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Monday, July 15, 2002

Book Reviews

Architecture and the Building of Ideas

Architecture can be understood as a material response to life’s functions, including those in the realm of ideas. Firmness, commodity, and delight are generally thought to be its lasting principles through time and place. Yet, the whole history of architecture can also be written as a matter of meanings. From Egyptian pyramids to Gothic cathedrals, from Greek temples to Manhattan skyscrapers, architecture speaks. Sometimes it articulates the discourse of kings and other times that of a revolution, the French or Soviet one, in paper and tentatively in stone. It is said that architecture expresses the spirit of the age, following the continuous growth of history, but it also creates new spirits, and subversive ages. Sibel Bozdogan’s book is an essay that works on this ground of creative subversion, and breaks through traditional ways of interpreting architectural culture and politics in the twentieth century.

The story begins with the Young Turk revolution in 1908 and closes at the end of the single-party regime in 1950. Yet the core of the book deals with the 15-year period between Kemal Atatürk’s proclamation of the Turkish republic in 1923 and his death in 1938. During that time, and mainly in the Thirties, the ideas and forms of the modernist movement became both a tool and, simultaneously, proof of Turkey’s Westernization. This was a difficult achievement for a country that was, socially and economically, so different from the central Europe in which modernism arose. Architectural historians have generally considered Turkey to be on the margins of Europe and, of course, on the margins of modernism. Nevertheless, I am prepared to argue, along with Sibel Bozdogan, for the “the hybridity and complexity of non-Western societies” implementing the “‘modern’ in their own ways and not necessarily following the patterns delineated by the history of the industrial West” (p.9). I do not consider that statement to be unimportant, since, in the established historiography of the twentieth century, modern architecture has been assumed to be “an exclusively European category that non-Western others could import, adopt, or perhaps resist but not reproduce from within” (p.8). Against that assertion of a European modernist monopoly, I will claim the coherence and originality of Turkish modernism in the Thirties, of definite historical value, along with those other expressions of modernism that emerged in many other “marginal” countries. There is not just one but many architectural centers, and the idea of “marginality” is a simple consequence of the centripetal interpretation of history.

Following the departure of the last Ottoman sultan in 1922 and the proclamation of the Turkish republic in 1923, Kemal Atatürk launched a series of institutional reforms: abolition of Islamic law and adoption of the Swiss civil code; the replacement of Ottoman Arabic script with the Latin alphabet; and the prohibition of the fez, the turban, and other forms of traditional garb with religious connotations, and their replacement by hats, Western trousers, shirts and ties, jackets, and waistcoats. These reforms, which were revolutionary in scope, marked a total cultural realignment from a traditional order grounded in Islam to a Western and secular one. Kemalism’s desire to skip stages and catch up with Western civilization was based on, one hand, an ideologically motivated historical thesis tracing Turkey’s roots to the Hittites (in order to establish common ancestry between Turks and Western civilization) and, on the other hand, on the assumption that form could transform content. That belief in the power of representation, and the will to participate in contemporary civilization, revolutionized everything from lifestyles to women’s appearance, and from cities to homes and kitchens. The modernist movement’s introduction into Turkey was consequently elevated to epic proportions in the architectural culture of the Thirties: “It was hailed as the visible proof that Turkey was a modern European nation with no resemblance to the exotic and orientalist aesthetic tropes by which the Ottoman Empire had typically been represented in the past” (p.11).

The “new architecture” – or the “architecture of revolution,” as the modern movement was called in republican Turkey – signified both architectural modernism in its German and Le Corbusierian tendencies, as well as the particular building program of the new Kemalist regime. In fact, the “new architecture” came into Turkey through the example of German and central European architects who worked and taught throughout that period, including Ernst Egli and Bruno Taut, who were appointed heads of the architectural section of the Academy of Fine Arts in 1930 and 1936, respectively. The stark contrast between old and new was seen primarily in the construction of Ankara as the nation’s modern capital, which sought to counteract the Orientalist images of Istanbul. The newness and cleanliness of Ankara – the city of the future – was embodied in the major government and educational buildings, exhibition hall, railway station, and many villas and apartment houses that demonstrated their modernist esthetics. A new generation of Turkish architects also made their reputation during this period, Seyfi Arkan and Sedad Hakki Eldem being the most prominent ones. Arkan was the first true Turkish modernist. He designed the foreign-ministry residence in Ankara, but his signature building, which epitomized the revolution’s esthetics, was the summer residence of Kemal Atatürk in Istanbul: a fully glazed circular building floating over water. Meanwhile, Hakki Eldem made his own reputation leading the quest for national expression in modernism.

