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Master of plaster

The dusty rooms of a crumbling Istanbul palazzo are a living museum of the plaster-caster’s art. Berrin Torolsan visits the heir to a fine tradition. Photographs by Fritz von der Schulnburg

  • A hundred years' worth of casts are laid out like jigsaw pieces on the floor of the Palace of St Eugène in Beyoğlu's Tophane district. These are Kemal Cimbiz's working archive, now used for new buildings as well as restoration

One of the oldest cities in the world, Istanbul is a labyrinth and a battleground of architectural styles, Genoese, Byzantine, Ottoman, Levantine and pre- and post-war European buildings jostle for attention. One narrow side street meanders into another or suddenly stops dead in a cul-de-sac full of architectural surprises heaped one on top of the other.

This cornucopian quality is at its most intense on the left back of the Golden Horn. Above the tall, glass-faced office buildings lining the quayside still stands the medieval Genoese tower, built in 1267. Radiating from it are streets lined with tall, fin-de-siecle townhouses of wealthy Greek, Jewish and Armenian merchants. Next to the remains of the old Italian colony’s city walls, is a massive Moorish mosque, built in the 1300s, with a most unusual tower as its minaret. It has been restored many times, most recently in 1913, when a street fountain was added in purest Art Nouveau…

The world’s first metro, the Tünel, climbs the steep hill from the quayside to Pera. In the 18th and 19th centuries European ministers built their embassies here on both sides of a long, narrow avenue, the Grand’ Rue de Pera, alongside their churches and cathedrals, Art Nouveau apartment blocks and theatres and cinemas. Later came Art Deco shopping arcades.

Next to the Tünel station, the cypress trees of a 15th-century Mevlevi dervish convent mask the bell tower of Christ Church, the Crimean memorial church, built in rustic Gothic style by George Street, architect of the Law Courts in London.

A steep lane drops behind this little corner of England to the district of Tophane, the Ottoman Arsenal. In Boğazkesen, a street leading down past Tom Tom Kaptan and the residence of the Italian ambassador, you will find a certain arched doorway. It gives nothing away. Push it open and step onto a terrace. On one side is a wilderness that must once have been a formal garden, now dominated by a giant wisteria and home to dogs and chickens. On the other is the dilapidated façade of the neo-Renaissance palazzo known as St Eugène.

Built on land granted by the Sultan to the French Soeurs de la Charité, St Eugène served as an orphanage from 1868 until 1937. Today it remains under French protection and houses the workshop of İbrahim Kemal Çimbiz.

Kemal Cimbiz is a plaster-caster. He is 60 now but clearly remembers the day when his father, a modest shopkeeper in Tophane, first brought him here to learn a craft. As Turkish custom goes, when a boy is given over to be an apprentice, the parents tell the master, ‘His flesh is yours, the bones are ours’, indicating that the master has full authority over the novice and is responsible for his education and good behaviour. Kemal’s master was a kindly Armenian plaster-caster by the name of Garabet Cezarliyan, whose family had been responsible for setting alight the blaze of styles on Istanbul’s façades.

He spoke four languages and was a patient man. ‘Forget about beating,’ Kemal Cimbiz says. ‘He never said a cross word.’

Kemal was skilled and obedient and proved quick to learn. He became like a son to Cezarliyan and worked with him until the end of his life. When his master died in 1982, Kemal inherited the workshop and himself became a master of decorative sculpture…

To read the full article, purchase Issue 23

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Issue 23, 2001 Haute Ottoman
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Buy the issue
Issue 23, 2001 Haute Ottoman
£8.00 / $10.39 / 343.95 TL
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