portland Place, W1B 1AD

Our understanding of Turkish architectural culture is obscured by a fascination with Classical amphitheatres and sultanic domes. Istanbul’s status as a centre of Art Nouveau is little known and that Modernism was used by Kemal Ataturk to forge the Turkish republic, even less so.

A scant few – Pritzker Prizewinning architect Hans Hollein among them – recognise government architect Sedad Eldem for his unique Regional Modernism.

A smaller number still is familiar with contemporary Turkish practice, but the RIBA exhibition Istanbul and Beyond: Selected Projects of Tabanlioglu Architects offers a starting point.

Tabanlioglu (pronounced Taban-lih-ohloo) is Turkey’s biggest architectural practice. It designed the Palace of Peace (2006) in Kazakhstan with Foster + Partners, and its 261m-tall Sapphire will be Europe’s tallest residential tower on completion next year.

Four other projects – highlighted in WOW Inc's dreamy, immersive film for the exhibition – provide more food for thought. In 2005, Tabanlioglu converted a dockside warehouse, originally designed by Eldem, to create Istanbul Modern Art Museum, Turkey’s first private modern art gallery offering two floors of white cube gallery space.

Tabanlioglu cut into one facade, giving views across the Golden Horn of Istanbul’s Bosphorus river to Topkapı Palace. ‘The city is the greatest work of art we have,’ says Murat Tabanlioglu of the palace, who with his wife Melkan, heads the 100-strong practice. The gallery has proved so popular that Tabanlioglu is now masterplanning the area to create a public square and new uses for other grand-scale warehouses.

Imaginative reworking of the city’s fabric is especially pertinent for Istanbul, a mighty, sprawling home to 13 million people, where most residential districts are peppered with half-built concrete structures, abandoned by bankrupt developers.

One of these half completed buildings has been transformed by Tabanlioglu into Levent Loft (2007), a highend housing scheme, by slotting cantilevered boxes into the frame to form apartments. They resemble the classic cumba bay windows of traditional Ottoman houses from the outside, but inside the concrete is left exposed and the fit-out specification is fashion-magazine slick.

It has already inspired Loft II, an adjacent new build with similar cumba-style bays emerging from its purpose-built frame.

Istanbul’s Kanyon shopping mall (2006) is also on show at the RIBA show. Compared with the flashy, lightweight Westfield in London, Kanyon is a sober, solid, and convincing piece of urban design. It has a public plaza at its entrance. Open-air walkways gently curve through stacked levels of retail. A cliff-like residential block and a commercial tower ringed with semi-circular louvers loom overhead.

At its centre, cinemas and other leisure attractions are enclosed within a huge stone-clad sphere. This shopping mall is the futuristic mirror of the city’s 500-year-old Grand Bazaar. This ‘city within a city’ form is common, historically, in Turkish town-planning. Mosque complexes, for example, were always more than places of worship.

Describing the Suleymaniye mosque, designed by arguably the greatest Ottoman architect, Mimar Sinan, 17th-century travel writer Evliya Celebi wrote that it contained ‘four great madrasas, a school of hadis, a school of Koran, a school of medicine, a school for young children, a hospital, a public kitchen, a hospice, a caravanserai for the visitors, a palace for the commander of the janissaries, markets for jewellers, metal workers, shoemakers, a well-illuminated bath, and buildings for the employees of the complex.’

One other building in this exhibition deserves a special mention: Istanbul’s Ataturk Cultural Centre, a 1960s Modernist building with a status similar to London’s Royal Festival Hall. It was designed by Murat’s father, Hayati Tabanlioglu, who, like Eldem, was a state architect – and a huge talent.

He designed the entire building, from the lightfittings to the sculptural, minimalist staircases. The building was nearly demolished last year following a bid to redevelop the site, and only spared following a high-profile campaign led by Murat and Melkan.

Now the firm will refurbish it for Istanbul's European Capital of Culture celebrations in 2010, an event which will hopefully focus attention away from tourist-trail buildings. In the meantime, this exhibition should broaden the debate about contemporary Turkish architecture and its place in the wider European and global context.

ResumeNow there's no excuse for overlooking Turkey’s contribution to contemporary practice

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