Saturday, October 14, 2006

Istanbul 5 - Trellis Maximus


Piece by piece the hippodrome, formerly one of the most monumental buildings in the city at 500 meters long and 120 meters wide, has been broken down into the fragments of park and road that are found today in what is called At Meydanı (Square of Horses). This massive palace of spectacle is relegated to sidebar anecdotes in tour guides. The 30,000 killed in the Nika revolt sounds huge, but the physical presence of the building that brought them together is nowhere to be seen. This massive piece of the city is gone, traced by the shortened roadway and crumbling but still muscular sphendome. Constantine has been emasculated.

Almost everyone in the area is a visitor or serving the visitors. The hippodrome site is pretty close to ground zero for tourism. It is within walking distance to the four most visited places: the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, the Covered Market, and Topkapı Palace. And yet, the park is curiously vacant. With the July and August sun bearing down during prime tourist season, the few people that are in the At Meydanı are either quickly getting their fill of the monuments, or are clustered in the shade of one of the small trees. It doesn’t have the shade of the courtyard of the Blue Mosque, the fountain of the central garden, or the refreshments of nearby tea gardens. Neither does it have the monumentality of the nearby sites; as such, it is reduced to a curious footnote between bigger and better things.


In a climate with an abundance of hot sun and cooling breezes it is natural that a tradition of screens and trellises would develop. Pervasive carved window screens did triple duty of keeping prying eyes and the sun out, and allowing air circulation in. They are mostly simple masonry affairs, sturdy and meant to convey security, though often in the palaces they achieve a high degree of fragility that belies their stone origins. This mediation between dark and light is found everywhere from Byzantine churches to the Ottoman baths; these buildings prized shade and darkness as much as light. The threshold between dark and light, inside and outside, was an opportunity to shape the light into the formal mode of that era.

A more quotidian and prevalent form of sun control are the many overhead trellises around the city. Many streets have this form of public covering, negotiating between several different buildings. It usually covers a café, where it is normal to rest at length while playing backgammon and drinking tea. This is one of the most common scenes in Istanbul, whether in Sultanahmet or Zeytinburnu (though in Levent it is more likely you will find umbrellas and a Starbucks). The trellises usually host thick vines, allowing only dappled light to hit the seats below, which die off in the winter time when it is more appropriate to have direct sunlight.


My proposal is to add a monumental trellis to the former space of the hippodrome, roughly the height and size of the original structure. This would float above the space that is presently broken up by surrounding buildings, paths, trees and street furniture, and allow a vision of the scale of the original structure. Additionally, it would provide much needed shade to the park. Since so much of the ground of the former hippodrome is occupied, a trellis floating about 30 meters above would pass over the impediments below, and approximate the height of the former building. It would unify the area and become an attraction and point of discussion in its own right, a new entry in the tourist itinerary.

The site would be cleared of as many obstacles (trees, fences, light poles, etc.) as possible, allowing once again a view along the length of the spina. Necessary vehicle traffic would still follow the path of the old track, though calmed for the additional visitors using the park and viewing sphendome. Ideally the school on the sphendome would eventually be torn down (and added to the recycled park wall, of course), freeing up the privileged axial view of the Sea of Marmara from the city center.

The trellis would use an Ottoman motif (why not vine leaves?) for the screen, conflating multiple cultural histories in the new structure. The sun screen would employ ceramic technology, an industry that reached its high point in the Iznik tiles covering the Blue Mosque interior, and used today for everything from tourist plates to covering the space shuttle. At night, the ceramic screen could be lit from below, eliminating the need for the numerous pole fixtures, and during the day, it would glisten in the sun while giving shade. The goal would be to take advantage of the already existing Turkish ceramic industry, producing a scintillating, monumental structure that would provide highly practical sun protection.

Istanbul 4 - Theodosius Jumps


The urban renewal in the 1980’s that exposed the harbor wall also created a park where there once was a crowded fishing and maritime industry. Preservationists decried this sterilization for tearing down more than a few treasures that stood in the way, although there are a handful of historic structures trapped in peculiar traffic islands. Over the past 20 years there has been an admirable effort to clean the Golden Horn, so that today it is common to see people swimming and fishing in it. It no longer has the stench of pollution, and is seen again as an amenity, this time for recreation instead of industry. It is a common story around the world, and as the water again gains in popularity, so does the park. People arrive early on the weekends to stake a claim, and those who arrive later are relegated to the zone by the street. The waterfront and roadfront are two different worlds, though due to the demand, both are filled.

