Story – Luca Molinari

It is Sunday, August 7th and trying to explain Istanbul at this historical moment is by no means easy, not only because of the complex political situation but also because this metropolis of more than twenty million people is able to condense all the contradictions and phenomena that not only express contemporary Turkey but above all the fate of many megacities caught between traditional models and metamorphoses with unfathomable consequences.

Istanbul, Byzantium, Constantinople: this city encapsulates the millennial history of some of the finest and most enduring civilizations in human history.

For centuries its stones have breathed conflicts, overlaps of races and cultures, languages and religions and tastes and moods from the two continents between which this city has always been a natural bridge.

The heart of the ancient city was enlivened by the complex of the Bazaar, while on the other bank the Galata district strengthened its role as a free trade area, open first to the world with the Genoese colony and then the creation of all the foreign embassies as well as the first truly modern infrastructures around İstiklal Avenue.

Until the first half of the twentieth century, Istanbul expanded and the only real loss to be mourned was the disappearance of its political and administrative importance when Ataturk moved the capital to Ankara, in the heart of the country. Yet all the cultural, economic and entrepreneurial vitality and higher education continue to hold firm in the metropolis which has developed as an independent entity from the rest of Turkey. In the last twenty years, the picture has changed with a dramatic demographic growth that has seen the overall population grow to over twenty million, mainly from rural areas in Turkey, resulting in a startling rise in a building that has no equal in the city’s history. Istanbul has expanded through a series of circles toward the North and the Black Sea putting the precious aquifers that have supplied the city for centuries in great danger. The local government (a city-state of twenty million!) together with the central government have insisted on some basic elements in recent years: an important infrastructure network that combines an expansion of public rail transport with a doubling of the great arterial ring roads that are dependent on a new, large bridge that transfers the weight of traffic to the North. The construction of a new airport on the Black Sea should make Istanbul one of the most important and strategic hubs in the Middle East yet there is reckless building deregulation which on one hand has led to the growth of large residential neighbourhoods with different income groups at either end of the scale while on the other taking no account of the old city centre’s immense and fragile historical heritage. The strengthening of tourism in Istanbul which in addition to being a favorite destination for “traditional” travelers is also intended to become one of the most important Malls in the Arab world, as well as having become a recognized destination for transplants and cosmetic surgery.

Writings and advertisements in the language of the Prophet have increased dramatically in recent years, especially on the large İstiklal Avenue shopping street, and the population that moves frenziedly along this long linear square is the perfect representation of how those who inhabit this metropolis are changing.

But it is above all the city’s shared millennial heritage that has been put into question since although there are sophisticated and diligent restoration projects such as the SALT Foundation or the Energy Museum designed by Han Tümertekin, there are other projects that challenge the city’s widespread and delicate historical wealth. It is paradoxical that a metropolis with a tremendous monumental heritage with few equals in the world does not yet have a consistent museum system of equal quality. Currently only the system regarding the Art and Design Biennials can counter this absence with its capacity (especially in art) to use and involve ever more widespread and wide-ranging fragments of Istanbul, but the news in recent months is that the only Museum of Contemporary Art in the city located in the old harbour area is to be demolished without a new location having been identified.

However, on paper, there are at least two projects for new museums that should provide a solution for the necessary strategy of renewing the city’s expository heritage. One is the design by Peter Eisenman for a major project in Yenikapi for the preservation of the remains of the ancient Byzantine port and 35 antique boats, and the other is the project for the new Istanbul city museum by the young Alper Derinboğaz, which aims to restore an old bus station in front of the Byzantine walls through a courageous venture that will revitalize this immense public area of the city. It is a delicate moment in history on which the future of important areas of this ancient metropolis depends, a city that has always found itself straddling contrasting worlds and constantly able to generate patterns and phenomena that are undoubtedly worth trying to understand without easy moralizing.

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