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The incredible lightness of building

In his Man about Town column, Thomas Roueché admires the delicate touch of Renzo Piano’s Istanbul Modern, a pearl on the Bosphorus

  • Oya Eczacibaşi, founder of Istanbul Modern, with the architect Renzo Piano at the opening of the museum’s new home (photo: Monica Fritz)

For a city that has seen such intense urban development over recent decades, it is interesting that Istanbul has very few buildings by the international “starchitects” who have become part of the vocabulary of so many global cities. Rather there has been a tendency to reinterpret this vocabulary through a local vernacular. Thus, rather than a Zaha Hadid, Istanbul’s skyline features her Turkish student Melike Altınışık’s Çamlıca Tower; and rather than a Santiago Calatrava bridge or station, the Golden Horn has an ersatz version by Hakan Kıran. Likewise, homegrown architectural practices have tended to dominate – not least Tabanlıoğlu, which after three generations lays claim to be the most influential firm in Turkey, building everything from malls to museums to concert halls, even designing the first iteration of Istanbul Modern (2004–18)
in a former customs warehouse.

Thus the arrival of the venerable Renzo Piano on the shores of the Bosphorus as architect of the new Istanbul Modern, in Tophane, one of the city’s most prominent waterside stretches, feels somewhat unusual.

Istanbul Modern’s plot is contained within the wider Galataport development, which has opened to the public a large stretch of the once industrial corniche as an open-air shopping mall and a port for cruise ships, designed in part by Tabanlıoğlu. One of the city’s largest public-space interventions for years, it has garnered mixed reactions, some praising the opening up of the waterfront, others decrying the commercialisation of the space and the many barriers to access.

Now 86, Renzo Piano has developed a unique architectural language, and has become known in particular for his designs for museums and art spaces. His career-defining collaboration with the late Richard Rogers on the Centre Georges Pompidou in Beaubourg, Paris (1977), is no doubt the most famous of these, creating one of the best-known architectural spaces in the world. Through the simple gesture of placing the structural frame of the building, along with the heating and air ducts, on the outside, the Centre Pompidou challenged and transformed many of the logics of architecture up to that point. As Piano put it, “Beaubourg was a joyous urban machine, a creature which might have come out of a Jules Verne novel, a sort of bizarre boat in dry dock… It is a double provocation; a challenge to academism, but also a parody of the imagery of technology of our time. To consider it as a high-tech object is a mistake.” Given that the dominant aesthetic of Istanbul’s recent development has been a sort of high-tech science-fictive urbanism, it might superficially make sense that Renzo Piano would contribute to this chorus of construction, yet this would be to misunderstand his project, which for over five decades has sought to explore the aesthetic and artistic power of the industrial and practical aspects of engineering…

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