The park is heavily used by families picnicking, but the traffic is bad. It is dirty and noisy, and creates a modern wall of noise and danger that separates the neighborhood from the waterfront and impinges upon their recreation. Often illegally parked cars provide the only filter between the activities and the high speed roadway. The noise is intense and the grilled food acquires the unfortunate flavor of road pollution. Today’s marauding hordes are buses and taxis.


The old city walls present an alternative, possibly heterodox, version of preservation. It is often stated that Istanbul is a city of layers, but more precisely, it is a city of layered conquest. There have been many distinct masters of the city, and each time the city was reborn in the image of the conqueror. Byzas.…Constantine…Justinian…Theodosius…Mehmet…Ataturk…Dalan…Topbaş…at each transition, the contested city became an urban canvas on which the projections of the new authority were writ. The Byzantine Milion (the Golden Milestone) was disassembled to construct a nearby water tower. The Roman Basilica Cistern is supported by 336 columns taken from the extent of the empire; Süleyman took the top tier from the hippodrome and used it in part to support his mosque complex.

No where is this recycling more evident than in the city walls. Looking closely at the walls you will see column pieces, entablature, gravestones, steps and other miscellany of the past. It is a masonry soup of losers; civilizations consigned not to the trash heap of history, but the recycling bin. There was also a practical reason for the layering of disparate materials: the diverse material properties would react to earthquakes differently and make the wall less likely to fail catastrophically. Great works that once indicated wealth and power in turn made ample filler. The first line of defense was comprised of the cultural oeuvre of the previous empire.


I propose a recycled and repositioned harbor wall, fortifying the park against the proximate undesirable vehicles. But more than a wall, it would be a repository for all the fast diminishing cultural artifacts in the city. Over time it would increase at the pace of the renewal of the city. As historic structures are disassembled, they would be added to the new wall in discreet segments approximately half a meter high. Each segment would represent one “lost” project recycled back into a new use. The segments would march along the park where they are needed, and leapfrog over defined thresholds and areas where the park is not used for recreation. After the approximately two kilometers of park is lined, a second layer would begin snaking back to the beginning. Instead of the current condition of tertiary heritage being simply thrown out or lost as aggregate in new projects, the new park wall would be a zone of collection and growth. Thus the wall would mature, acting as a barometer of urban renewal. The taller the wall, the more things lost, the more progress gained.

At the same time, recreation in the park would be protected from the traffic on Abdülezel Paşa Avenue on the other side of the wall. At first it would simply act as a line of definition, but in time would grow above the height of cars and tour buses. Grilled meat wouldn’t taste like exhaust anymore. Children would kick balls against the wall, perhaps hitting a Byzantine relief. People would lean against Roman bricks and columns. Thresholds in the wall would accommodate sidewalks and the few building uses, and in places where the park is too thin to be usable, the wall would disappear, giving the drivers a periodic view of the Golden Horn. Because each segment would be a discrete demolition project, the final wall would be a sort of calico of competing works, all laid to rest in the same format. Between segments, a small space would allow the projects to “breathe” and give glimpses of the other side.

Next stope: Trellis Maximus

Istanbul 3 - Hippodrome


“Two things only the people anxiously desire,
Bread and circuses.” (Juvenal c. 60-130)

The Hippodrome was the center of social and processional life in the Roman Era, and continued to be a place of public demonstration and celebration through the Ottoman Era. This colossal space functioned as the main repository of spectacle, long after the original structure of tiered seating was torn down and the original track was buried beneath 4 meters of new roadways; until the 20th century Sultans still celebrated auspicious events like their son’s circumcision there. It is today known primarily for the three monuments that align with the original spina, spine, the Column of Constantine, the Serpent Column, and the Egyptian Obelisk. What was once one of great manifestations of the circus in one of the great cities in the world is reduced to three columns.

