Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul. An iconic urban promenade through which millions of pedestrians pass each week. Street musicians huddle along its edges, polished and amateur, youthful and worn. The music of some causes passersby to break stride, that of others attracts small crowds and elicits donations of coins and even banknotes.
Who are the musicians? The business card of the man portrayed in the photo below contained but a phone number and a single word: Kemanci, player of the Keman — a statement of identity and essence clearer and more revealing than any given or family name.
Two Photographic Moods
The photo above is a literal rendering, with strong blacks and whites. The photo below emphasizes grays and was shaped using the digital equivalents of what in the days of physical darkrooms was called dodging and burning, the channeling and blocking of light between negative and paper. Black/white digital processing is both a blessing and a curse: the absence of the physical properties of film and paper and of the effects of chemical processing, broadens possibilities but also eliminates worthy constraints and renders mute a valuable language of expression.
As the summer temperatures rises, a few images of snow-dusted city-scapes that hint at the dynamics of a city …
Unlike my native New York, which — despite falling victim to a recent epidemic of new high-rise apartment and office towers geared to the profits of real estate developers and the prerogatives of the well-heeled, many of them part-time residents — remains a city of mostly late-19th- and early-20th-century brick structures, Istanbul, even with its plethora of centuries-old religious and secular monuments, is, in no small part, a city of concrete low-rise buildings and, more recently, of skyscrapers, shopping malls, and gated residential “communities.”
The views captured in the first and second photos in this post were taken from a one-time river valley, now the site of a multl-lane traffic thoroughfare, looking upward toward the neighborhood of Bomonti. The photos portray in miniature some of the features and processes that shape and call into question the futures of Istanbul and cities like it. Both photos captures Istanbul’s geography of heights and river valleys, with the more desirable locations on top and the least desirable at the bottom (this rooted in “ür”- concerns of rain- and waste-water drainage, air circulation, security, and symbolism of dominance), with gentrification occurring literally from the top down.
In the bottom halves of the photos are one- and two-story illegally-built squatters’ dwellings, in Turkish geçekondu, “landed-by-night,” in recognition of the regulations- and authorities-defying overnight speed and covertness with which they were built. Beginning a half-century ago, during a peak in population growth when housing was scarce and expensive, Geçekondu arose in Istanbul’s vacant lots and least desirable slopes as a grass-roots means of sheltering waves of poorer new arrivals to the city.
Above the geçekondu, sited seemingly at random, are multistory cooperative and rental apartments built on the footprints of razed geçekondu — their sites amassed through buy-outs of squatters’-rights land titles ultimately granted to geçekondu occupants in exchange for apartment units in buildings constructed on the footprints of their one-time illegal dwellings.
At the tops of the two photos are high-rises of skyscraper proportions. The upper left of the photo above reveals an office complex still under construction at the time (note: these photos were taken in 2012. The same photo taken again today would contain ever more high-rises in its upper reaches). At the upper right of both photos, approaching completion, is the front-most of two adjacent twin “luxury” apartment towers with the unappetizing and dehumanizing, deadpan name of “Ant Hill Towers.” Because they are built on a downward slope, the twin high-rises of Ant Hill Towers are barely seem from the older, predominantly middle- and upper-scale neighborhoods above and also from along the Bosporus. From Istanbul’s historic peninsula, however, Ant Hill Towers are a perpetual presence that overwhelms the skyline.
Skyscrapers, Economies, Politics
Construction of high-rise office and apartment buildings has been a driver of the Turkish economy and a lucrative boondoggle for supporters of Turkey’s Prime Minister and his party and, as recent scandals alleged, maybe even for the Prime Minister himself. Through the filters of the cast of characters of my native New York, I sometimes see the Turkish Prime Minister as a cross between Tammany Hall’s Carmine De Sapio and ex-Mayors Rudolf Guliani and Michael Bloomberg (minus the latter’s bicycle lanes and bicycle rental programs and admittedly worthy tree-planting): i.e. cronyism plus misanthropy plus out-and-out pandering to the political and fund-raising support of real estate and construction interests.
