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The wooden houses of Istanbul

June Taboroff

JUNE TABOROFF is an American architectural historian who deals with the problems of conservation of historic monuments and sites.

These houses are falling into decay and the tendency is to replace them with concrete buildings. A unique form of vernacular architecture is being lost that ought to be renovated and preserved.

A street scene in the Zeyrek quarter of Istanbul, one of the poorer parts of the city, where much of the traditional wooden architecture c an he found. The women sitting outside their houses are doing needlework. Although this building is in a relatively poor state of repair, there are many in worse condition and yet all the wooden buildings are inhabited

Istanbul's last wooden houses are collapsing and with them a whole architectural type and culture is vanishing. These wooden houses, examples of ingenuity and taste, are integral to the fabric of the historic city of Istanbul and are key elements in preserving its townscape. The traditional city view-narrow streets lined with bay-windowed wooden houses overlooking the garland of waters surrounding the city - is fast becoming a memory.

Istanbul, the only city in the world which stands upon two continents, stretches from the Thracian plain in the west to Asia in the east. Over five million inhabitants live in the city. Its ancient core, Stamboul, dating from at least the 7th century BC, is located at the southeastern tip of Europe.

Although some may argue that it is energy misplaced to save the wooden houses of Istanbul, considering the host of urban ills facing the city, these structures are of irreplaceable significance. They are the only remaining examples of Istanbul's own domestic architecture, and represent building forms known from at least the 16th century. They are thus direct links with the Turkish past. Furthermore, the number of wooden houses available for preservation represents only a very small percentage of the original wooden building stock and requires a relatively modest investment.

There is an understandable tendency for Third World countries to lose sight of the need to preserve their own physical past because it is often, to contemporary eyes, modest or perhaps crumbling. It is notable that at the Fourth Symposium of the International Committee for the Conservation of Buildings and Structures in Wood, held in June 1982 in Ottawa and Quebec. Canada, this subject was addressed in the recommendations.

The wooden houses of Istanbul, built in large part in the second half of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century, are of two major types: the konak and the row house. The konak, the older building form, is a single family town house surrounded by a garden. These gardens form an essential part of the spatial and architectural programme. Graced with fountains and pergolas, they function as outdoor rooms in temperate weather. The konak has reception rooms on the ground floor and private living-quarters on the upper floors. An attic floor, built like a pavilion, surmounts the spacious living areas.

The more modest row or terrace-type houses developed at the end of the 19th century when the large konak building lots were divided up. Owing to their later construction date they tend to be in a somewhat better state of conservation than the konaks. There are three basic ground plans, all with a stairwell flanked by a single room or pair of rooms. Almost without exception the row houses have a small garden concealed behind high walls and planted with trees and flowers, often with a well. Early photographs and city views of Istanbul reveal a city dense with green spaces.

Building techniques. The majority of wooden houses are built on stone foundations. A timber skeletal frame support of two or three storeys topped by a terrace-like roof surface is characteristic of both konak and row houses. In Istanbul narrow planks are nailed to the outside surfaces, while the inside walls are coated with lime plaster. This is a particularly rapid and economical building method allowing quick construction by small teams.

In other parts of Turkey and the Balkans the interstitial area of the skeletal frame may be filled by rubble masonry, stone or brick. In Bursa, brick and mortar are used with a wooden frame to approximate half-timber buildings, similar to the German Fachwerk house. The Turkish system is also very similar to the American balloon or basket frame which first appeared in the United States in Chicago in 1833 and within 20 years prevailed in the urban American West.

A shoeblack sits in from of a well-maintained wooden house. Few are found in such condition

The building method, made possible by advances in nail manufacturing and created in response to a need for quick construction, consists of a light frame held together by nails instead of the older system of heavy beams joined by mortise, tenon and pegs. In this newer construction system, wall-plates, studs, floor joists and rafters were all made of thin sawn timbers nailed together in such a way that every strain went in the direction of the fibre of the wood. The timbers formed a cage to which board or clapboard was then affixed.