The architecture of revolution radiated throughout the country, as it spread the Westernization of domestic life. The ideologically charged contrast between old and new found a direct response in the idealized image of the new Kemalist woman, who undid the exotic fantasies of the Ottoman harem. Astonishingly enough, Turkey’s first female pilot was Atatürk’s adopted daughter. The image of the Western-looking modern woman was a popular cover for family magazines illustrating “modern concepts of domestic life, household efficiency and hygiene, modern lifestyles, and modern house design” (p.203). The idea of imagining the modern nation through the design of the modern house was highly appealing, as were the celebrated qualities of the modern home, machine-age esthetics, and health and hygiene. There was a strong political and ideological charge to architecture to serve in nation-building, and modernism was collectively imagined as the national style.

The death of Kemal Atatürk (and Bruno Taut) in 1938, however, led to a reconsideration of modernism, which was now suspected of being “totally devoid of identity.” By the end of the 1930s, modernism had already lost its representational function in Turkey’s “nation-building” although nationalism was the driving force behind architectural culture from 1908 to 1950. The quest for national identity in regionalist esthetics and in the timeless essence of vernacular architecture, as well as the reappearance of classical motifs in central Europe, were combined in a transhistorical model that would allow architecture to be classical/vernacular and modern at the same time. The key figure of this turn to classical monumentality – whether or not it was a regression in terms of history – was another German, Paul Bonatz, who was invited to work as an educator, consultant, and architect, and whose activities testified to the close ties between Turkey and Nazi Germany.

The ultimate nationalist state monument of the republic was the mausoleum of Kemal Atatürk, the cult hero who personified the Turkish nation. An international competition for it was held in 1942, and most of the entries “demonstrated a fascinating mix of historical precedents and nationalist references” (p.286). The winning design by Emin Onat and Orhan Arda was an abstract but monumentalized version of a classical temple and was thought to be “a built manifesto to the prevailing nationalist history theories that connected the history of the Mediterranean and world civilization to the history of the Turkish peoples” (p.289). This was a complete negation of Kemal Atatürk’s architecture of revolution, and of his sense of a modernism that embodied the very idea of Westernization. Nevertheless, it, too, worked equally in the service of nation-building – and the mausoleum is “still the ‘holiest’ site of modern Turkey” (p.282), regardless of the relative modernity of its “holy” figure. Memorial architecture generally articulates the actual discourse of a nation. That is why in the 1950s, when the mausoleum was finally completed, Turkish architecture could no longer speak in the language of “modernity,” regardless of its nation-building in the 1930s.

Sibel Bozdogan’s conclusion highlights the contradiction between Kemalism’s architectural and cultural modernism and the predominantly agricultural Turkish society of the Thirties. In her eyes, the celebrated modern buildings, with their shiny machine esthetics, “were seriously out of place….Ultimately, in the absence of the industrial and socioeconomic conditions within which modernism emerged in the West, what republican architects imported from Europe remained, in essence, ‘a style’ – a particular way of formally articulating republican buildings so that they look modern and not ‘Ottoman’” (p.296). In that final statement, however, she partially misses the challenge of transcending the traditional conflict between imported and exported cultures. She actually subscribes to Jürgen Habermas’s terminology, stating that “‘aesthetic modernism’ was imported before ‘societal modernity’ was accomplished,” although she steps back to add that, “this is not to say that societal modernity could possibly have been ‘accomplished’ in the image of the Western model” (p.297).

The whole book is happily written with that final assumption as its guide, and – in my role of Greek reviewer – I would sincerely welcome such a comprehensive study of Greek modernism. There are actually many similarities and dissociations between Greece and Turkey, but there is also a kind of common denominator in our respective architectures of the 1920s and 1930s, including the contexts of society, esthetics, and politics. Maybe the scope was different, but the buildings were similar – and they all equally built ideas.

Panayotis Tournikiotis is a professor at the school of architecture of the National Technical University of Athens and the author of The Historiography of Modern Architecture.
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