Almost every text today lists the same stories and descriptions, but with slightly different statistics. Depending on what source we use, the numbers can vary: its width was between 117.5 and 127 meters; its length was between 450 and 525 meters; it held between 60,000 and 100,000 spectators; it was begun between 196 A.D. and 203 A.D. by Septimius Severus, and enlarged to its largest size by Constantine. There are no original measured drawings, only images after its disassembly. This limited and varied reportage is likely due to the inbred nature of the few authentic sources. Much of the city, including the Hippodrome, had been laid to waste in a pair of three day sackings by the Crusaders in 1204, and the Ottoman in the 1453. This was the state of the Constantinople when classical scholars began chronicling the Byzantine city. By the time Petrus Gyllius arrived in the 1540’s, he had to piece together the former city using the 5th century Roman catalogue Notitia Urbis Constantinopolis. Many researchers have followed, but the resulting body of work reads like each era’s variation on the theme. As the facts have been transmitted into tourism texts, one can’t help but sense a certain amount of reductionist inbreeding. As described today, the few physical traces are augmented by the same juicy history:

After enlargement by Constantine, the factions supporting the charioteers coalesced into the greens, representing the poorest (green with envy?), and the blues, representing the rich merchants (blue bloods?). In the early days of Justinian’s reign in 532 A.D, both factions revolted and organized in the Hippodrome chanting, “Nikka” or Greek for “Victory.” They were mercilessly slaughtered and 30,000 were supposedly buried in the track. To atone for this gruesome event Justinian built the Hagia Sophia, one of the wonders of the modern world. While the factions never quite recovered their intensity, the Hippodrome continued to be a social center. It was supposedly open 24 hours per day, and people could gather when they wanted.

Without the centralizing agent of the spectacle it had fallen into disrepair even by the time the Crusaders sacked it. It was further eroded when Ibrahim Paşa took the marble steps for his palace, which he built in 1523 over the ruins of north-west seats. Süleyman’s Mosque complex took the columns and entablature from the top tier in the 1550’s. Ahmet’s Mosque complex (The Blue Mosque) leveled what was remaining in 1609, probably using it as building material. Napoleon pilfered some remaining monuments from the area in 1797. At the turn of 1800, all that remained were the three columns, the sphendome (semi-circular end), and the space around the expunged former structure. In the mid 19th century, a school complex was built over the sphendome, shortening the original track alignment to its present day location.

The current park and street lie 4.5 meters above the old track, covering untold fragments; the best view of the original surface is in the pits surrounding the three columns. Recently one of the royal seats was found, but bureaucracy and lack of funding holds up any further digging. Meanwhile, the park in the middle is a transient space for visitors. Since the high season for tourism in Istanbul occurs during the hottest months of the year, shade is in high demand. The benches are mostly located along the exposed paths, often remaining empty while a shady spot of grass will fill up. Coupled with the taxis and buses racing around the square, most people will move on to the surrounding tea gardens or buildings after a cursory visit to the columns.

The sphendome is today the most impressive remnant of the Hippodrome, and one of the more surprising finds in the city. Istanbul’s dramatic topography required that the end of the Hippodrome be supported by a 40 meter tall retaining structure. This exposed end led to an underground system of rooms where the horses and services were kept. It is not as often mentioned in the tourism books, but today this presents a sheer drop of 30 meters and splendid views if you can get into the school yard. H.G. Dwight lamented the loss of this extraordinary space in the city in 1915:

"I wish the edifices encumbering the sphendome of the Hippodrome might be sold as building material, in order to give back to the city its supreme ornament of a sea view. Imagine what such a wide blue vision might be, seen from the heart of the town – perhaps through a dark green semi-circle of cypresses!"

Now the base of the sphendome is unceremoniously surrounded by a parking lot with nets catching falling debris. The former arches have since been bricked in and plants have taken over the wall. Traces of former buildings adorn the bricks. Sometime during the Ottoman Era, the underside of the former Hippodrome was converted into a cistern, which today still has water in it. There is a local preservation group pushing to open up the sphendome for archaeological study, and ultimately restore this remaining fragment. No current vantage point gives an adequate panorama of the 500(?) meter long expanse. In short, what was once a singular spectacle and orienting device is only grasped in a series of discrete moments.

Next stop: Theodosius Jumps

Istanbul 2 - Harbor Walls


Contrary to Zeynep Celik’s claim that “the city lost its face on the Golden Horn” when the 1980’s municipal government performed some heavy handed urban renewal, it actually sloughed off an acquired layer of industry that was not present when the original defensive harbor walls were built. The chaotic and colorful collection of fishing shacks and storage buildings may have been lost, but the city walls were brought back to light. For several hundred years these walls were subsumed into the workmanlike fabric of the Fener neighborhood, becoming so much impediment and building material. Over the years, houses were built through them, chunks were knocked down for roads, and structures were perched over them. Walls that once repelled the Huns are today used to prop up living rooms.

