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Re-thinking architect Kemalettin

Paolo Girardelli
Référence(s) :

Yıldırım Yavuz, İmparatorluktan Cumhuriyete Mimar Kemalettin, 1870-1927 [Architect Kemalettin, 1870-1926, from Empire to Republic], Ankara: TMMOB Mimarlar Odası; Vakıflar Genel Müdürlüğü, 2009 (Mimar Kemalettin Anma Programı dizisi)

Afife Batur and Gül Cephanecigil, İstanbul Vakıflar Bölge Müdürlüğü Mimar Kemaleddin Proje Kataloğu [A Catalogue of Architect Kemalettin’s Drawings Preserved in the Istanbul Branch of the Pious Foundations Directorate], Ankara : TMMOB Mimarlar Odası; Vakıflar Genel Müdürlüğü, 2009 (Mimar Kemalettin Anma Programı dizisi)

Ali Cengizkan (ed.), Mimar Kemalettin ve Çağı. Mimarlık/ Toplumsal Yaşam/Politika [Kemalettin and His Age. Architecture, Social Life and Politics], Proceedings of the symposium (Ankara, Gazi University, 7-8 December 2007), Ankara : TMMOB Mimarlar Odası; Vakıflar Genel Müdürlüğü, 2009 (Mimar Kemalettin Anma Programı dizisi)

Entrées d’index

Index géographique :

Europe, Europe du Sud

Index chronologique :

XIXe siècle
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Notes de l’auteur

A different version of this review on Kemalettin work was published in Turkish in Middle East Technical University, Journal of the Faculty of Architecture, 2010, vol. 1, p. 300–3.

Texte intégral

1In the cultural history of Turkey, Kemalettin Bey (1870–1927)’s name and image are inseparable from the issue of national identity, its political construction and its visual representations. A well established academic discourse credits architects Kemalettin and Vedat Tek (1873–1942) for replacing, after the Young Turks constitutional revolution of 1908, the late-Ottoman, eclectic and cosmopolitan architectural culture with a new historicist, national and “modern” idiom. From a hybrid, multicultural production dominated largely by non-Muslim, Levantine (European citizens born or rooted in the Ottoman empire) and foreign architects, we shift to a language based largely (not exclusively) on the re-use and re-codification of a classical Ottoman vocabulary – a language that continued to be used through the early republican period, until it was flanked and gradually replaced by modernist trends, represented especially in the work of Sedat Hakkı Eldem (1908–1988). In fact, due to his direct and intense relation with the Ministry of Evkaf (or Vakıfs, Pious Foundations), to his theoretical writings, and to his efforts in shaping a local academic/professional curriculum, Kemalettin should be seen as the most influential figure in the institutionalization of Turkish architecture. His works for Istanbul and Ankara, ranging from the hans (commercial or office buildings) of Eminonu and Sirkeci to the Harikzedegan apartments, designed for the victims of the 1917 fire in the hearth of the historic peninsula; from the Ankara Palace Hotel to the Second Vakıf (Pious foundation) Building in Ulus (both from 1927, the year of his death), near the core of the new republican capital, are now an integral part of the socio-cultural landscapes of Turkey. In other words, even the life of people who ignore his name may be affected in many ways by the work of this architect. An overview of this imposing oeuvre is accessible online and in English as a virtual exhibition curated by Afife Batur1, website of the museum of architecture created by the Turkish Chamber of Architects).

2The first comprehensive work on Kemalettin, based on a PhD thesis at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, was published in 1981 by Yıldırım Yavuz, still the leading authority on the subject. The major step in the internationalization of the topic was probably in 1984, when Renata Holod, Ahmet Evin and Suha Özkan edited and published Modern Turkish Architecture for the University of Pennsylvania Press (re-issued in 2005), a collection that includes one chapter on Kemalettin by Yavuz, and several essays on late Ottoman and early Republican cases and issues. In 1995 a work by Kemalettin reached the Pelican History of Art published by Yale University Press, as the last illustration in the second volume of a survey of Islamic art, co-authored by Sh. Blair and J. Bloom. I still remember the amazement of the photographer Josephine Powell (1919–2007), who had been asked for a picture of this work by the publisher. Josephine’s outstanding collection (now in the Fine Arts Library at Harvard University) featured anything Islamic from Afghanistan to Maghreb, but (understandably) not the Fourth Vakıf Building designed by Kemalettin Bey in 1911 and executed between 1916 and 1926, not far from the orientalist railway station of Sirkeci, that welcomed since the 1890s western travellers arriving on the Orient Express. This inclusion was a significant challenge to the standard image of “Islamic” art and architecture that dominated the western perception, based mostly on the medieval heritage with few addictions from the three great early-modern empires (Ottoman, Safavid, Mughal). Today, it seems probably more significant to see Kemalettin’s work not simply as “late Islamic” architecture, but rather as an instance of the global challenges of (and responses to) modernity that non-Western countries and cultures experienced in various ways during the past two centuries.

