Nationalism in stone: İstanbul’s forgotten masterpieces

Nationalism in stone: İstanbul’s forgotten masterpieces

Büyük Postane, Sirkeci

January 17, 2010, Sunday/ 14:55:00
Flip over a TL 20 banknote and on the reverse you'll see a man in his prime with a big, bristling moustache. This is Kemalettin Bey, an architect whose time seems to have come at last after years in which his work went virtually ignored. But Kemalettin Bey was, with Vedat Tek, one of the prime movers behind a turn-of-the-20th-century style of architecture that, unlike the Art Nouveau that started to adorn İstanbul at the same time, drew its inspiration from indigenous styles, particularly those of the Selçuk and Ottoman periods.

Originally called the Neoclassical Turkish style or even the National Renaissance style, this type of architecture is better known nowadays as First National Architecture (Birinici Ulusal Mimarlık). Unlike the spectacular mosques and palaces of the Ottoman period such as the Sultanahmet Cami (Blue Mosque) or Topkapı Sarayı (Palace) to which tourists flock in their thousands, the buildings of the First National Style were designed to serve more mundane purposes. Many of them housed -- and still do house -- workaday government departments. Consequently, they're buildings that people tend to walk past every day without necessarily even noticing them.

First National Architecture had its heyday in the first three decades of the 20th century when the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and birth of the Turkish Republic led to a growth of interest in Turkish nationalism. Although both Kemalettin Bey (1870-1927) and Vedat Tek (1873-1942) had studied overseas -- Kemalettin Bey in Germany, Vedat Tek in France -- and although both worked in a multicultural milieu when they returned to İstanbul, they are thought to have been influenced by the ideas of the Turkish nationalist Ziya Gökalp and to have sought to develop an architectural style that would reflect his ideology. Both men produced works that either aped traditional designs -- viz. Kemalettin Bey's mosque on the Bebek waterfront and Vedat Tek's mosque behind the Büyük Postane (Main Post Office) in Sirkeci -- or mixed in elements of Art Nouveau, as in the enormous wooden mansion Kemalettin Bey designed for Ahmet Ratip Paşa in Çamlıca. Kemalettin Bey even joined forces with his old tutor August Jasmund to work on the Sirkeci train station, a fine example of Oriental Gothic. But both men's most interesting works are those that showed off the characteristics of First National Architecture.

The trademark features of this style are the decoration of the facades of buildings with panels of Kütahya tiling; thick, pointed windows; overhanging gables; protruding stone roundels; and marble muqarnas (stalactite) corbels. Every tourist who stays in Cankurtaran and walks up to Sultanahmet Square will have seen a building that displays all these features without necessarily recognizing what it was. In 1996 the dustcovers finally came off the magnificent building that had been designed in 1919 to serve as Sultanahmet Prison but which had been restored to serve as the luxurious Four Seasons Sultanahmet Hotel. Although its facade bears all the hallmarks of Vedat Tek's work, there is no certainty that he was in fact its architect. Much less mystery surrounds the names of those unfortunates who passed spells inside its walls while it was still a prison, amongst them Billy Hayes, the infamous anti-hero of the dreadful “Midnight Express,” and the far more illustrious writers Nazım Hikmet and Yaşar Kemal.

The Four Seasons kick-started a trend which has been gaining pace in recent years; namely, the restoration of the First National buildings and their conversion for new uses. So not long after the Four Seasons opened, the Fourth Vakıf Han, a monumental pile in Sirkeci designed as a prototype business center by Kemalettin Bey, was converted into what is now the Legacy Ottoman Hotel. Perhaps the most extraordinary makeover was the one given to what started life as a vast abattoir in Sütlüce and is now the İstanbul Cultural and Congress Center. Covering 20,000 square meters of land, this was originally the city's largest slaughterhouse and was only retired from service in the 1980s. Now it can be admired in all its revived splendor as you stroll across the Old Galata Bridge, relocated upstream to provide a pedestrian walkway over the Golden Horn from Eyüp to Sütlüce.

While Kemalettin Bey's finest works in İstanbul are probably the First and Fourth Vakıf Hans, he was also responsible for the Harikzedeğan apartment block, also known as the Tayyare Apartments, in Laleli, which currently house the Crowne Plaza Hotel. This was built in 1922 to accommodate poor local families left homeless by a fire and was not only the first example of a multi-storey housing block in Turkey but also the first instance of the use of reinforced concrete to strengthen a building.

Vedat Tek's İstanbul buildings are more elaborate and generally more prominent than those of Kemalettin Bey and include the magnificent Büyük Postane (Main Post Office) building in Sirkeci with its cute little corner towers and beautifully tiled facade. Today there's a small museum alongside the main postal hall, which means that you can pop inside to see how stylistic details were applied to the painted wooden ceilings and graceful marble staircases. Almost equally unmissable is the huge and newly restored Defter-i Hakanı building in the Hippodrome, which now houses İstanbul's main title deeds office.

On an altogether more intimate scale is the house Tek built for himself in Nişantaşı, just a little way up Valikonağı Caddesi from the Military Museum. Here in an awkward street-corner location, Tek designed a somewhat top-heavy house which nonetheless features all the frills and furbelows of his more dramatic commissions. Today the house is used by the Yekta Restaurant, so you can wander in to inspect the gorgeous wood, marble and tile fittings.

Kemalettin Bey and Vedat Tek may be the names to conjure with, but they were not the sole practitioners of First National Architecture -- the Sütlüce slaughterhouse, for example, was the work of Ahmet Burhanettin Fıtrı and Marko Logos, while the Fatih Kaymakamlığı and İtfaiye (Fatih Local Government Office and Fire Station) complex was the work of the Greek architect Konstantinos P. Kiriakidis; currently undergoing restoration in the shadow of the Aqueduct of Valens, this will make a wonderful addition to the Fatih landscape when the work is completed. Even Alexandre Vallaury of Pera Palas Hotel fame turned his hand to the style in 1897 when he designed the Düyun-u Umumiye (Public Debt Administration) building in a spectacular location in Cağaloğlu overlooking the Golden Horn; later the İstanbul Boys' High School, this is now a curiously misnamed co-ed establishment.

Most of the monuments to First National Architecture were built on a large scale, but there are also some cute little reminders of it in the shape of some of the older ferry terminals. It was Vedat Tek who was behind the Moda ticket office that has since been decommissioned and turned into a cute café, and he, too, who designed the lovely landing stage that serves the train station at Haydarpaşa. But the ticket office at Beşiktaş was designed by Ali Talat Bey in 1911, and the one on Büyükada, with its lovely tiled depictions of grape vines, by the Armenian architect Mihran Azaryan in 1915. Others in Bostancı and Kadıköy are in the same style, although the names of their architects are unknown.

Once you know what you're looking for, you will soon spot other examples of First National Architecture, especially in Karaköy, where a fine example at the far end of the quayside has just been restored. Nearby on Kermankeş Caddesi, a six-storey building by an architect known only as Nafilyan is currently awaiting a buyer. But perhaps the finest monument still to be found a new use is the long, tile-fronted Liman Hanı on Yalı Köşkü Caddesi in Eminönü, an exquisite work of Vedat Tek that is crying out for immediate restoration.

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