The original system of walls was built under the reign of Theodosius II to enclose an expanded Constantinople in 413. The harbor walls along the Golden Horn were the lowest and weakest in defense terms, with the bulk of the effort going to the western front that could be easily attacked by land. The Marmara Sea walls, that could be easily reached by boat, were somewhere in between. The Golden Horn had the noteworthy security of two towers that would stretch a chain across the inlet to prevent ships from entering.

The western walls, known today as the Theodosian Walls, are the most intact and easily viewed piece of the original system. There have been numerous archaeological studies and ongoing efforts to rebuild them have led to a patchwork of impressive monumental sections, though the veracity of these reconstructed sections is questionable. Swaths of grassy landscape make viewing these walls relatively easy and approachable. Since they stretch seven kilometers from the Golden Horn to the Marmara, a popular way to see them is via bus or car; a high speed motorway conveniently follows the walls, in places where the moat would have been. They are still one of the most scenic monuments in the city, with their picturesque air of decay conforming to the popular notion of Istanbul as a fading old man.

"I have seen the ruins of Athens, of Ephesus, and Delphi: I have traversed the great part of Turkey and many other parts of Europe, and some of Asia; but I never beheld a work of nature or art which yielded an impression like the prospect on each side from the Seven Towers to the end of the Golden Horn" (Lord Byron)

The Marmara walls are in decent shape, though exhibit more vernacular use than the western walls. Due to the steep topography of the city, many houses have been built up on the inner side and to varying degrees poke through or hang over into the mostly unused parkland below. Compared to the walls on the Golden Horn, the Marmara walls are mostly discernible as an object, and are noted in most guidebooks for viewing. However, for the purposes of this study, the eroded harbor walls along the Golden Horn in the Fener neighborhood are the most compelling.

The Golden Horn was considered one of the greatest natural harbors in the world. Coupled with the growth of the “new” city in Galata, the walls along the Gold Horn tell the story of the city’s desire to escape its imperial confines. Military tactics in the 19th century made city walls obsolete, and the fortifications along the Golden Horn were the first to be subsumed by more important economies facilitated by the harbor. Istanbul grew to the north, with the Golden Horn and the independently international mercantile city of Galata as the center of gravity in the 18th through the 20th centuries. The stronger the flow of traffic, the more the wall was eroded. Most of the urban landscape in Eminönü, near the busy Galata Bridge and ferry landings, is barren of the once vital harbor walls.

In this sense the entire wall system traces the pressure of urban flows. The southern and western walls were allowed to remain since the neighborhoods had no specific need to communicate through them, and regional arteries of traffic are aligned with historic trade routes through the original gates. Neighborhoods to the west remain some of the most conservative and isolated in spite of their proximity to the tourist friendly old city. The sea walls to the south haven’t had any pressure for access since the Theodosian Harbor silted up in the 8th century. The northern harbor walls, on the other hand, display the increasing pull of international trade to the north.

The harbor wall has lost its original use of keeping enemies out and now sits on land that is used for shops, garages, restaurants, and other uses related to newer economies. In many ways it is a nuisance, and is treated as such. Originally it had 12 well defended gates that could be closed in times of threat; today there are at least 24 roads that lead down to the waterfront, and numerous other ad hoc openings. Its original purpose as an impediment is now problematic considering the city’s rapprochement with the Golden Horn.

In the Fener neighborhood, the walls reach their palimpsest apex, where a constant siege is taking place by the denizens on the walls. The walls are eroded, punctured, mounted, patched up and otherwise occupied in the rough desire to improve individual surroundings. Many buildings today use the walls for structure, rendering the wall as an independent object null. It has become a hybrid of the city, co-opted into the fabric in many small stages. In most cases it is reduced to 3-4 meters tall. A generous rough estimate would place the amount of wall remaining at 20% or less along the Golden Horn. That would mean that somewhere around 130,000 cubic meters is missing, enough to fill the Hagia Sophia. Sometimes a nice café will strategically re-build the wall in order to highlight its venerable location, but the bricks and mortar are clearly new. Other times the wall is a highly utilitarian enclosure, and concrete will be used to fill in the missing bits. Most often, though, it is in the way, and windows and doors are carved out of something meant to repel cannonballs.

