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Istanbul Modern Viewing Terrace, Photo By Enrico Cano, 2023 (2)


Text by Masoud Golsorkhi

On the site of the disused docklands on the Karaköy waterfront, Renzo Piano designs the Turkish capital’s museum of modern art.


IstanbulCountry: TürkiyeArea: 5,461 km²Population: 15,907,951Time zone: GMT +3

The seventh most-populated city in the world, Istanbul has played an outsized role in three major empires – Roman, Latin and Ottoman – and continues to grow in size and influence, accounting for nearly a third of Turkey’s GDP.


Renzo Piano is one of the greatest architects of his generation. Born in Genoa, an Italian city with a rich history of architecture, he has become known, over 50 years of practice, for his own unique and elegant take on Modernism. Together with Richard Rogers – two “bad boys”, their design for the Centre Pompidou in Beaubourg, Paris, revolutionised the architecture of public buildings in a way not seen since the coining of the international style in 1932. With one building, Piano and Rogers co-authored the standard template of a public art space for the next forty years, long before the so-called Bilbao effect showed up.

The Pompidou effect was to invite a civic embrace of culture as a means of defining new democratic forms of citizenship with the arts performing the rites previously assigned to the church. In this 1960s centre-left social democratic vision of the future, public space was more than just volume and geometry, it was a crucial aspect of the public sphere. Architecture helped to shape a new social contract. Thus the Pompidou included a vast public space in front of it, a new town square typology so loved by generations of Parisians while inside the buildings, the internal walls would disappear to afford maximum flexibility to both art and audience.

Richard Rogers and I were told ‘You young men, you understand that this building will last 500 years?’ We went out, we looked at each other and said, ‘Why only 500 years?’ When you make a building, you have to make something that must last forever.

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The Centre Pompidou opened in 1977. The entirely external infrastructure – the building’s plumbing, electrics, air circulation, wires and pipes – was designed to unencumber the building, with bare interior spaces that can be adaptable to accommodate different events. It was intended to be, as Piano put it, “not a building but a town, where you find everything”.

Forever may be a long time for some, but in Istanbul it’s just a matter of fact. The “Second Rome”, as its Byzantine rulers once called it, is one of the eternal cities of the world, with an ancient tradition of architecture of its own. Its most iconic building, Hagia Sophia, is 1663 years old. Istanbul was the capital of the Ottoman Empire that dominated the Mediterranean world for over 600 years. Anyone who ruled the chokepoint between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean had their hands on more than just the levers of power and wealth. World culture was born thereabouts.

Yet, it is a tedious cliché to describe Istanbul by extemporising on its geography, as if being perched between two continents were the city’s only defining characteristic. This dominant depiction positions Istanbul as a precarious cultural no man’s land, neither of the East or the West. Turkey itself is often painted as a bridge between Europe and Asia. However, anyone who’s spent time considering borderlands knows that any line on a map is a gross oversimplification. People and their cultures don’t fit neatly into boxes; boundaries ebb, flow and merge across time. In reality, if there was a map of the real world it might look like a watercolour left out in the rain, its colours blending and diffusing into one another. The act of drawing borders is an exercise in power and politics.

1 Renzo Piano Istanbul Modern, Photo By Enrico Cano, 2023

If the experience of modernity has been tumultuous for every society it has visited, in Turkey the jarring effects of this new vision of the future remain particularly traumatic

Istanbul Modern Renzo Piano Sketch

Top, Renzo Piano sketch for the Istanbul Modern

Bottom, Istanbul Modern. Photo by Cemal Emden. Images courtesy of Istanbul Modern

Istanbul Modern, Photo By Cemal Emden, 2023 (2)

Beyond these tangible linguistic, political and cultural borders, there are also conceptual and philosophical constructs that frame Istanbul’s identity. The city defies simplistic categorisation and its relationship to modernity is unique. Following the birth of the republic, exactly 100 years ago, Turkey experienced a sudden and violent modernising revolution, the markers of which are still seen throughout the city. If the experience of modernity has been tumultuous for every society it has visited, in Turkey the jarring effects of this new vision of the future remain tangible still. Turkey’s history of modernisation is ultimately inseparable from periods of military rule and a concurrent contestation of westernisation in various form of Islamist politics. If European Orientalists imagined Istanbul as a gateway to an exotic East, modernisers in Turkey tend to regard it as the shop window of a Western-oriented conception of the country, fraught with the sense that the country might not be modern enough. For both, Istanbul is a confected tableau, arranged for external onlookers from East and West. Twenty years ago, the patrons of Istanbul Modern, Bülent and Oya Eczacıbaşı, had the idea to make the site of disused dockland warehouses into a museum for contemporary art, in the vein of Tate Modern. At the beginning, the location showed the family’s collection of art and the neighbouring buildings became the principal host of the Istanbul Biennale. As so often, this project sought to represent Turkish modern and contemporary art to an international audience through appeals to the language of the global art world. Thus it is no surprise that when, some 20 years later, they decided to reconstruct the museum as part of a wider commercial shoreside development plan, they invited Piano, architect of numerous museums, art spaces and cultural centres. His response was typically poetic: “This building is a flying vessel. It’s also very much part of the tradition of storage – this is why this building has a soul – when art becomes a museum, it gets out from under time, the dimension of time … solid and flying.” Istanbul Modern in that sense is a symbolic expression made concrete of a wish to somehow move forward; for that alone, it should be celebrated.

