A Modern Idea of Town: the Istanbul Pera-Beyoğlu District from Late Ottoman Period to 1930s.

The Istanbul Pera-Beyoglu urban scene developed during the Late Ottoman period was a complex outcome of urban practices, interpretations and borrowings of architectural languages and types. This would not have been possible without the presence of a multicultural society which affected this process of transformation until the first stages of the Turkish Republic.
How modernity was interpreted by local bourgeoisie in their residential and commercial buildings?
How architects, patrons from Ottoman elite and master builders defined a plural, complex and comprehensive idea of modernity along studied period?
Here I will suggest synthetically some aspects of this important process of the Istanbul modernization. In particular, I want to emphasize the relevance of the ordinary residential buildings in the transformation of the urban scene studied.

The transformation of neighbourhoods like the suburb of Pera-Beyo?lu in Istanbul became drastic during the second half of the 19th century. The first stage of change was related to Tanzimat reform, which introduced regulations relating to urban form, mainly regarding the modification of the existing streets width. After the large Istanbul fires, new urban patterns and regulations on the replacement of fire-damaged timber houses were also introduced.  Most of the existing streets were progressively transformed with the replacement of previous timber buildings with new stone and brick buildings and consequently there was a densification of the urban block. Plots became generally smaller and the open spaces of the block, previously used like a garden-orchard, were occupied almost entirely by new buildings. The most important outcome of this situation was the formation of a new idea of the public street. The rhythm of volumes and voids that characterized the 18th century Ottoman city with the typical sequence of houses-gardens-precinct walls was replaced by an almost continuous urban front where façades became the main element of the public space, similarly to western post-renaissance city. Moreover, in these neighbourhoods as we can verify from early 20th century insurance maps like the Istanbul and Izmir Goad and Pervititch ones, there was an overlapping of functions such as commercial spaces and housing in the same urban block or in the same building. The division of the urban functions which was a  feature of the Ottoman city until 18th century, in the 19th century became more complex.
New types of collective housing were introduced for the first time in the second half of the 19th century and became, at the beginning of the 20th century, one of the most relevant elements in the urban scene of these districts. In Istanbul Pera quarters apartment buildings were sometimes huge and multi layered in terms of private and public functions like Late Ottoman hans. In other situations, due to the urban density increase, housing plots became more narrow and longer with interior small light wells. Similarly, single-family houses became smaller in comparison to the previous traditional Ottoman houses. They were characterized by small, rectangular, deep plots and defined “Tanzimat boxes” by Zeynep Enlil. In some streets in new planned districts, single family houses were built like simple row houses, whereas in higher-class neighbourhood lying east of the Grand Rue de Pera, the local Levantine, Ottoman Greek and Armenian architects designed this houses in a more elaborate sense in terms of languages and materials used.

After the end of the Ottoman Empire some important cosmopolitan cities like Salonica, Izmir and Alexandria lost their complex societies and their political importance belonging to new national contexts.  On the contrary, in Istanbul many neighbourhoods of Pera-Beyo?lu and Galata  had been strengthening their character after the end of the Ottoman Empire. One important aspect of the permanence of the Late Ottoman urban scene was the presence of architects who continued to work in Istanbul after the 1923 exchange of population between Turkey and Greece. They were members of the Late Ottoman non Muslim elite, and they became an important connection between two different cultural periods and at the same time one of the latest expressions of the multicultural environment which affected the architecture of the city once the Ottoman Empire had ended. This generation of professionals is less known in comparison to the well studied like Giulio Mongeri, Raimondo D’Aronco, or Mimar Kemalettin. Until the 1920s some outlying Pera neighbourhoods were still characterized by the presence of traditional Ottoman houses and a quite low urban density. After 1930s these neighbourhoods such as Cihangir  were urbanized with apartment houses which proposed similar aspects to the Late Ottoman period. The changing of the architectural language is the main feature that we can recognize in comparison to the Late Ottoman collective housing. In terms of the three-dimensional articulation we can see in these new buildings interesting overhanging elements, such as bow windows or the movement of the entire upper part of the building: Le Corbusier ribbon windows were easily adapted to the bow windows creating a modernist shape of the previous cumba.

The heterogeneous cultural context of Istanbul, like in Izmir, Salonica and Alexandria, produced equally a complex urban scape. Many pictures from late 19th century show us different scales of  buildings and a various urban fronts: isolated palaces, apartment houses, and small single houses where built next to each other without any element that unified the urban front like in 19th century Western cities. Although this urban scape reminded some travellers of a western urban scape, it is not comparable to the urban streets of the western European bourgeois cities of the same period.
Despite Istanbul lost its political importance during the new Republic era, consolidated an original interpretation of modernity which expressed also a peculiar idea of the town.


Figure 1. A Late Ottoman apartment building in Pera-Beyoğlu. Photo by Emiliano Bugatti


Figure 2. Late Ottoman single family houses or according to Enlil Tanzimat boxes. Photo by Emiliano Bugatti


Figure 3. The urban scene of a quarter urbanized with modern housing in the first stage of the Turkish Republic. Photo by Emiliano Bugatti

BIO | Emiliano Bugatti, architect and researcher, has collaborated from 2000 to 2005 with Maurice Cerasi, full professor of architecture at the University of Genova, in academic research on the Eastern Mediterranean historical cities. He has written in the volumes “The Istanbul Divanyolu–a Case Study in Ottoman Urbanity and Architecture”, “La città dalle molte culture” and “Multicultural Urban Fabric and Types in the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean”. He finished his PhD in 2009 at the Doctorate School of Architecture, University of Genova, with the dissertation “Metamorfosi Urbane Mediterranee – Salonicco e Smirne costruzione e ricostruzione delle identità”. Currently he is a part time professor in interior and architectural design at Yeditepe University and Kadir Has University in Istanbul. In the last ten years he has collaborated with architects and studios associated in Genova, Milano and Istanbul. In 2010 he won with Teget Mimarlik the Izmir Opera house competition and in 2012 was mentioned in the international competition for the rehabilitation of Lalla place in the Fez Medina (Morocco).

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