The state and the private sector foist unsightliness on an otherwise gorgeous Istanbul.
When Istanbul’s majestic, gloriously-faded Narmanlı Han building was sold in 2014 and subsequently covered in a huge panel advertisement for Apple, admirers of the historic treasure knew right then and there that things weren’t going to turn out so good.
The arresting complex still had a few small shops embedded in and around its entryway and the groundskeeper of more than four decades continued to live on the premises. The quaint courtyard was sealed off but one could still approach the gate and peer inside. But after the building was purchased by a pair of tycoons, one who runs a textile company and the other a cosmetics firm, for a whopping $57 million, the final tenants and the long-time groundskeeper were eventually booted. Plans indicated that the building was to be restored and outfitted with a number of new retail stores and restaurants.
By late summer 2017, Narmanlı Han, originally built in 1831 and among the oldest buildings on the main pedestrian Istiklal Avenue, was revealed in its so-called restored state to be a gaudy monstrosity stripped of its character that was charming even in decay. The building was previously home to the Russian embassy and later consulate, then to a number of notable creatives including Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, one of the most celebrated figures in Turkish literature. It is now painted in an unsightly hue that is at best salmon and at worst puke orange, and its courtyard has been unceremoniously paved over.
Narmalı Han is not alone. It is perhaps the most notorious but certainly not the only example in which a historic relic in Istanbul has been effectively destroyed by its renovation. In 2015, an ancient castle near the city’s Black Sea coast underwent “restoration” only to emerge bearing a stunning resemblance to Spongebob Squarepants. Last year, a late Ottoman-era bathhouse located on the campus of a public university endured a restoration-induced metamorphosis which left it looking like a nondescript building from the 1970s rather than an artifact of the 1870s.
Restoration, destruction, beauty, and ugliness intersect endlessly throughout Istanbul, with which many residents say they share a love-hate relationship. Hideous buildings pop up like weeds while beautiful ones are defaced by gaudy signage and advertisements. Views of the sea become blocked by intrusive steel and concrete, while the city’s famous historic peninsula has been compromised by three obtuse skyscrapers lurking awkwardly in the background.
In September 2017, a young man that I will call Devrim launched a Twitter account called Çirkin Istanbul (Ugly Istanbul) documenting these affronts to his beloved city. It began when he tweeted a photograph of a classic, admirably-designed table in a historic Istanbul post office, alongside another photo of a modern table lacking any charm whatsoever. It was retweeted nearly 20,000 times, perhaps owing to the misconception that the newer table replaced its older counterpart. In any case, it prompted interest in the account, which has amassed more than 40,000 followers in six months.
Devrim posts striking and often perplexing photos that he himself has taken as well as those sent in by followers that are buttressed with biting, critical commentary. He gave two reasons for why he preferred to remain anonymous:
“We are living in an authoritarian regime and we cannot know when a person who is speaking about problems in society, ugliness, and bad city planning can be accused of something else,” Devrimsaid. Sure enough, in a country where people can get arrested for what they tweet, one can never be too careful. Devrim frequently calls out city municipalities and contractors for their misdeeds, and such criticism in today’s Turkey can be perceived as an insult, which is punishable under law.
“I want to present myself as a concerned citizen, not as an expert,” Devrimsaid of his second reason for not disclosing his identity. “Just a citizen who likes Istanbul who wants it to become better, or even keep it as it is, since it is constantly getting worse.”
His efforts have been recognized by the local authorities he addresses and tags in his posts, leading to positive change. The city removed a billboard that was blocking foot traffic on a sidewalk in the district of Bakırköy after Çirkin Istanbul posted about it, while the municipality cleared a row of McDonald’s delivery scooters that were blocking a stretch of urban stairs in the district of Üsküdar after the account fired off a tweet of the incident in question. He says his most significant small victory was getting the city to remove a sign that stuck out in front of the iconic Camondo Steps, which Devrim refers to as “one of the greatest urban designs in the world.”
As for the eloquent post office table? After mounting reaction, the Turkish Post Office (PTT) announced it would be producing replicas.
Meanwhile, Devrim launched a sister account, Güzel Istanbul (Beautiful Istanbul) posting lush sunsets, treasured landmarks, and touching moments captured in the city. It has garnered 12,000 followers. At the end of the day, despite what one may think due to the gloomy barrage of content featured on the Çirkin Istanbul platform, Devrim loves his city. He blames both the state apparatus and the private sector for foisting unsightliness on an otherwise gorgeous Istanbul, adding that this is a result of “an underdevelopment of an aesthetic consciousness in the middle class” and a “lack of aesthetic concern” on the part of the contractors scrambling to fortify the city with more concrete and glass than it can handle.
Devrim and his struggle face an uphill battle in a city where the leaders think it’s a good idea to build a giant, seagull-shaped transit hub that juts out over Istanbul’s pristine Bosphorus Strait. More edifices are sure to be destroyed as they are restored, while restaurateurs won’t hesitate to desecrate a historic building with massive signage that they think is good for business. Monumental city planning decisions will be made without consulting the public while contractors will continue to unleash more tasteless condos and malls in a city that is already suffocated by them.
Urban transformation in Istanbul over the past decade has amounted to a scorched earth policy where large neighborhoods are evacuated and demolished, soon to be refashioned as the latest gated-housing community. There are over one hundred malls throughout the city, and that number continues to rise. Megaprojects including what aims to be the world’s largest airport and the terrifying Kanal Istanbul plan threaten to wreak environmental havoc and further stimulate over-development.
It has, to say the least, been emotionally distressing to watch the city be debased on multiple levels. In spite of it all, Istanbul remains a magnificent place, full of life and meaning and the intoxicating energy that emanates from a metropolis inhabited by 15 million. The ugliness in which it has been submerged is often temporary and reversible, while its beauty is permanent and undying.