Nostalgia for 19th-century Pera meets modernity in Istanbul exhibit

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Article Summary
Cosmopolitan Pera, with luxury hotels and entertainment venues, was the recreational heart of 19th-century Istanbul, which an exhibition at the Istanbul Research Institute revisits along with a cultural addition that could have been.

Most residents would jump for joy if a parking lot and a hideous office building at the historical heart of their city were slated to be replaced by a cultural center designed by a celebrated architect. They would be even happier if private donors had agreed to pick up the tab to the tune of some $150 million, sparing the pocketbooks of the city's taxpayers. Alas, this is not so in Istanbul.

In 2008, the metropolitan municipality of Istanbul (IBB) approved a project to build a theater and a concert hall designed by the renowned architect Frank Gehry, but soon thereafter reversed its decision. No one knows why. Some of Gehry’s plans survive in press reports and on the IBB's website, but the project had otherwise disappeared from the public eye.

The cultural complex, consisting of two separate buildings, was to have been built in central Beyoglu, the international neighborhood that in fin-de-siècle Istanbul was called Pera, replacing a car park and a steel and glass structure outrageously painted red, blue and green — the very unharmonious colors of TRT, Turkish state radio and television, whose offices it houses. Adding insult to injury, this hideous example of brutalist architecture obstructs the view toward the Golden Horn.

Not forgotten by everyone, Gehry's plans have been dusted off and re-presented in “Looking from In-Between: A Section of Mesrutiyet Street,” the current exhibition at the Istanbul Research Institute. The exhibition is largely devoted to the history of two buildings some 100 meters apart and overlooking the thoroughfare that in Ottoman times was called rue des Petis-Champs. The last section of the show looks at the history of the plot of land across from the buildings, which is where Gehry's buildings would have stood.

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The fascinating history of the refined and cosmopolitan 19th-century heir to Constantinople was made in Pera, after the first European tourists arrived by Orient Express and made their way to the area's luxury hotels, like the Pera Palace. The two buildings examined in the exhibition are the Hotel Bristol, now the Pera Museum, and the Rossolimo Apartments, now home to the Istanbul Research Institute.

The museum and institute are privately owned and managed by the Suna and Inan Kirac Foundation, the same philanthropists who thought that Gehry — who designed the iconic Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao — was the right person to bring the cultural heart of Istanbul back to Mesrutiyet Street. His concert hall and theater, if completed, would have allowed visitors and locals to research the history of the city, visit an exhibition, attend a performance, and even a conference, all in a single day and without having to leave the neighborhood.

While “Looking from In-Between” concludes with a forward-looking what-if scenario for the plot of land selected for Gehry's project, the rest of it is firmly rooted in the past. It takes an integrated approach to Pera over more than a century through photographs, documents, postcards, memorabilia and a virtual reality reconstruction. Dilara Tekin Gezginti and Eda Ozgener of Atolye Mil, both architects and the exhibition's curators, told Al-Monitor that their main goal was to recount the transformations of the two buildings highlighted by revealing layers of history as representative of social and cultural changes in the area.

Transformations and change are indeed the leitmotif of the exhibition. Visitors are greeted by a video displaying a series of images and maps in rapid succession and then led on a journey back in time to fancy hotels, open air cafes, theaters, opera houses, gardens, promenades and shopping arcades.

The arrival of wealthy European tourists in 1889 aboard the Orient Express gave a further and powerful boost to the development of Pera, leading to the appearance of Western-style architecture and establishments geared toward recreation. Hotels not only provided accommodation for travelers, but also functioned as entertainment venues for the city’s elite, who were entertained by renowned artists from abroad and attended special performances, balls, and parties. The area's spatial transformations were also aided by fires and earthquakes, which produced opportunities to rebuild in new architectural styles and with different materials, for instance using stone rather than wood for new edifices.

Representative of the ethnically and religiously mixed character of Pera, the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate once owned the Hotel Bristol, built in 1893, and the architect Achille Manoussos designed it. From the 1980s until 2002, it served as the headquarters of Esbank, after which it was redesigned as a museum in 2005 by the architect Sinan Genim, who retained Manoussos’ original neoclassical facade.

The Rossolimo Building also has a neoclassical appearance, but with asymmetries. The Levantine architect Guglielmo Semprini designed the structure, which was constructed at the beginning of the 1900s. Genim restored it in 2007, creating functional spaces for the institute's library, archive and gallery.

Both buildings are open to the public today, but what about their past?

Aysegul Karaman of Apollo, a design studio, explained to Al-Monitor how she was able to re-create life as virtual reality at the Hotel Bristol based on technical drawings, old photos, objects and furniture still in use at the nearby Grand Hotel de Londres and Pera Palace.

After putting on a helmet and gloves, visitors enter the hotel lobby and the dining hall and walk up the marble stairs to the private rooms. It's as if the past has come alive, with everything, from menus to paintings, appearing as they might have more than 100 years ago.

The last room of the exhibition documents the enthralling changes that have taken place over time on the lot in front of the Pera Museum and Istanbul Research Institute. It was first the site of a Muslim cemetery and then the location of a public garden and later a theater before its reincarnation today as a parking lot and offices. Will it someday be revived as a cultural space, attracting Istanbul residents and visitors alike?

Korhan Gumus, an architect and an activist for the preservation of historical heritage, hopes so. “It's foolish to use the first modern public space of the city as a car park,” he remarked to Al-Monitor. “A civilian initiative is needed to redesign it. The project by Gehry was maybe too big, but a new international competition could be a good opportunity to get fresh ideas.”

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Giuseppe Mancini is an Italian political analyst and freelance journalist based in Istanbul. He has written extensively on art, archaeology, public memory and cultural management.

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