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Context Versus Extravaganza

EAA - Emre Arolat Architecture

Context Versus Extravaganza
By EAA - Emre Arolat Architecture -

I have been to many different cities recently. Some I had not seen before, some quite familiar, just like an old friend…

Paris, for example. I don’t remember how many times I’ve been there. I can count all the metro stations by heart even today. I don’t know if it is partly because of the naive but idealist French teachers of the Galatasaray High School that I spent the eight years of my preteens with, but since childhood this city has always charmed me. Recently it seems to have lost its old glory though. Some say it doesn’t have the glamour of the first half of the 20th century; that it is aging, becoming outdated. It is in a stagnation period, both sociologically and physically. It has reached such a level that even its own intelligentsia is becoming ignorant. So be it. I don’t care what anyone thinks. Paris has never failed me. Every time I go there I am struck by it, loving it even more. Yes, it is a bit arrogant, might even seem dismissive to those who go there for the first time. Moreover, the report on the urban transformation of 19th century Paris might not look that brilliant either. But it is also quite easy to critise the ideological imagination that underpinned it. As David Harvey affirms, as the Rome of the Empire and the heart of the civilization of Europe, Paris underwent a transformation - that could be called “Haussmannisation” - in order to support the might of empire and enhance the spectacle of palatial ceremonies and funerals, royal weddings and official visits; a goal that was magnificently achieved. Ceremonies were designed for the public to celebrate and stand in awe at the glory and power of the Empire. Monumentality was built into the restructuring of the urban fabric; the places and perspectives focused on symbols to set off the grandeur of the Empire and help reinforce the validity of the new regime. Yes, of course, this process did play an important role in constructing political legitimation and as a social control mechanism; it is totally impossible to deny it. Hence those who criticize Paris are still talking about the hegemonic days of the Empire.

Yet if you were to free yourself from these thoughts just for a moment, let your soul loose, and accompany your body to the city’s multilayered romanticism; only if you have that talent in you, can you enjoy this glorious city. That’s what I do each time. Or, at least, try to…

Which was exactly what I did a few months ago. Early in the morning I went out onto the sweeping, pleasantly sloping sidewalks of Avenue Junot, listening to “La Tendresse”, my mind on the wooden tables of the “Au Lapin Agile”. The sun was shining outside but it was also comfortably cool. We were going to start a new project. It would be good to visit Parc de la Villette and the Science Center again, but this time with a total new perspective.

Many Parisians were hurrying to work. Some were sitting quietly at streetside cafes, reading their newspapers and chatting with others passing by. The apprentice of the florist was placing colorful pots by the edge of the sidewalk with infinite care. The smell of newly baked croissant wafted out from the nextdoor bakery. The man with glasses and unruly hair selling books in the adjacent shop was talking intently to a lady who was listening with great interest. He looked as if he was talking about the most important thing in life.

I suddenly thought of what Hemingway said to his visiting friend Hotchner, and which apparently prompted the name of the writer’s masterpiece: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a Moveable Feast.” I wished I did not have to go back…

My second stop on that trip was Wolfsburg. This time another science center was to be visited. A much more recent, much more fancy building: the Phaeno by Hadid. As far as I could tell, it was functioning quite well. We flew from Paris to Hanover in the evening. We rented a car and reached the city late at night. Driving towards the hotel, the Science Center suddenly appeared right in front of us looking like a sculpture. We couldn’t resist the urge to turn and go towards the entrance. Like many other Hadid buildings we had come across, it made a very captivating object in the darkness. Very well built exposed concrete surfaces, the result of German meticulousness; a geometry defined by fluid lines flowing into each other and the void underneath the building let us get very good shots even in the dark. Gone was any trace of the fatigue we had felt a moment before. Then all of a sudden the spell was broken. In the middle of the wall was a door reaching up to the ceiling that followed the curvilinear building. The sides of the door from top to bottom also followed the same angle as the surrounding wall. Well, I said, accidents like these can happen in buildings like these, and tried to turn a blind eye. Maybe it’s only me who finds it disturbing, I thought to myself. I tried to console myself with the fact that new architectural tendencies sometimes do accommodate some weird forms. I tried not to think about it, not to look in that direction. Unfortunately, it was not possible. Things don’t work that way. As a provocation my friend posed right next to the door. Angled line, angled door and of course an angled pose. Then my eyes were caught by the slits of the ceiling. Some, perhaps most of them, were structural, or at least appeared to be. In fact, all of them are ornaments. Oh God. I wished I had not had such a close look. What a bad idea it was to come here at night.

For hours we discussed why a city like this would need such an iconic building. In a totally different context, in Prague, again a city I travel to a lot lately, I had asked the very same question. I had been very surprised when I had come across Gehry’s Fred and Ginger building. The game that “worked” for Bilbao and even El Ciego does not fit here apparently. Actually I had also been taken aback a little when I had learned that the statues on Charles Bridge were imitations. But tell me, really, would you not be terrified when you saw the weird building called the Dancing House?