3Of course this is not the place to survey the entire literature on the subject, but let us remind at least Mimar Kemalettin’in Yazdıkları, a collection of theoretical writings by Kemalettin edited in 1997 by İlhan Tekeli and Selim İlk, and Modernism and Nation-Building by Sibel Bozdoğan, the first book that evaluates critically, and contextualizes in a complex international framework, the so-called “national” production of architecture in republican Turkey.

4Year 2007 is definitely a turning point in the scholarship on Kemalettin. In order to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Kemalettin’s death, the Turkish Chamber of Architects launched a program and formed a committee with leading Turkish architectural historians. Among the initiatives and events that materialized within this framework, probably the most important product, at least in an academic sense, will remain the 3 volumes on Kemalettin’s work published jointly in 2009 by the Turkish Pious Foundations Ministry and the Chamber of Architects: Yıldırım Yavuz, İmparatorluktan Cumhuriyete Mimar Kemalettin, 1870–1927 [Architect Kemalettin, 1870–1927, from Empire to Republic]; Afife Batur and Gül Cephanecigil, İstanbul Vakıflar Bölge Müdürlüğü Mimar Kemaleddin Proje Kataloğu [A Catalogue of Architect Kemalettin’s Drawings Preserved in the Istanbul Branch of the Pious Foundations Directorate]; and Ali Cengizkan (ed.), Mimar Kemalettin ve Çağı. Mimarlık/ Toplumsal Yaşam/Politika [Kemalettin and his Age. Architecture, Social Life and Politics], proceedings of a symposium organized at Gazi University, Ankara, on 7–8 December 2007.

5The first of the three publications is a substantially enriched version of the “Spartan” book published by Yavuz in 1981, for long out of print. The enrichment is not limited to lavish illustrations and higher graphic quality: new archival findings and additions to the overall corpus of Kemalettin’s work are also part of it. To simply quantify, consider that the 1981 edition included 39 projects while the 2009 one has 71. Among the most interesting additions is the restoration project for the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, prepared during the British Mandate period, and for which Kemalettin was granted honorary membership of the RIBA. At one stage, the architect proposed a reconstruction that echoed literally the Ottoman silhouette of the Suleymaniye mosque in Istanbul. Had this version been accepted and executed, the landscape of a major geo-political contention of our times would carry today the imprint of Mimar Sinan, the 16th century Ottoman architect of the Suleymaniye (we may not regret that it does not, but this is another question...). In the second part of the book by Yavuz, Kemalettin’s biography is enriched with materials from family archives, like letters to his wife Sabiha Hanım and other personal records. Understandably, as we are dealing with a carefully documented overview of a protagonist who worked for a multinational empire and for its “modern” republican heir, what will strike the eye of either experts or laymen looking at the book, is the width and diversity of Kemalettin’s engagement and commitment in many senses. Typologically, his work includes religious buildings (mosques, funerary monuments, a dervish convent and educational complex…), train stations, restoration of historic landmarks, office buildings and commercial structures, apartments, school, hospitals, hotels. Geographically, his realized or simply designed works span from Plovdiv in Bulgaria to Medina in Saudi Arabia. In technological terms, he used the traditional Ottoman timber (either tout court or combined with other construction systems), he designed masonry structures with load bearing walls, he used iron floors and steel frames with stone cladding, and reinforced concrete since 1922 (somewhat late, if we think that the Ottoman empire had a representative of the Hennebique firm already in 1902). In my view, this diversity also touches in part the stylistic side of his production, which should not be rigidly and exclusively framed in the “national” Turkish pattern. In the 3rd Vakıf Building designed in 1911 for the area of Cukurcuma in Beyoğlu (or old Pera, the most cosmopolitan part of Istanbul), Kemalettin abandoned the Ottoman revivalist vocabulary to adopt a Levantine synthesis of imported and local/vernacular elements, typical of the urban context of Pera.

6While Yavuz’s book is focused on one personality (and its manifold connections), the volume by Afife Batur and Gul Cephanecigil is based on one archival collection, that sheds light on the entire epoch of Kemalettin. This is an indispensable resource for our knowledge of Kemalettin’s engagement in the Ministry of Pious Foundations, but it also includes drawings that are presently preserved in the Directorate of Pious Foundations, and may have been prepared outside that official appointment. In Batur’s view, the materials presented and in part reproduced here represent a compensation, however minimal, for the paucity of drawings that characterizes Ottoman/Turkish architectural history, even in its recent periods. “In a context where we do not even have drawings of landmarks like the imperial palace of Dolmabahce or the Mausoleum of Ataturk”, she argues, “what little remains of other projects should be all the more protected and valorized through scholarship”. Especially interesting in this collections are the drawings for a restoration of the Arap Camii in Galata (a former Dominican church turned into mosque for the Iberian Muslim migrants in 1475); projects for educational structures, including a madrasa [religious school] in Median and a school of engineering in Istanbul; the hamam attached to the Gureba hospital in Fatih (Istanbul); and two plans for large and not executed apartment buildings in Beyoğlu. The volume closes with a selection of drawings from the same collection that are either anonymous or signed by others than Kemalettin. We gain thus knowledge on the broader context and scope of the Vakıf engagement in design and conservation in the early 20th century and later, as well as appreciate original and unpublished drawings by less known figures, like architect Ali Talat (1869–1922).

