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The history of Ottoman architecture needs further discussion, says Rory Olcayto

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[THIS WEEK] On page one of her introduction to The Age of Sinan: Architectural Culture in the Ottoman Empire, Professor Gülru Necipoğlu complains that the great 16th century architect has been coloured by ‘universalist’ and ‘national’  paradigms of orientalism that utterly fail to historicise his work’

Why not try understanding Sinan’s architecture on its own terms? This Necipoğlu does and Age of Sinan, a close reading of historical archives and the architect’s vivid autobiography, is the best, most interesting book on the subject.

But Necipoğlu’s culturally specific, contextual reading, is rare. Most investigators are prejudice. For example, when advising on content for a radio programme on Sinan, the presenter hoped I could confirm that that the Sultan’s chief architect penned letters to Palladio. (He didn’t, but Mercantonio Barbaro, Venetian ambassador to Istanbul, praised Sinan’s work as “superbissime fabriche” and commissioned Palladio to design his villa.)

A new book makes a similar mistake, despite being a quite magnificent volume on a trending topic that will interest novices and experts alike. Dogan Kuban’s Ottoman Architecture, is unparalleled in ambition: a survey of the empire’s built estate throughout its 600 year history. With over 1000 photographs and drawings, the effort expended here is impressive.

Yet on page one of his introduction, Kuban strikes the wrong note when he says the foundations of Ottoman architectural history rest upon little more than the accounts of a 17th travel writer and court miniaturist paintings. How does Kuban fail to acknowledge the vast governmental archives that Necipoğlu uses so effectively to build a prosaic yet riveting account of a complex parallel culture? Perhaps because he is an architect first, then historian.

Nevertheless, as a record of work Kuban’s book is indispensable. But for a more nuanced contextual reading, Necipoğlu’s perspective is the more rewarding.

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