I was walking in Istanbul Modern last Tuesday when the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV) announced that a project by artist Cevdet Erek will be presented at the Pavilion of Turkey at the 57th International Art Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia in 2017. Erek is among the participants of an exhibition currently on display at Istanbul Modern's ground floor. Titled "Don't Be Late Home," the show is open until June 26 and is curated by Cem Sorguç and is coordinated by Pelin Derviş. Participants in the show include Ceren Oykut, Deniz Cem Önduygu, Hilmi Tezgör, İdil Ergün, İpek Akpınar and Funda Uz.
"Don't Be Late Home" focuses on our oldest and most fundamental accommodation/living space in the human-space cross-section, namely our homes," Sorguç explains in the catalog. "The human being's need for shelter is a historical and complex issue dating back thousands of years. Meanwhile, the debate of whose problem housing is has been going unresolved for a long time. We have lost track of whether it is a problem of shelter, a problem pertaining to the city, an architectural design problem, an interior problem of living spaces, or if it comprises all."
Initiated by VitrA and the Turkish Association of Architects in Private Practice, the exhibition focuses on "commercial, tourism, education and culture buildings in previous years, the project continues to document and discuss the milieu of contemporary architecture in Turkey and provide a platform for new studies in the field by concentrating on different types of buildings," according to the curator. The show depicts the political economic journey of housing in Turkey from the 19th century to the present date.
One half of the gallery is devoted to photographs of home interiors in Turkey. There are entertaining images from old advertisements promoting refrigerators and heating systems. Furnishing interiors had been an extension of Turkey's modernization and it was taken quite seriously. Visitors will see doorbells placed in between those images and are invited to press them and listen to their different melodies. Through this idea one can explore a cultural pattern in a very technically inventive way.
"Rather than trying to answer these and similar questions, the exhibition strives to crystallize the questions," Sorguç explains. "It endeavors to put forth the reasons behind the emergence of these questions and the answers the human being has sought in process within the context of cities and the environment."
Some of the questions raised in the exhibition involve new constructions in Istanbul. "Today, in this period when all corners of the country have turned into construction sites, can we create living spaces that break social segregation, and reflect diversity?" the exhibition asks. "How can we bring together the segregated users? Instead of utopias-dystopias, is it possible to create livable living spaces?"
While walking in the gallery, I came across curious bits of information about construction, like this paragraph about "çıkmacılar" (construction scrap dealers): "Çıkmacılar are the places where building elements like windows, doors and fixtures salvaged from buildings are collected and recycled. These junkyards associated with 'gecekondu,' urban transformation and neighborhood demolitions are found in districts located on the peripheries of the city."
Visitors are also provided with information about Istanbul's famous apartment buildings in late 19th and early 20th centuries. "Apartments in Pera, which has turned into a field of attraction, are the new living spaces of earthly pleasures, money, and hybrid and cosmopolitan life. Part of the residents are Levantines who work and live in Istanbul, and Ottoman and foreign businessmen." Those buildings were built using masonry and have plastered brick walls. "The spatial organization includes a common living area, four bedrooms, a main anteroom and service units." They have five or six floors.
Then there are summer houses, "one of the musts of the Ottoman imperial city," owned or rented mostly by "the new class that prospers with commerce in the 19th century. Located on the Bosporus and in Yeşilköy and Moda, "they are far enough from the center but within limits of accessibility."
Equally interesting are the Surp Agos houses built in 1877. "Ten masonry houses and six shops were built in Pangaltı on the avenue in front of the hospital between 1869 and 1883; some of the income from these is used to give scholarships to students. The foundation has 25 more buildings built on Elmadağ Avenue after 1905. These buildings were demolished and rebuilt by the foundation management in 1957 in scope of the [Prime Minister Adnan] Menderes zoning operations for the beautification of the city."
Visitors who have heard about the Vedad Tek House on Nişantaşı Valikonağı Avenue will find information on this key building. Built in 1916, Vedad Tek House was "designed in the final years of the Ottoman era by Vedad Tek (1873-1942), one of the leading architects of the First National Architecture Movement and Early Republican era, as his own house on Nişantaşı Valikonağı Avenue." Today used as a restaurant, the building is considered among the masterpieces of Turkey's architectural history.
But my favorite part of the exhibition concerned Akaretler Row Houses, which I walk by on a regular basis. Recognized as the first mass housing project of the Ottoman era, the Akaretler Row Houses were commissioned during the reign of Sultan Abdülaziz. "The row houses were designed by architect Sarkis Balyan, in part for the accommodation of palace personnel and in part as apartments for rent. It was planned to use the rental income for the building of the Aziziye Mosque. Construction of the row houses started in 1875."