Two recollections of moments and details from spring-times past. Above: A kite, a delighted child, and a patch of green on the shore of the Golden Horn near Fener, Istanbul, 2012. In the background, a shipyard and dry-dock dating from early Ottoman times. Below: Blossoms, greenery, and the weathered, roughly-welded sheet-metal wall and numbered spaces of an empty parking lot in Sofia, Bulgaria, 2014 (the straightforward text on the signs: “paid unguarded” + “parking”).
Two views from a balcony on a cul-de-sac street in the Tepebaşı quarter of Istanbul, anno 2013. The buildings: Row houses built a century-and-a-quarter ago when the neighborhood was populated by Istanbul Greeks; the narrow frontages of the buildings dictated by late-19th-century regulations issued in the aftermath of fires that had swept gutted swaths of the city. Even day, these balconies continue to form an interstice between private and public space, serving as mini-terraces, extensions of domestic space, and perches for observing street life, chatting with neighbors, or just enjoying late day breezes.
The photo above was taken in 6X9 cm format on 120 color negative roll film through a 55mm Rodenstock lens (viewpoint equal to 24mm on 35mm film or “full-frame sensor” digital formats) mounted on a Toyo folding field camera. The photo below was taken with my customary APS-C format Fuji X100 digital camera (a “full-frame” equivalent of 35mm). The negative of the image at the top was scanned but, otherwise, not processed further. The sharpness and optical accuracy of the Rodenstock lens and the delicate colors of negative film stock are inimitable.
Street corners. Anchoring points in the urban landscape. Places to pause, linger, turn, or confront unexpected vistas. Apt metaphors for the start of a new year. Places devoid of meaning from the vantage points of automobiles.
Above and below: Two seemingly nondescript street corners in Istanbul, 2014.
At the top: An intersection in Gümüşsuyu near Taksim — a 1920s apartment house, a late-nineteenth-century neighborhood mosque, and a high-rise cube under construction. Straight ahead, a 45-degree plunge into the quarter of Fındıklı; a turn to the left, and a grid of steep side-streets and concrete stairways wending down to the Bosporus.
At the bottom: A hard-left-turn upwards past a rarely-used sidewalk, a recent generic apartment block, and the wall of a centuries-old cemetery at the edge of Hasköy on the Golden Horn, photographed late one Sunday afternoon at a moment when the roadway was free of its usual, near-continuous, high-speed stream of rattling bus, truck, and automobile traffic
Three gardens in the town of Kıyıköy on the Black Sea coast of Turkish Thrace.
Kıyıköy — literally: “coastal settlement” — is the all-too-obvious modern Turkish name for the ancient Greek Black Sea port and walled settlement of Medea. By late-Ottoman times, the town, eventually known as Midye — Turkish for “mussel” — was populated in large part by Greeks, whose lives and livelihoods (fishing and coastal shipping) faced seaward, and by Bulgarians, whose lives and livelihoods (dairy production and garden farming) faced inland. Bulgarians left Midye during and after the Balkan Wars of the 1910s, and Greeks in the forced population exchanges that followed Turkey’s war of independence in the 1920s. Demographics have changed — today’s Kıyıköy appears to be populated by Turks and Roma — but the part-Byzantine and part-Ottoman walls of the town still stand and still mark its periphery, and Kıyıköy’s rarely-frequented harbor still provides safe haven from the capricious currents of the Black Sea.
The three gardens portrayed herein are set in the expanse between Kıyıköy’s formerly-Greek town center and its still-extant town walls. At the top: the front garden of the home of a Roma family. Middle: A backyard vegetable garden. Last: A solitary pupil in the playground of a private kindergarten awaiting the imminent start of the school year. All three photos were taken in 2013. The camera: My usual Fuji X100 with and without a wide-angle conversion lens.
In the Kasım Paşa neighborhood of Istanbul, near to the shoreline of the Golden Horn: A simple çeşme (water fountain) flanked by a beverage dispenser so ubiquitous and recognizable that it requires no explanation.
The pattern of the relief on the marble face of the çeşme and the columns to the left and right of the inscription above it, lead me to the very amateur guess that the çeşme dates from the late-18th century. (The oddly perpendicular entablature appears to be a later impromptu addition or repair.) In a no less amateur way, I would date the Coca-Cola machine at the right of the image to the late-20th or early-21st century.