Museum-making everywhere is a communal act. It is not just that museums invite the possibility of communing with art, whatever that may mean at any given time, but they also, invariably, require active community participation. As Piano puts it, “Primary beauty is political, in a very deep sense. It’s about community. It’s about making the city a better place to be, and Istanbul deserves that. I like to do this also in Paris, in London, in New York, everywhere. I’ve done that in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago. But making it in Istanbul is quite interesting.”

What architecture brings to the table is also something of a melange, particularly by an architectural grandee such as Piano. His designs have a halo effect, an intangible magical quality like a glowing frame, that positions the building – and its uses – for decades to come. Think Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate Modern, or I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid at the Louvre. This architecture is celebrated as a cultural artefact in itself and not simply as shelter or storage or a temple to art. The clearest proof of this is how easy it is to name the architects of the great museums in the Persian Gulf and beyond, while it remains so much harder to name the museums themselves.

That isn’t to say that the soft-spoken and almost saintly Piano should be bracketed with his sharp-tongued and sharper-elbowed designer-suited contemporaries and sometimes rivals. Piano belongs to an older generation with a more utopian vision of architecture, shaped more by 1968 than the egomania of the 1980s, and represents a much softer sell. He – along with his old friend, the late Richard Rogers – is one of a more authentic, artisanal class of technocrats, who are directly connected with an idea of civic virtue. As a result, they have also always had far less of an appetite for potentates and oligarchs, the embrace of whom has tainted the reputation of so many starchitects. As Piano sees it, “You understand architecture is about walking the street and talking to people – you understand it as a social job, a social art, a civic art, public art.”

Piano speaks very eloquently about the period of his formation in which architecture was tasked with offering solutions to the problems of civic society. Unfortunately, we are in a different age now, where architecture is seen by many to be part of the problem, not least by many architects themselves, if this year’s Venice Biennale is anything to go by. Piano claims that these concerns have entered his practice. “Everything done before the year 2000 was made without a clear understanding of the fragility of the planet,” he said in Istanbul. “Today, the new condition is that you have to make buildings that are wise. It’s a great opportunity, because we have to transform that duty, that necessity, into a poetic vision. You can make buildings that breathe. The building must express the fact that it’s a wise building.” It’s a philosophy writ large in the Istanbul project: “This building is not consuming energy, or very little energy. We have a one-metre space between the water and the roof. Today, you can make buildings very close to zero emission – right now, we are designing at least three or four buildings that are real zero emission.” Indeed, one of the most stunning aspects of the design is the shallow rooftop pool, almost invisibly blending with the Bosphorus, on which appears a vast crowd of seagulls, grateful to be taking a breather from the city's hectic pace.

Location, location, location. On these three accounts Istanbul is a winning destination for seagulls and architects alike. But Istanbul’s pitch isn’t just as a location and a geography, it is also civilisational and cultural. The city that looks with some benevolence at Piano as only its most recent interloper is, amongst other things, the city of Sinan (1491–1588), perhaps the greatest Islamic architect of all time, responsible for hundreds of extant buildings across the city. Sinan, who served as the empire’s chief architect from 1539 until his death in 1588, is responsible for the design of the city's icon, the Suleymaniye Mosque (1569-1575). The Suleymaniye was Sinan's attempt to surpass the achievement of Hagia Sophia, responding to the great Byzantine church with respect but also with ambition: to build bigger and better, in engineering terms, and in a fraction of the time. It achieves all of the above and delivers both grandeur and delicate touch – essential qualities from the point of view of Islamic tradition. Sinan’s masterpiece shows how Islam sees itself not in opposition to Christianity but as its continuation.

Floating Islands Exhibition, Photo By Cemal Emden, 2023 (6)

Istanbul Modern’s 9th collection exhibition, “Floating Islands”, brings together more than 280 works by 110 artists and 2 artist duos. Photo by Cemal Emden. Image courtesy of Istanbul Modern

By the standards of the recent rash of new museums across the world, Istanbul Modern is a very modest proposal, an elegant but humble and practical design solution at a very reasonable budget. It has none of the bling and expressive pretensions of those built recently in Dubai, Baku or Abu Dhabi. In fact, its greatest achievement isn’t to stand out too much – the building already looks very comfortable in situ. It acts as an understated vitrine on the Bosphorus, ready to frame the content it is offered. It may be too early to judge it by the current programming. A revealing sign of the challenges of the curatorial approach at Istanbul Modern was prominently adding the location of each artist’s educational institution next to their name and work, emphasising the almost total extent to which contemporary Turkish artists have been educated in the West. What might have felt like a badge of honour to some, to me seemed provincial. It is a telling reminder of how the museum itself conceptualises its own audience.

Ultimately, it feels as though Istanbul Modern, in reaching to meet the challenge set by its name, looks to other international blueprints for what it ought to be as an institution, rather than reflecting on how modernity is experienced in Turkish terms. Istanbul Modern could perhaps be more richly inspired if it took time to look at itself, Istanbul’s own reality and identity, for the meaning the city uniquely generates. An identity rooted in that place, in the riot of cultures there – even the culture of riots – and the history of its own role as a central civilisational force, in a rapidly changing world of many modernisms. Neither a gateway to this or that continent, nor a precipice, teetering on a crisis of identity; surely it has both the potential and the provenance to do so. ◉

Istanbul Modern, Photo By Enrico Cano, 2023