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The House on the Hill

A modern classic in Kalkan

Dipping into a Mediterranean idyll, Stephen and Nina Solarz have built a haven high above the harbour of Kalkan. Andrew Finkel paid them a visit. Photographs by James Mortimer

Even the mad dogs have better sense than to venture out at midday along the quayside of Kalkan’s sleepy harbour. The only sign of any energy at all is displayed by the busboy at a nearby restaurant, who has decided to climb a mulberry tree overlooking the tables. He’s shaking the branches so that the fruit won’t fall at night and upset the diners. There is undoubtedly war and famine raging elsewhere in the world – if you could be bothered to find a newspaper to read about it – but getting hit by a falling mulberry seems about the worst thing that could happen in this part of the Mediterranean. So it is only natural that a gossip with local residents in the less risky shade of a flowering pepper tree should turn to events in nearby Iraq, a pending visit to Kalkan by the US ambassador and, of course, the never-ending travails of Monica Lewinsky’s mother.

Something is happening to tiny Kalkan, where until recently ‘think tanks’ meant advice for a novice scuba diver and the only movers and shakers were up in the trees. Still an idyllic coastal hamlet, it would appear to have become an adjunct to the Washington Beltway. Responsibility for this transformation belongs in great measure to Stephen and Nina Solarz, who built the new white house on the hill.

For eighteen years, Mr Solarz represented a district in Brooklyn and served on Congress’s Foreign Affairs Committee. He grasped Turkey’s importance early on in his career. In 1975 he opposed the US arms embargo on Turkey over Cyprus as a “monstrous mistake”, and more recently he lobbied professionally on Ankara’s behalf. Over the intervening decades he began to appreciate Turkey not just as a strategic brick in American interests but as a land where he could feel at home. Work has taken him to a staggering number of countries – more than 130 – but the ambition he and his wife now share is to limit themselves to only one. For all those decades he delighted in his unofficial title of “the honourable congressman from Ankara”. Now he has changed constituencies and represents Kalkan.

Building the house was encouraged by Ersin Anoglu, chairman of the construction firm Yaı Merkezi, who oversaw the local builder. The Solarzes stumbled on the perfect plot just above the town, with a panoramic view of the bay. It was the last place they nearly didn’t look at in 1999 as they hurried to catch a plane. The Washington DC architects Robert Bell did the drawings after first making the pilgrimage to visit the site. The intention appears to have been to fit in with local landscape and style but at the same time contribute something special. The materials are local limestone and white painted stucco, but it is a modern, designed building, not a bit of indigenous architecture writ large. As such it raises the ante on the mock baronial holiday homes which litter the south coast, solid edifices which belong nowhere and if anything plunder their surroundings.

Galip Erdogan, the contractor – himself an emigre, but from Istanbul rather than Washington – embraced the project. He made a point, for example, of preserving the olive tree in the entrance courtyard, which is as inconveniently placed as could be but makes the house look as though it belongs. At first it seems inconsequential that the principal axis is a line that stretches out to the village mosque – an esprit reinforced by its own minaret-like chimney. But this makes the point that the house belongs to only one spot on earth.

It skirts the brow of the hill, with ingeniously stacked terraces providing an alternative corridor to the one running through the house. All the bedrooms enjoy the same extraordinary view of the islands and the broad horizon. Best of all, there is no sense of being “inside” or “outside”. It is all one space, as natural to walk from your bedroom to the swimming pool as it is to the shower.

The one substantial room is a barrel-vaulted living room, but even that has an ephemeral quality, with one wall carved into a series of intermittently spaced niches and irregularly shaped windows. The real living space is outside. A terrace as large as the house itself leads up to an observation deck designed for watching the constellations. There is an “infinity” swimming pool at a lower level, the far side being a sheer drop. This means you paddle along with the sense of being level with the horizon. Only the mosquitoes remind you that you are not in paradise.

The other danger in owning such a great view is that there are always people determined to destroy it. The Solarzes have been coming to Turkey long enough to remember when Bodrum and Marmaris were fishing villages. Kalkan is no longer a fishing village and there are a number of construction works in progress, but the town has not lost its way. It sees its future in attracting the interested visitor, not in mass tourism.

The Solarzes are clearly determined to make the house work. Washington is not exactly around the corner, but they appear to show littlecompunction in nipping over for a longish weekend. That sort of energy meant that the house was built in less time than it takes most people to get around to buying their dining tables. Nina Solarz has not only her table but also a steady stream of interesting friends from all over the world to sit round it – along with paintings, kilims, purpose-built cupboards, bedspreads and dressers. Allies in Istanbul and elsewhere have been efficiently marshalled to get the house up and running. “I know more people in Kalkan than I do in Maryland,” she said.

Nina describes being affected by the way people came out of the shops that September 11 to hold her hand or give a warm embrace. Kalkan is clearly not a place to “get away” but a destination. She and her husband have imported not just intelligent architecture but a commitment to a place.

You can feel it in the harbour. There’s plenty of sun and sea on Turkey’s Mediterranean shore. But Kalkan has the buzz.

To read the full article, purchase Issue 29

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Issue 29, 2003 Ottoman Gardens
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