Next stop: Hippodrome

Istanbul 1 - Introduction


Like several times in its past, Istanbul has exploded in population and income to become a truly global city. Today the population stands at around 11 million, one of the largest cities in Europe or Asia, and is Turkey’s foremost economic domain. Agricultural policies in the post war era, as well as a long simmering war with the Kurdish population has led to a dramatic immigration from the rural lands. The quirky Turkish law that allows any structure built overnight to remain led to a black market economy of gecekondu, literally overnight housing, for this migrant population. As much as 60% of the city may have originally been built this way. This newly relocated and underemployed population provides for the highly energetic service economy. Even small cafes and shops have half a dozen staff catering to you. This remarkable level of service both enhances and defines the tourist experience; the competition to hook a sale leads to the gauntlet of “hey mister” cries that can tire out even the sturdiest of visitors.

Its location between Europe and Asia makes Istanbul an intriguing destination for each continent to get an accessible taste of the other. Flights from both Frankfurt and Cairo routinely run $100 and take only 2 hours. Its proximity and allure to different cultural spheres has made it one of Europe and Asia’s fastest growing tourist destinations. However, this liminal position means that it is also subject to greater vicissitudes of visitors during good and bad times. This year tourism from the west is down due to the combined news of the bird flu, renewed terrorism by the Kurdish PKK, and war in the Middle East. Tourism from the east remains strong and likely will continue to grow with the recent reawakening of Islamic pride in Turkey; seeing the Sultan Ahmet Mosque during Friday prayer is an awesome sight because of the numbers of religious tourists in collective prayer.
In addition to being a gateway to the “other,” Istanbul is also claimed by multiple cultures; depending on whom you ask, Constantinople either “fell” or was “conquered” in 1453. Greeks, Romans, Christians, Moslems, Turks, Hittites, and Mongols have in time ruled. This piling on of conquest has resulted in a city uniquely endowed with cultural heritage. As a world center of commerce and empire for 2500 years, Istanbul simply cannot dig without unearthing its past: this year, when excavating for a railway tunnel under the Bosporus, construction workers discovered a rare intact 4th century port. It is true that relics continue to disappear at an alarming rate, but it is difficult to persuade the general public of the danger. The city is the equivalent of a rain forest of antiquities.

The extent of the tourist city is neatly indicated by the Plan Tours bus route. For only €20 one can get a grip on the city in 58 bite sized chunks. Not included on the tour is the new middle class city. Skyscrapers are kept at a healthy distance from the old city after some unfortunate examples were built in nearby Beşiktaş and Taksim; the wildly popular Kanyon Mall in Levent by Jerde Partnership, connected by a quiet and clean metro has security check-in; Kemer Country, designed in part by Andreas Duany, is a suburb that blends Ottoman stylings on an American suburban superstructure:

"These are modern homes, each one carefully designed to blend in not only with their lovingly landscaped setting but with a tradition of architecture and the inspiration of the great Turkish architect Mimar Sinan, whose awesome aqueducts rise up in the distance. This is Istanbul? As seen from Kemer Country." (From

Kanyon Mall by Jerde Partnership

The old city is kept free of these new symbols of growth, and in fact might be regressing to an earlier form as the city government pushes forward with plans to rebuild several streets in their best approximation of the Ottoman style. This is clearly the acceptable historic era, exhibiting the once great Turkish empire while also satisfying the contemporary traveling public’s desire for a sensory experience with the past. What better way to really see Istanbul/Constantinople than to wander the “same” streets that beguiled Pierre Loti? After all, when you’ve come this far, you don’t want to see concrete government buildings. This is the heart of cultural tourism: not to see the re-creations (we go to Miniatürk for that), but to be among the aura of the original. Thus, the skyscrapers and growing middle class of new Turkey are banished to the outskirts like the North African banlieus of Paris. They are neither seen nor heard and the old city can go back to being its timeless self.

This study will focus on two remnants of the fallen city, artifacts that once demonstrated greatness, but now get in the way. As such they have been pulled into the fabric of the city by both municipal projects and individuals. First, the old city walls, as in so many contemporary cities, are obsolete. They are also ugly; while many remark on their impressive scale, few will wax on their aesthetic value. Because of their original use of providing safety, they are at odds with contemporary needs for free flowing communication. This combination makes them an interesting tool with which to read the growth of the city. Second, the former Hippodrome is today conspicuously absent from the scene. It is often remarked upon in tourist guides and occupies an almost mythical role in the history of the city, but is represented by three decaying monuments and a strangely anonymous 40 meter wall.

Next stop: Harbor Walls