In Istanbul the favoured wood is pine, with beech used for interior woodwork. In the more refined and luxurious houses, interiors were elaborately fitted with cabinets, wall shelves and decorative ceilings and floors. The lumber used in Istanbul houses came from nearby forests, either on the Asiatic side or the European side. The Caspian coast is especially rich in forests. Lumber was then shipped to the harbour of Istanbul for unloading and distribution.

The relatively simple balloon-frame construction methods contrast with the fanciful decorative features of the houses. The facades are dressed with an enormous variety of carved and cut-out woodwork lending an air of gaiety and whimsy to the houses. A profusion of design motifs decorate door - and window-frames, cornices, corbels under bay windows and at corners. Such features expressed the owner's own fantasies and tastes.

The tradition of wood-carving and woodwork in Turkey is rich and sophisticated. A series of beautifully carved and inlaid wooden doors' dating from the 13th century onward, marked the entrance to mosques and palaces. During the later Ottoman period this originally royal art-form found a place in the domestic architecture of the wealthy citizens of Istanbul. In a more simple manner it was also used in modest houses.

The placement and form of windows are other distinguishing features of Istanbul's wooden houses. Windows are numerous and generous in size, generally concentrated in the upper two storeys. Their positioning reflects the wish for fine views of the city's waterways as well as the joint requirements of privacy and sociability.

The urban setting. The problems confronting the historic city of Istanbul are chronic: the need to preserve a large number of Byzantine and Otto man monuments, an uncontrolled rural migration and lack of funds for rehabilitation.

Although the major historic monuments are not in imminent danger, the areas surrounding them are. This is particularly the case in areas where the traditional wooden houses still exist. Very little pre-20th century domestic architecture remains in Istanbul. It is estimated that only one percent of the original 150000 wooden houses are still standing.

Suleymaniye and Zeyrek. The highest concentration of wooden houses is found in two districts, Suleymaniye and Zeyrek. The overcrowded, crumbling Suleymaniye district - bordered by Ataturk Boulevard, the Suleymaniye mosque complex and the University of Istanbul - mixes the textile traders, market, the wholesale fruit and vegetable market, small industries and warehouses with late 19th-century row houses. Most of these are falling apart, with no kitchen and bathroom facilities, although they have electricity and running water. The present sewerage system dates from about 1910. There are often four or five people renting one room.

Zeyrek is the first landing point in Istanbul for immigrants from Anatolia. Located on the slopes of the Golden Horn, west and above Ataturk Boulevard near the Byzantine monastery complex of the Pantocrator, it is here that immigrants find their first home, often with relatives from their own village. Their stay in these illequipped wooden row houses and konaks is temporary: after finding a job they move to the newer residential areas which have sprung up on the fringes of Istanbul, called gecekendus. The waves of immigrants passing through Zeyrek create a situation of neglect and disrepair. The most necessary repairs remain undone as the house is rented again and again to new tenants by unconcerned owners. Holes soon appear in the roof, grave moisture damage is suffered by the structure and the house collapses. Although public awareness of the artistic and historic value of these houses has increased, the rate of disappearance still continues at an exponential rate.

Both accident and plan have played a role in the building of wooden houses in Istanbul. Devastating fires which sweep through whole areas leaving countless inhabitants injured and homeless have marked the history of Istanbul. These fires resulted in continual rebuilding. To combat the danger of fire, a decisive law was enacted in the 1920s forbidding further building in wood without adequate free spaces between houses. This put an end to building in wood in the densely populated city centre.

The political and economic fortunes of Istanbul also determined the fate of the wooden houses. In the course of the 19th century, Istanbul became the manufacturing centre of Turkey. Industrial buildings filled the upper reaches of the Golden Horn, Suleymaniye and the bazaar. An influx of low-income workers brought rapid population growth. The old Ottoman residential districts changed extensively. The modernization of Istanbul, initiated in the second half of the 20th century under the guidance of French city planners, dealt a devastating blow to the already stressed situation of the historic centre. Only by chance have concentrations of wooden houses been spared.