Wolfsburg is an interesting place. Apparently it is the city with the highest per capita income in Germany. It felt like a medium sized town to us. Very neat, very green and very clean - more than necessary. There is a church built by Aalto and a cultural center. The epic view from the chateau, said to have been built in the 14th century, lets you daydream. In fact, it is an industrial city. Had it not been for Volkswagen, apparently there would be no city. Wolfsburg was in fact founded with the factory in the 1930s. The city of Karabük in Turkey sprung to my mind. I was getting depressed; my head started aching all of a sudden. The situation and scale of the two cities are very similar; their timing overlaps totally, and their population is practically the same. But, I asked myself, how could the outcome be so different when there are so many similarities? That is a very profound question, worthy of a whole new article. 

We were returning to Hanover from Wolfsburg in the same car. This time we had a chance to see the surroundings in daylight. The journey was much quicker. Or so I thought.

I flew to Prague from Hanover again. We are designing the Turkish Consulate building there, struggling for the last five years to get building permission. I have been there at least ten times recently. Even a roof extension of a couple of centimeters has caused problems in the various meetings we have had with the authorities. Building owners in neighbouring plots have caused many complications as well. For example, one has been able to prevent us getting a building permit claiming that his garden will get dusty during construction. Someone else has gone to the courts with the argument that the new building will affect the daylight coming into his flat. The Fred and Ginger comes to my mind. I resent it; I am saddened.

Prague is quite a gloomy place. It could work as a depression centre for someone with a mind to becoming depressed. After spending a couple of days here, it is quite easy to understand why Kafka could not have grown up in any place other than Prague. On the other hand, it is such a beautiful city and I am so happy to come and go, walk by the river after long stressful meetings, sometimes daydreaming about the imaginations of a century ago in the cubist atmosphere of the Grand Cafe Orient or enjoying artisan cheese with an ice cold Prosecco in the Alchemist Hotel bar.

“Let’s see how many ambassadors will change before we get the building done” is what I think on my way back to Istanbul. 

A couple of weeks later I am in London. Who knows how many times I have walked on the same streets. Still I can’t say I have totally grasped this multilayered city. Last September EAA opened its second office in Clerkenwell. After the Istanbul office on the eastern edge of Europe, opening an office in London on the western end of it, and being able to design projects in this magical city is very exciting. I have one foot here in London now.

Istanbul and London… We organised an exhibition in June at the RIBA, doing the readings of these two beloved cities on a parallel path and presenting them together with their different layers. Called “Ist-on Situations”, it studied the transformations brought about in the two cities by sociological, economic and political changes starting from the first half of the 19th century. We tried to present the similarities and the differences through the relationship of cause and effect. We also tried to incorporate and evaluate our recent projects for Istanbul on various scales within their specific contexts. It was an interesting and informative experience for us.

London is a permeable city. Just like the much maligned and congested Manhattan, it is possible to walk from one end of the city to the other. It is apparent that for centuries the relation between private and public space has been taken very seriously in terms of urban planning. I can’t help but compare it with Istanbul. It has become impossible to walk even for a couple of kilometers in the city center where I live. There are more and more gated communities everywhere. A form of sociological and physical disintegration is separating people from one another.

The South Bank is one of the most successful urban renovations recently realized. It is possible to see people from different nations and different backgrounds all together, side-by-side along the south bank of the River Thames. What a great wealth for a city! As soon as I cross Waterloo Bridge, the National Theatre greets me. Everytime I look at it, my admiration grows for this perfect example of the Brutalist period. I was startled when I had learned that this was one of the most loved but also most hated buildings in London. It shows how the architectural world does not have the same opinion as the general public. No matter whatever the location of a building, it might not meet public approval. I continue walking and there is the Walkie-Talkie building, currently one of the most talked about constructions in town. I feel as if it is looking at me from across the river. I quickly turn my head the other way.

Now I am in Abu Dhabi for a new project. We are going around the city with the investors. It is more than 40 degrees outside. Although my first time in Abu Dhabi, I have been to Dubai a couple of times, an hour’s drive from here. Clearly Abu Dhabi is following Dubai. But not seeming to have learned a lesson from its predecessor. Hundreds of skyscrapers are being built in this new city programmed to create their own world, with no intention of relating to one another in any way. Each seeks to be a stylistic extravaganza. The effect is just like a having lots of different kinds of strong tasting food in the same meal. When so many flashy buildings come together, the city turns into some kind of weird circus.

We pass by the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, considered the latest “landmark” of Islamic architecture. It is publicized with pride as having the largest carpet and the most flamboyant chandeliers in the world. Apparently it is also the most expensive in terms of cost per unit. “Modesty”, one of the most distinctive attributes of Islamic philosophy, inevitably comes to my mind. The construction of a holy place of such excess and its extravagant publicizing eloquently sums up the dilemma facing Islamic Architecture today. It is a subject that deserves much deeper and wider discussion.