Impacts of “Twin Towers” and the Labile Value of Views
Viewing Ant Hill Towers from a New York perspective also brings to mind … the Twin Towers of the belated World Trade Center — not from the perspective of the murderous destruction of the latter but from that of its conception and inception. Peel away the undeniable tragedy of the attack on the World Trade Center and the present-day cheesiness and carnival of “9/11″ museums and memorials, and one recalls New York’s World Trade Center as it was greeted upon its completion back in the 1960s: i.e. as a twin eyesore, an economic white-elephant that would take years to achieve a base-level of occupancy, and a burden upon the city’s infrastructure (water and sewage system, subway capacity, etc.).
It is my not-too-uneducated guess that Ant Hill Towers, not unlike the World Trade Center, was designed and built as a structure in and of itself and not as part of a city, as a vertical suburb set in the urban core. I also assume that little if any attention was given to its effects on water/waste-water or power grids, nor to resulting surface water run-off, traffic congestion, pedestrian flows, or impacts on adjacent neighborhoods, let only on the city’s aesthetics. What was attended to, however, was the profit potential of building on under-utilized, centrally-located land and the marketing of princely ownership of views. Views, however, can be ephemeral and short-lived . The more structures that rise to exploit them, the more that views become obstructed and have their value undermined. Given time and the mushrooming of their like, views from mundane high-rises soon become views of other mundane high-rises, unwelcome mirrors rather than princely expanses.
In a late-day moment of exuberance — or might it have been desperation? — a teen-aged street vendor of shmattes (forgive me the Yiddish-ism) suddenly punctuates his sales shpiel by tossing part of his stock of clothing into the air. I caught the moment while working with a manually focusing twin-lens Rolleiflex and a handheld light meter — no mean feat if I might say so myself.
I took the photo almost 15 years ago. Where is the the street vendor today? I have no idea, although another generation of vendors still line the narrow street running behind the Misr Çarş (Egyptian Spice Market) in Eminönü, Istanbul. I do know, however, where his photo can be seen: Large prints thereof hang on the walls of (my only two!) “collectors” (close friends, actually) in Istanbul, one, in Çukurcuma, a talented emerging cinematographer, and the other, in Kuzguncuk, a corporate executive with an uncanny eye for photographic composition and emotionality. Both of these friends also share a visceral feeling for the pressures, uncertainties, and seeming absurdities of commerce at the street level. Both also know that — in our age of urban gentrification, rising income disparities, and hegemony of “big-box” retailing — the roles and presences of urban street vendors and the people they serve are being made increasingly marginal and becoming fated to near or full extinction.
The development of a metro line connecting Taksim Square and the northern reaches of Istanbul with the new rail terminus at Yenikapı along the Sea of Marmara changes the perception of distance and proximity and the flows, and and promises to shift the inner maps and trajectories of millions of commuters and visitors to Istanbul. The juxtaposition of the new metro line and the neighborhood perched atop it in the photo above reveals another aspect of urban dynamics: the presence of neighborhoods and structures in decline is as essential to the social and economic lives of cities as is the infrastructure that facilitates agglomeration and mobility — in my view, two defining aspects of urban settlements.
The photo above was taken on expired film stock and was poorly developed and not very well scanned. Nonetheless, it seems to have caught a moment of quiet and unhurried movement in the midst of the rush and activity endemic to Istanbul. (Note: the spots in the sky at the top of the photo are not dust marks accrued during development and scanning, but the “signature” seagulls that crowd the skies and contribute to the urban cacophony of Istanbul.)
Every time my strained back — and equally strained wallet — prompt me to cease photographing on film using my heavy, tripod supported, time-intensive, medium- and large-format Toyo field camera, I ultimately find cause to reverse my decision. Last Friday, while walking through the center of Sofia, Bulgaria, I spotted a photographer busy at work behind a beautiful, Chinese-made, wood and metal large-format view camera fitted with a wide-angle Schneider lens. Later, at my desk, I reviewed some recent scans I had made of selected negatives shot over the years with my heavy but rock-solid Toyo. The image above struck my fancy. It was taken in the one-time Greek and Armenian quarter of Samatya (officially re-dubbed Koca Mustafa Paşa) along the suburban railroad tracks that follow the European coast of the Sea of Marmara. The mix of well-used buildings, the rugged urban greenery, the frontal portrait-like view, the absence of people, and the late-day light struck an emotional chord that I hope resonates.