Causes of deterioration. As is often the case, a complex of factors converge to threaten the continued existence of a traditional building stock. In Istanbul many of the wooden houses are infested by termites which cause eventual deterioration of the structure. Moisture damage is also a serious problem in the conservation of these houses. But perhaps the single most significant factor in the disintegration of the wooden houses is the lack of maintenance.

Particular social and economic conditions create an especially unfavourable climate which works against the conservation of this vernacular architecture. Migrants from eastern Turkey find jobs as carriers, pedlars of fruit and vegetables and seasonal labourers in the vicinity of the markets in the historic peninsula. An ever-changing group of single workers rent rooms in old houses. The boarding-houses become shabby and begin to deteriorate due to lack of care and overcrowding. Families tend to move from the area and a whole downward cycle is set in motion. For some owners who want to rid themselves of their old wooden houses in order to construct a modern apartment building, renting to workers without families becomes a conscious method of demolition.

Characteristic ornate windows-frames. The wood-carving skills of the last century that made this type of ornamentation possible still exist in Turkey and are available for restoration efforts

This carved wooden balcony has characteristic Turkish architectural motifs, row of stalactite forms across the front and a geometric interlace underneath

Tympanums at the tops of buildings are frequently decorated with elegantly carved wooden mouldings

A principal aspect of the problem of conservation of wooden houses is one of cultural discontinuity which makes the public in large measure indifferent to the past and to a relatively abstract heritage which consists, in the eyes of the population, of monuments and sites.

According to Dogan Kuban, one of the most respected Turkish architects, if the existence of an attitude of ambivalence to the past and the practical demands of daily life are taken into account, one cannot be surprised by the spectacle of the rapid disappearance of all the old areas of Istanbul together with their wooden houses. What makes conservation at times impossible in Istanbul, contends Kuban, is the feeling of alienation toward the material culture of the recent past. It is therefore necessary to persuade the population that these dwellings must not be regarded as slums, but as representative of an irreplaceable heritage worthy of preservation.

This situation also implies another obstacle: the discontinuity of construction techniques. In Istanbul until the 1920s wood was the basic building material for domestic architecture. The old techniques of wood construction became unacceptable, not only in a practical sense but also for reasons of a cultural value system. Although it can be argued that the maintenance of wooden buildings and the replacement of damaged elements are expensive, it is largely a matter of cultural attitude that determines the survival of these wooden houses. The replacement of wood by concrete in Istanbul is not only for reasons of safety or economy, but also for the wealth and solid standing symbolized by concrete.

Programmes for conservation. Unesco, the universities of Zurich and Darmstadt and the German Archaeological Institute of Istanbul have all conducted studies aimed at conserving the historic peninsula. To date, surveys of the extant wooden houses in the Suleymaniye and Zeyrek districts have been completed. They consist of detailed drawings of each house, including plan and elevation drawings. The names of the owners have been gathered from the National Office of Registration and sociological interviews with the inhabitants conducted. Proposals for pedestrian spaces and traffic thoroughfares have been drafted. Although the first of these research projects began in 1977, they have not yet been implemented.

* * *

Despite the dedicated and sustained efforts of the Unesco commission and the German Archaeological Institute, the fate of the wooden houses of Istanbul is grim. The necessary studies and inventories have been carried out in proper fashion but actual conservation and rehabilitation measures have neither been undertaken, nor even planned.

Fundamentally the ultimate decision is a financial one, since the legal and administrative means to halt the process of demolition are still limited. The designation of Suleymaniye and Zeyrek as protected zones, according to the new historic preservation law, signals legal progress, but has not been met by adequate financial support or planning.

The wooden houses of Istanbul, precious remnants of the life of the old city, will soon be extinct unless active safeguarding initiatives are taken.

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