From Abu Dhabi we go to Dubai to get on our plane. We can no longer see the skyscrapers lined up side by side along the seashore. On the right hand side, as far as the eye can see, lies the desert with its greyish white sand. Huge billboards are placed one after the other. On each are the photos of locally dressed executives with big smiles advertising new large-scale developments. I remember what David Harvey wrote about 19th century Paris. He was talking about the monumentality of a created urban fabric and how it validated and legitimized the power of the Empire, seeing this urban transformation as an important totalitarian tool of social control. The flashy images before me, so many years after the “Haussmannisation” and so far away, make me think that even in this totally different geography the on-going experience I am witnessing is not very different. I tell myself to let it go. I try to repeat to myself again and again that it is futile to compare Paris of the 1900s with Abu Dhabi of the 2000s. I try and think of other things. Can’t let go. The analogy keeps irritating me.

Then Dubai appears in the horizon. The strong sunlight reflects the shadows of the skyscrapers on the dust cloud that has taken hold of the city. We pass through the silhouttes as if we are in a surrealistic movie. Unavoidably, one questions the reality of what one sees…

Centuries from now, when a retrospective evaluation is done, there is no proof that our era will be considered as a time when interesting or worthwhile buildings were realized. In Paris, it won’t be the much-debated Triangle Tower of Herzog & de Meuron, the Philarmonie or the Duo towers of Nouvel that will be reminicent of this city in people’s minds. In 2233 Prague will not be remembered for the Fred and Ginger, or London for Walkie-Talkie. Nor will Phaeno be the first to come to mind when modern architecture in German cities will come under thorough discussion. Don’t you see, the skyscrapers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai have already gone out of fashion. Who knows, maybe I am wrong but the historians will not praise this period where the context, the sense of place and geographical properties are obscured and the people who deal with them almost despised. In the last twenty years, the architectural world has passed through a diminutive period, seeking only to create formal extravaganza. Although parametricism started out as a strong and exciting wind, it has not gone beyond self-fullfiling stylistic attractions. Digital technology has not been able to condition a paradigmatic change in architecture or its final product, the construction industry. Construction is still one of the most primitive manufacturing fields. At the beginning of the 21st century, when mind-blowing inventions are being made, space travel on faster-than-sound planes is advertised, and even the cheapest mass-produced car is so well insulated it does not let in a drop of water, it still is not easy to construct an apartment building where the roof does not leak or where the wind does not whistle through the joinery.

Still, there is no need to be hopeless about our lives. An architect has to learn from every encounter and look into the future with the willingness to learn and hope.

In EAA, both in the Istanbul and London offices, at the very beginning of the design process we carry out a multidimensional preliminary survey analyzing the unique parameters for every project and every situation. Instead of a recited or a recursive stylistic approach, the most important design inputs we always seek are the determinant factors relating to the “context” and the “place”. Context is always at the center of this multilayered survey where geographical, demographical, climatic, topographic, sociological, cultural and political factors are the main factors.


Sancaklar Mosque
Istanbul, Turkey

Located in one of the suburbs of Istanbul, Sancaklar Mosque aims to address the fundamental issues of designing a mosque by distancing itself from the current architectural discussions based on form and focusing just on the essence of religious space.


MAU Religious Complex
Mardin, Turkey

Mardin is an ancient city in southeastern Turkey with a dense and intricate urban texture. The brief of the project was to design a religious complex to bring together the spaces of worship of three religions in Mardin (Islam, Christianity and Yazidi). Spiritual spaces are designed as timeless places of worship.


Resort Hotel

While designing the Resort Hotel in UAE, in order to interpret the texture and volumetric richness of the geography, observations were made in the old city to be implemented in the design process. The hotel programme is a result of the constraints of the location and creates positive spaces out of the disadvantages of the site. A layered habitat with different textures is achieved by creating a unique topography.


Hotel and Residence Building 
London, UK

The hotel and residence building is planned for one of the most congested areas in London. The mixed-use complex where the bottom part will be a hotel and the top given over to residences will stand as an interface in between two different tones of the city. It is divided vertically to comply with the structural pattern. 


Youth and Science Park
Mersin, Turkey

The Youth and Science Park in Mersin, an important fast-growing commercial port in the eastern Mediterranean, will have semi-open public spaces, becoming an urban breathing space or social platform with buildings raised and placed on pilotis in deference to the climate.


Turkish Embassy
Prague, Czech Republic

The design of Turkish Embassy in Prague is driven by a question of how to belong to the site while trying to be “Turkish”. The answer given is a structuralist approach to the modernist interpretation of Turkish regional architecture where the structural carcass is used as a construction technique in traditional Turkish houses. 


St. Regis Hotel 
Istanbul, Turkey

For St. Regis Hotel Istanbul, the place it is located at is the most important element to be faced with in terms of maintaining an architectural design practice focused on “situation”. The architectural quality of the district rests on the principles of proportion and order. The building mass follows the existing urban fabric, adapting itself to daily uses; the ground level base blends with life on the street.


Vicem Bodrum Residences 
Muğla, Turkey

Vicem Residences are located on a rocky tip in Bodrum. Instead of creating an example of a large stereotypical detached house, the programme develops in a three-dimensional sense in keeping with the topography and so maintains relationships and vistas. The buildings integrate with the natural texture while the parts resting on the ground are articulated in as natural a way as possible.



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