Sometimes, I try to picture the growth of cities and the evolution of architectural styles as short stop-motion films or animations that capture at high-speed centuries of morphological change as unbroken flows rather than as fixed “chapters.” Envisioning in this manner helps me extrapolate and better understand processes and trends.
Creation of Space
In terms of Islamic architecture (or, more precisely, three-quarters of a millennium of Ottoman tradition and its immediate predecessors, the facets of Islamic architecture with which I am most familiar) my animated imaginings reveal a striving for larger, more open and unobstructed interior space and, finally, for the transcendence of enclosure itself. As to how to visual this in terms of design and technique, imagine a transition from flat-roofed or multi-domed structures supported by rows and rows of interior columns and/or piers to dome-on-cube structures made larger and larger in footprint, height, and volume by the addition of cornices, intermediate drums, and half- and quarter-domes to support central domes of greater and greater diameter, and to distribute their weight further and further outwards and downwards. At the same time, imagine interiors becoming more and more open, with supporting columns and piers banished first to the sides of structures and later integrated into interior and exterior walls. Finally, imagine walls themselves being perforated and made gossamer by rows upon rows of windows. The total effect: an illusion of the elimination of enclosure — of architecture itself, thus — and a metaphorical return to the original Muslim place of prayer, the open-air courtyard in the home of the prophet and founder of Islam.
A Floor-Level View
The photo above shows a late example of an open and soaring interior and walls made lace-like by fenestration: the Mosque of Hekimoğlu Ali Paşa (1734) in the Haseki quarter of Istanbul.
The photo was taken with a Rolleiflex Tessar 75mm f3.5 mounted on a small pocket tripod with ball-head. At the time, I was experimenting with the use of normal focal-length rather that ultra-wide angle lenses to capture interior space. The challenge thereof was to select and portray a “slice” of interior that would conjure up the entire space; the benefit was the preservation of natural perspective. The use of a pocket tripod not only made me less obtrusive but also enabled portrayal of the mosque from near-floor level, the height from which the mosque is viewed at during prayer. Many years ago, a well-known European scholar of Ottoman history and architecture (Machiel Kiel) taught me the value of viewing mosque interiors as they were meant to be viewed, i.e. leisurely and contemplatively while sitting cross-legged on carpeted floors.
The streets sloping downward from the north side of present-day Istiklal Caddessi to Dolapdere Bulvari in the valley below are dense with late-19th- and early-20th-century tenements and apartment houses. Most are in disrepair but many have recently been restored as the area begins to undergo the preservationist benefits and human dislocations of gentrification and discovery by “cool” young westerners some oblivious of the lives of their neighbors and some enthralled by the seeming “romance” of the poverty … of others.
The area was built up in the late 19th century by Istanbul Christians, Greeks mostly. It underwent a major demographic change following government-fomented anti-minority pogroms in 1956. With the forced exit of Greeks, the neighborhood became a haven for the traditional inner city poor and recent arrivals from rural areas: Turkish Sunnis, Kurds, Alevis, and Roma. The process of ghettoization was completed in the 1960s by the cutting of Tarlebaşı Bulvari, a multi-laned thoroughfare that served as a wall isolating streets immediately adjacent to Istiklal from those on the slope below.
A relationship between typology and geography characterizes the area’s architecture. As a rule of thumb, the closer to Istiklal, the larger the plot and grander the structure; the closer to Dolapdere, the smaller the plot and more modest the house. The neighborhood’s apartment houses tend to be situated on the broader streets and its tenement row houses in smaller streets and alleyways. The closer to Dolapdere, the fewer and more modest the architectural decorative elements. This makes the archway in the photo above all the more curious.
The archway above shows no relation to Ottoman styles nor to the geometric motifs of Anatolian Greek towns and villages. In one way, it appears to be a fantasy interpretation of Mogul architecture. More likely, given the time and the place, it might have been inspired by the so-called Moorish Revival style that arose in the Austro-Hungarian Empire following the Hapsburg annexation of Bosnia Herzegovina or, equally likely, by the eastern-influenced motifs of northern European Art Nouveau and Jugendstil. By incorporating an ornament inspired by the popular European orientalist fantasies of the time, could the Greek owner or builder of the house in question have been trying to assert his own modernity and self-styled occidental individual identity, this at a time of when Ottoman Christians were focused on national independence ala European nation-states?
More on this theme in subsequent posts…