If memory serves me right, in one of his scores of publications, Halil İnalcık, a leading historian of the Ottoman period, famous both for his work and for having turned 100-years-old this year, once held that the provision of a comprehensive water supply and distribution system — from reservoirs to aqueducts to gravity-fed neighborhood outlets and fountains for ritual washing in the courtyards of the great Sultanic and smaller neighborhood mosques that dot Istanbul — was a defining feature of Sultan Suleiman the Lawgiver’s 16th-century project of reshaping the Ottoman capital as an “Islamic City.”
As to the development and worldwide availability and popularity of Coca-Cola: This is a long story in and of itself, best saved for treatment in a another context.
In the midst of unseasonably cold and gray weather, an image from a springtime past: greenery bursting forth from concrete, and laundry emerging from houses, along a backstreet and stairway on the rise from the valley of Dolapdere to the ridge-top neighborhood of Kurtuluş — long ago known by its Greek name, Tatavla, and once the realm people of modest means from Istanbul’s traditional “minorities:” Greeks, Armenians, and Jews. (The Greeks were forced out a half-century ago; many Armenians and some Jews remain.) The bay-windowed house in the center appears to be a surviving traditional-style Ottoman-era family residence subdivided into apartments and with its original wooden facade covered by layers of plaster. The children standing in the foreground and seated mid-distance are quite likely Kurds, recent arrivals to the backstreets of Kurtuluş from the east of Anatolia.
Two examples of spolia, the re-use of architectural building and decorative elements outside of their original contexts. At its most basic, appropriation and utilization of spolia provided ready sources of materials and a seeming dedication to recycling. At a deeper level, however, use of spolia usurped and appropriated the might and worth of rulers, donors, and civilizations who originally built the monuments from which spolia elements were taken, and imbued new structures with added significance.
Hellenistic builders appropriated spolia from ancient monuments in Egypt and the near-east, Romans did the same, Byzantium appropriated spolia from Romans, Greeks, and their predecessors. The Ottoman empire, in turn, harvested spolia from Byzantium and its predecessors. In Istanbul, for example, free-standing obelisks and columns columns supporting the porticoes of great Sultanic mosques were taken from ancient temples and public buildings throughout the span of lands absorbed by the Ottomans.
Spolia at its most prosaic
The photos above and below portray the appropriation and application of spolia at the smallest of scales and at its most random and utilitarian. In the image above a pastiche of non-monumental classical elements adds a bit of decorative “pizazz” to the entrance way of an otherwise sparse Seljuk-era mausoleum. ( Whether the spolia elements were emplaced during the original construction of the mausoleum or after-the-fact is beyond my competence to assess.) In the image below, an inverted Byzantine capital is re-purposed to serve as the base for a garden-variety, hand-powered water-pump, itself re-purposed as a spout — an unintentional symbol of the triumph of the needs of small-scale basic craft over Byzantine grandeur (nb. the pump/capital ensemble is set in the courtyard of a Han designed nearly half a millennium ago by the great Ottoman architect Sinan, but occupied over the past century by the no-frills ateliers of independent metal workers). In both cases, the utility of spolia, and maybe even a drop of pride at its display, trumps any pretense of design.
Liberation from the terror of design
Subjectively, the (non-)aesthetic of such utility and pride in the display of the the recycled resonates deeply for me. Decades ago, I spent years living and working in the Netherlands, a country in which strict, linear, minimalist design ruled and constrained life in the public and private realms. Building facades, both legacy and new, were characterized by uniformity of height and materials and by an absolute minimum of decoration. In the field of graphic design, tiny type-faces and eschewal of serifs ensured that the covers and pages of Dutch publications were geometrically beautiful … but highly unreadable. For the Dutch, so it seemed, form trumped content and, as often as not, utility as well. During my years in the Netherlands, one of the leading design practices was an Amsterdam firm, Total Design, a name tastelessly similar to “total war,” Germany’s slogan in the final years of World War II for complete commitment of resources to the ruthless and murderous pursuit of victory — an apt, albeit tasteless, metaphor for the compulsory imposition of uniform aesthetic dictates on all aspects of life.
I find the seemingly arbitrary aesthetic of spolia far more compelling. The combination of random elements taken out of their original contexts transcends uniformity, negates original aesthetic and pragmatic dictates, generates spontaneity, and creates profound (and even humorous!) mergers, not only of materials, surfaces, and patterns, but also of times, spaces, cultures, and intents. In short, it enables continuous rearrangement and represents a triumph of accretion and serendipity of the imposition of design.