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Architecture's back-story needs to broaden its scope

Rory Olcayto
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It’s time to rewrite the history books to celebrate the unsung heroes and heroines of architecture

Last week The Architects’ Journal was in Istanbul and Edirne, leading a study trip with our partner, Turkishceramics. Our focus was Mimar Sinan, the Sultan’s chief architect during the Ottoman Empire’s golden age in the 16th century. We’re publishing a book about his various achievements and holding an exhibition, too, next year.

If you didn’t know, Sinan, a contemporary of Palladio, is responsible for the look and feel of historic Istanbul, having designed all the major mosques that give shape to the city’s skyline. But he was also responsible for many hammams (Turkish baths), bridges and aqueducts, as well as restoring and adding to existing buildings such as Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia, to which he added minarets and kept a constant watch over its fragile dome, which he repaired several times. But he also built throughout the empire: in Edirne, where he built his masterpiece, the Selimiye Mosque, which today sits on the Bulgarian border, but also in Crimea, Sofia, Bosnia, Nicosia, Jerusalem, Mecca … it’s why we’ve dubbed the project ‘Sinan: the first starchitect’.

Many architects admitted they had never heard of Mimar Sinan

Sinan should be ranked alongside the best Renaissance architects of the age. Maybe we should think of him as precisely that: a Renaissance architect, engaged in the same dome-building obsession that yielded Brunelleschi’s effort at Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence and that of Michelangelo and others at St Peter’s. These edifices vied to outdo the Pantheon and Hagia Sophia, both considered masterworks from a bygone age even then. Like his Italian counterparts, Sinan craved a legacy, so he wrote his own biography, no doubt inspired by his Mediterranean neighbours with their various treatises.

We took seven architecture practices with us to Turkey: FCBS, Reiach and Hall, Ian Ritchie Architects, DSDHA, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, Bureau de Change and Sam Jacob Studio. Many admitted that, until this trip, they had never heard of Mimar Sinan. For Neil Gillespie, Sinan was a ‘revelation’, for Peter Clegg, the trip was ‘an eye-opener’ and Sinan’s portfolio an ‘amazing body of work’. Which brings me to the main point: architectural history - the kind rolled out in big-selling books students buy and the kind practices like to have in their libraries - are painfully inadequate in our increasingly globalised world. The standard stepping stones that give shape to this outdated narrative - Vitruvius, Palladio, Corb - more than deserve their place in the story, but it’s no longer accurate or good enough for today.

This isn’t simply about Sinan, or other ‘exotic’ architects being overlooked in popular histories. This is about wilful ignorance across the board. The role of women, too, in shaping architectural achievement through the ages is still barely acknowledged. Sure, Lina Bo Bardi, Jane Drew and Zaha Hadid are now in the canon. But what about Norah Aiton and Betty Scott of Aiton and Scott, who, in 1931, designed the steel-framed home of Aiton & Co, the engineering firm owned by Norah’s father? It’s a very early example of English Modernism and one of the first industrial buildings designed by a professional female partnership anywhere in the world. Of course there are many more. Their exclusion from mainstream architectural history is unacceptable. General history has been overhauled significantly in recent times: architecture’s back-story must follow suit.

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