Keeping track of Istanbul’s ever-changing cityscape is a full-time job, especially as skyscrapers and mixed-use developments have mushroomed in the past decade. Accompanying the construction boom are questions of how the city’s past should factor into its future growth – what role does historical preservation play in a city obsessed with new-builds?
In an article published last Friday on Stambouline, a blog dedicated to the art and architecture of the Ottoman world and beyond, the doctoral candidate Emily Neumeier explores this question, albeit through a very focused lens: the Narmanlı Han. The historic building, located on İstiklal Caddesi and best known as home in the 1930s to such cultural greats as Ahmed Hamdi Tanpınar and Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu, is at the centre of the most recent conflict over how to approach urban-renewal projects.
At the moment, the building’s distinctive rounded facade is concealed by scaffolding. Moreover, the plans for refurbishment are nebulous, which is certainly a cause for concern.
The rounded facade of the Narmanlı Han is now sadly covered in scaffolding.
Neumeier begins the piece by explaining why so many people are worried about the fate of Narmanlı Han. After witnessing several so-called ‘restoration’ projects on İstiklal, specifically the dreadful enlargement of the Demirören building, residents ‘fear the literal and metaphoric lack of transparency that the scaffolding represents,’ she writes. It could be ‘another potential bait-and-switch situation that will only come to light once the damage [has] been irreversibly done.’
The main aim of the piece, though, is to ‘lay the foundations for a focused architectural history of the site now occupied by the Narmanlı Han’. As Neumeier writes:
‘Besides offering some minor corrections to the timeline of the building’s history that keep circulating in recent news articles, it should also be stressed that what we see on the ground today is not a coherent structure that can be labelled with a single date or architect, but rather an amalgamation of different phases of construction and repair.’
The public has not been able to access the courtyard for several years. (This photo was taken in 2014.)
What follows is a captivating retelling of the Narmanlı Han’s structural development as it morphed from a Russian Embassy in the late 19th century into a bohemian enclave in the 1940s and 50s. Ultimately the building was ‘more or less shut down around 2000’, writes Neumeier. ‘Nostalgia for the quiet courtyard and the wisteria blossoms has been mounting ever since.’
Neumeier also documents the recent row over the restoration project, providing a deft explanation of the two main approaches to preservation in Istanbul, and how these differences are revealed in the language used – the term ‘restoration’ (restorasyon) usually denotes a project where the emphasis is on historic conservation, while the term ‘renewal’ (yenileme) generally refers to the replication of an historic structure (often after the demolition of the original building). ‘The fact that the Narmanlı Han itself transitioned from a “renewal” to a “restoration” project in the past few years can largely be attributed to developers responding to an increasingly vocal and organised community of activists who are stepping in where they feel their local government has failed,’ she writes.
İstiklal Caddesi and its environs are a microcosm of the struggle in Istanbul over whether to rebuild or to restore, with advocates of the former usually motivated by commercial gain. (Gentrification in Beyoğlu is a booming business, one that threatens not just the appearance of the area but also its long-term tradesmen and tenants, the repositories of Istanbul’s intangible cultural heritage.) Neumeier has provided some much-needed context for this debate as it applies to the Narmanlı Han. We highly recommend that you click here and read the full article.
All images courtesy of Emily Neumeier.