Istanbul has experienced numerous disasters throughout its history. During the era of Sultan Bayezid II, the city shook for 42 days, and following Meşrutiyet (the Second Constitutional Era that began in 1908) one-third of the city was burnt to the ground.
Over time, much of the historical pattern of the city has been changed or ruined, but the silhouette has never really been affected. However, today, the same silhouette, which has entranced everyone from writers to architects through the ages, is in serious danger. The very same silhouette that has somehow managed to survive fires and earthquakes is being damaged by the ongoing construction of three buildings on the Zeytinburnu coastal road. The construction of the three buildings began last year, and now, when viewed from the Asian side of the city, can be seen from behind the Hagia Sophia Museum and the Sultanahmet Mosque.
It was a family living on the Asian side of İstanbul that realized at the start of last month that the historical silhouette of the city was being affected by the construction project. The family registered a complaint with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and asked for an investigation to be carried out into the situation.
The construction project was examined by the Cultural and Natural Assets Conservation Board, and it was then decided that the construction site at the center of the complaint was in fact outside of the city’s designated protected areas. However, directorate officials in Ankara say that the site fell inside the historic areas that are included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. An investigation by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism into the construction area revealed that the site was having a negative impact on the silhouette of the historical peninsula. The ministry was quick to inform local municipalities of the situation, calling on the İstanbul Metropolitan municipality along with the local Zeytinburnu Municipality to immediately conduct their own investigations and to call for an urgent halt on all construction at the site in question. One month has passed since this warning, but the construction still continues.
A new city zoning plan which was put together by the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality’s City Planning Directorate and presented to the Cultural and Natural Assets Conservation Board last year was approved two weeks ago. According to the zoning plan, new buildings under construction in the city will be limited in terms of the number of stories they can have. Buildings already under construction or which have already been completed will not be subject to these new restrictions. Speaking to Sunday’s Zaman, the head of the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality Construction Commission, Sefer Kocabaş, stated: “There is nothing we can do. And so now, the real fate of this construction project is the subject of much speculation.” Art historian Semavi Eyice said, “It gives me great pain to say this, but we are losing İstanbul,” while architect Cengiz Bektaş told Sunday’s Zaman that an emergency meeting needed to be held by the City Planning Department to issue an order to stop the construction.
Cengiz Bektaş (architect): “The whole world is jealous of İstanbul’s silhouette. Architects in Europe say, ‘If you want to see a real silhouette, go to İstanbul.’ But it really cannot be said that we understand the value of this. There were times when I arrived in the city as a 15 year old by boat from the Sea of Marmara, and wept at the beauty of its silhouette. I think that there are really two things that we can be proud of: the Bosporus and the city’s silhouette. We have lost so much with regard to the Bosporus, so let us not lose the historic peninsula. Some things have been protected in the region we are looking at, but games being played at the Monuments Council could bring about even bigger concessions. The construction project under way, which is ruining the historical silhouette, only confirms this. So precautions need to be taken and all this really needs to be followed up on. I attach great importance to the fact that the Ministry of Culture and Tourism determined through its own findings that the historical pattern is being damaged. An urgent council of experts needs to be put together. Construction sites damaging the silhouette of the city need to be stopped immediately. If necessary, some buildings should be demolished. If everything continues as is, I really do fear for our future. We will have no hope left.”
‘We need to learn from this’
Ahmet Vefik Alp (architect): “Decisions from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the municipality conflict with one another. Where were they when permission was granted for this construction project to take place? There are deeds for this structure. If they are able to finish everything within five years, no one will be able to say ‘stop.’ I think this building will not be demolished. Perhaps the municipality could use its authority to stop the construction. But when the situation is carried over to the courts, there is little doubt that a decision in favor of allowing the construction project to continue will result. We need to learn a lesson from this building. Just as there are restrictions for the Bosporus and other waterfront zones, we need to have these building restrictions in place on the historical peninsula. An urgent ban needs to be placed on constructing right outside the old city walls. There should be a limit on the amount of stories buildings can have. Otherwise, more buildings like this will be built. For example, the Ibis Hotel and the Novotel were built outside the zone that is controlled. Now there are three more large structures under way. There are housing towers being built. All this construction work must be supervised.”
‘We are losing İstanbul’
Semavi Eyice (art historian): “There are many structures which have damaged the İstanbul silhouette. Even Europeans have criticized this, but we don’t seem to care. When I see these sorts of photographs, it pains me. My childhood comes to mind. Those little city squares and narrow lanes… When looking out at the historical peninsula from behind the Galata Tower, you would see those wooden homes and the white minarets rising up from between them. There were around 450 mosques in İstanbul at that time. But now, you can’t see these things. Something must be done soon to protect the silhouette. In my 40th year, I resigned from the Monuments Council. I decided to resign at that point because I felt like decisions were being made which went against my experiences and my sense of personal ethics. But no one asked, ‘This man has worked here for 40 years, what is it that has given him cause to leave?’ I have seen that they don’t understand at all. Decisions are made and actions are taken on their own accord. I didn’t get involved, I didn’t even share my ideas. What is really agonizing is that there is no one on that council that actually really knows İstanbul. Everyone on the council exudes an air of assurance, as if they know the best. The current mentality has to change. As I say this, it pains me, but we really are losing İstanbul. It is getting more and more difficult to bring it back to the way it was before. What needs to happen is the symbols of the city must be protected. When someone tries to build a structure with 150 floors to it, neither İstanbul nor its silhouette will survive.”
‘Not possible to demolish’
İhsan Yılmaz (deputy director of İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality City Planning): “Two projects have been prepared by the Maps Directorate. The first one was carried out in the ’90s and the second in the 2000s. They were not really successful projects. There were problems with the findings. Implementing old rules is very difficult. Buildings much taller than specified in zoning plans were allowed to be built. It is simply not possible to demolish these buildings. They would have to be declared public first. We need time to implement these zoning plans. Just as it took thousands of years for the city’s silhouette to be created, it will take time to protect it. Under the new zoning plan, we can work in a more organized way with the other municipalities. We are unable to distinguish which structures are likely to damage the city’s silhouette. It is the municipality that is both creating the plans for protection and issuing permission for construction. The structure being built in Zeytinburnu is outside our area of authority. We do not have the answer to the question of what will happen there.”
No sanctions as part of new plan
A new zoning plan created by the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality’s City Planning Directorate was approved two weeks ago. The council is set to meet again next week to carry out its last checks and controls, and to start the implementation of this new plan. According to the new plan, the zone with the fewest problems is Sultanahmet and the surrounding areas; these areas have no problems where the height of structures is concerned. Old buildings are also set to be repaired on the historical peninsula according to the plan, while the Süleymaniye district is to be closed to traffic completely. The weight of traffic will be pushed to the new metro set to run between Yenikapı and Taksim. The new plan also includes many rules that concern buildings which threaten İstanbul’s silhouette. For example, work is being done to determine new standards for the height of structures in the area that stretches from Üsküdar to Avcılar. But there are no sanctions on buildings that are under construction or have been completed.
In the meantime, in order to make the plan as effective as possible, city officials are about to adopt a new project. The project presented to UNESCO in June will be submitted for approval on Oct. 1. As long as no problems emerge in the last step of the process, the historical peninsula is to be supervised according to UNESCO standards once this project is adopted.