7In contrast with the two volumes analyzed so far, the publication of the conference proceedings edited by Ali Cengizkan has a major emphasis on the social and cultural context of Kemalettin’s period. The book contains essays based on fresh archival research, and presents also original perspectives on already known issues. The contextual dimension of the problematique first emerges prominently from Ilhan Tekeli’s essay, “What kind of environment for Kemalettin’s work?”, where the political pre-conditions for imagining a national architecture are investigated. A section of the book entitled “The Ottoman production of architecture”, evaluates Kemalettin’s position vis à vis the material, discursive and institutional features of architecture in the late Ottoman period. One of the last writings by the late Bogazici University professor Gunhan Danisman is included here, along with essays by established scholars –like art historian Ayla Ödekan or restoration expert Gülsüm Tanyeli– and younger researchers like Gül Cephanecigil and Oya Şenyurt. From these analyses, one gains the sense of Kemalettin’s ambivalent position in regard to his own cultural environment, to which he obviously belonged, but which he also challenged, contributing to enact a sort of paradigm shift. Senyurt’s essay, based largely on Ottoman archival sources, shows how complex was the milieu of architectural education and practice in the mid-19th century, after the collapse of the traditional imperial institutions, and before the establishment of an official Ottoman academy in 1883. Education relied also on unofficial initiatives of foreign architects who taught design privately, mainly to non-Muslim Ottoman apprentices: a far cry from Kemalettin’s highly institutionalized vision and practice, especially as they emerge from his mature work, or from his engagement in the Vakıfs administration documented by Batur and Cephanecigil’s mentioned volume. We may recall here, the different understandings of the professional role of the architect expressed by two other protagonists of the late Ottoman and early Republican period: Raimondo D’Aronco, architect of Abdulhamit II, and Giulio Mongeri, who taught in the Ottoman academy and contributed to the design of major landmarks in Ankara during the 1930’s. Mongeri, born in 1873, belonged to the same generation of Kemalettin, and believed that only academic institutions could legitimize the profession and the practice of architecture. He condemned vehemently the informally trained khalfas or master masons who had produced the hybrid, Levantine urban environments of Istanbul during the late 19th and early 20th century. By contrast, in a more traditionalist and romantic vein, D’Aronco stressed the instinctive and creative approach to the work of the architect. He valued un-classical and vernacular forms, and admired the Armenian khalfas who had contributed to transform Ottoman classical architectural culture. Of course Kemalettin’s position is closer to Mongeri’s, and the formal similarities between some of the two architects’ works may confirm this proximity. But the important difference is that Mongeri had dealt mainly with already established institutions (the Academy of Brera where he was trained, or the Ottoman Fine Arts academy where he taught), while Kemalettin was actively engaged in shaping a new institutional context for the architecture the Young Turks constitutional state, and then for the Republic. The section “Architecture and dominant taste in the Ottoman period”, with papers by authoritative scholars like Afife Batur, Ugur Tanyeli and Ahmet Ersoy, along with a contribution Yavuz Sezer, a PhD candidate at MIT, is useful for revising certain stereotyped ideas on Kemalettin and his time. Especially the view that his formulation of a “national” style was exactly parallel to the political shift enacted by the Young Turks constitutional revolution of 1908 is implicitly challenged. He certainly had a prominent role in representing this political turn through architecture, but continuities with the previous, theoretical and practical efforts to connect Ottoman architecture with a national or imperial self should not be forgotten: Kemalettin and Vedat were not simply and suddenly re-establishing a link with Mimar Sinan that had faded in the 18th century. The volume ends with the records of a lively discussion following the authors’ presentations, an addition that somehow helps us connecting heterogenoeus contributions.

8In conclusion, a reflection on the destiny of Kemalettin’s work in the present urban contexts and architectural culture of Turkey may be in order. In Istanbul, the two major works of this protagonist, the 4th Vakıf Han and the Harıkzedegan apartments, survive today as luxury hotels. The former is in general good shape as far as the exterior is concerned; the latter, belonging to a state Foundation, was transformed and managed as a hotel for 20 years by a private developer, but the end of the concession in 2007 marked the beginning of the present state of abandonment. We may have different opinions about the opportunity of using cultural property for touristic purposes. How much this option is a resource for saving endangered landmarks, how much is it culturally and economically sustainable, how much it challenges, facilitates or impedes our understanding of a building’s meaning, are questions beyond the scope of this review. But Turkey is presently experiencing an overall commercialization of the recent and less recent architectural and urban heritage that may leave us with pure and simple physical shelters, in the place of a living urban historical fabric. A new heritage politics, and new socio-economic strategies, may enable Turkish urban societies regain touch with this important part of their history. There is certainly a strong and diffused concern for this. And initiatives like the publications reviewed here form the basis for a critically informed action in this sense.

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Paolo Girardelli, « Re-thinking architect Kemalettin »ABE Journal [En ligne], 2 | 2012, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2013, consulté le 05 mars 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Paolo Girardelli

Associate Professor, Boğaziçi University, Istanbul, Turkey

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