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A look into the evolution of domestic architecture in Istanbul, in relation to the social and cultural changes of the city’s residents.
A view of the Beyoglu district in Istanbul seen from the Bosphorus, featuring the Galata Tower and the colorful architectural texture of the city
image – © Aslan Özcan

Istanbul has always played a central role in history, due to its strategic geographical location and its close but changing relation with Europe. Wedged between two continents, Istanbul has hosted several cultures over centuries, acting as a meeting point for Western idealism and Eastern values. The traces of this link are visible in the different heritages left by those who have ruled this land, from the Byzantines, to the Ottomans, until the establishment of the Turkish Republic. As a result, Istanbul is a city of contrasts, where the traditional and the modern, the West and the East, the urban and the rural collide.

Walking through the streets in Istanbul today, it is possible to see architectural collages, ranging from the 16th to the 21st century, each of them conveying its own values and the characteristics of its time. This architectural spectacle gives us the opportunity to witness the first influences of the Seljuq dynasty of Persian origins, the effects of the Anatolian traditions, especially the materials and the forms, or the prestigious Ottoman Orientalism, until the beginning of the European influence.

Istanbul: Between the Eastern Nostalgia and the Western Adaptation

Even today, Turkey’s political affairs and the views of its people vary between globalized modernization and nostalgia for traditional values, most of which derive from Ottoman influence. As a result, this cultural bridge has found its own place in the Turkish culture over time and has marked the city in different ways. The lifestyle in Istanbul has slowly detached from tradition to move towards European values, norms and aesthetic points of view. The family values and dynamics have changed over the course of centuries, as has the conservative nature of the relations between men and women, formerly defined as “taboo”. The vision and opinions of aesthetics have been transformed, affected by the evolution of symbols of wealth and superiority.

And just as society itself changes, so does the architecture that accommodates it, for a city is built for its inhabitants.

In fact, architecture, which creates public and private spaces for everyday life, is an important factor in integrating these social changes into everyday life. And the most important change in this category is domestic architecture, which plays a central role in the daily lives of Turkish citizens.

Collage of historic houses and roads in Istanbul today
An example of the historical architectural tissue in Istanbul today

From the Historical Ottoman Home To High-Rise Living

In Turkey, the house is considered as the core that shapes traditional family values, keeping the members together in a harmonious way. The shape and hierarchy of spaces are created in relation to the inhabitant, while the aesthetic aspects are always present for a visual and cultural reflection of the values of society.

However, in a society continually in the process of modernization inspired by the Western culture, the built environment must be able to adapt to new and evolving habits. The new architectural order must aim to keep its inhabitants in a safe, pleasant and efficient environment. As a result, Istanbul, being the heart of modern civilization in Turkey, has undergone several architectural changes in order to follow social transformations.

The most important changes in the field of domestic architecture in Istanbul take place outside the house. The most visible of these transformations is the transformation of the house of Istanbul from single-family houses on narrow plots into collective dwellings, large complexes and gated communities. This vertical expansion is due to the exponential population growth during the previous century, which has led to the need to densify housing in the city. In addition to the recently built residential towers and gated communities of the 21st century, the collective dwellings of the 20th century are still valued in the city for their density. These apartments of the late 20th century are still present in the urban mesh and are inhabited nowadays.

However, traditional Ottoman houses of the 19th century, and their early 20th century hybrids, inevitably lost their value in today’s urban and social environment in Istanbul. In general, the new generation of the middle class chooses to live in more modern collective housing. Due to this demand, some old wooden structures of Ottoman houses that are no longer habitable are destroyed in order to build the new, more westernized habitats. Those that still exist today are usually in the historic district of Sultanahmet, most of which are still inhabited and renovated. However, it should be noted that the inhabitants of traditional Ottoman houses today are not in the same social position as in the 19th century. In general, the social and economic class of the inhabitants of this neighborhood, some of whom are still the same families, belongs to the lower middle class. As a result, it can be said that the old Ottoman houses have been devalued over the centuries, now in the process of decaying or being inhabited by the lower social classes. The result is the devaluation of a heritage and the extension of the urban landscape in full vertical expansion.

Turkish domestic architecture has undergone several transformations inside the house as well, in relation to tradition, function and typology. Nowadays, neo-Islamic practices are becoming more and more common in the Turkish population. However, this inclination towards Islamic traditionalism does not create the need for an architectural return to traditional Ottoman houses, as it is limited to everyday life outside the home. Inside the house, the transformation of spaces and their functions are developed in parallel with a secular, western and modern way of life.

The house, which was a place to welcome visitors and a background for the social exchanges of the day, has lost today, to a certain extent, this function. The disappearance of segregation between women and men in a wider context has also affected the development of private spaces and common areas of the house. The changes in the social context mentioned above have shaped the needs and the way home accommodates the traditions, habits and desires of a Turkish family. However, it can still be said that the values and importance of the house have not changed for Turkish society, but have only adapted to the needs and standards of today.

Without a doubt, the most important of these transformations inside the house is manifested in the simplification of the functions of the main spaces of the Ottoman habitat: the distributive and social space, the sofa and the multi-functional principal room, the oda. Although these spaces have evolved towards singular uses, their central role, their main functions and their general concept are still present in the houses of Istanbul. Even in the approach of the separation of spaces, we find, like an echo, the previous Ottoman influences. In addition, these spaces still take into account the persistence of older traditions, such as the separation of service and living spaces, and the expected hierarchy of space. Therefore, it can be argued that aspects of behavior and lifestyle, which have changed little, continue to permeate the home’s layout.

The entrance and first floor plans of an Ottoman era house
An example of a typical Ottoman era house

The increased importance of the kitchen is also a good example of how reforms have been introduced into everyday life. Western society’s view of the role of women is reflected in this service space, which has always been defined in Turkey as the domain of women. Previously designed as a service area pushed to the back of the house and accessible only by and for women in the Ottoman era, the kitchen has become a more common space in today’s homes. There is a considerable increase in size for the sake of efficiency and for a more common use, since meals are nowadays most often taken in the kitchen with the whole family. However, cooking is still essentially seen as the domain of women, and therefore mainly designed around the needs of women. It can be said that evolution adapts to both what changes and what does not change.

Nevertheless, some aspects of traditional architecture have completely disappeared from today’s architectural vocabulary. These disappearances mainly concern the typology and the relationship of the house to the street. Consequences such as the scarcity of single-family houses on narrow plots, the increase in dense and vertical housing and the disappearance of gardens are the result of the exponential growth of the population and the economic needs linked to profitability. Previously common courtyards and the intimacy of the nooks overlooking the streets are some of the elements that have disappeared due to the evolution of the daily habits of the inhabitants.

What the Future Holds for the Istanbul Home

From the first influences of Ottoman architecture with its wooden structures and a spatial hierarchy centered around the “sofa”, to a gradual change towards a more European approach to housing, up to modern and contemporary design focusing purely on the user, the domestic architecture has constantly adapted to meet the needs of the inhabitants.

It is the eternal dialogue between the user and the object, told through the story of the architect, who guides the process of this architectural metamorphosis.

The study of the characteristics of the architectural change in Istanbul homes shows us a continual transformation towards a more international style, influenced by the exemplification of European culture.

The result is a loss of national identity and a rupture from a diversified heritage in favor of a conscious transformation towards a globalized, homogeneous environment. Progress towards this destination seems to be accelerating exponentially due to urban density and profit concerns. There exists a lack of deep connection with the land’s rich culture, and an overly systematic search for profitability in the 21st century.

Night view of the Atasehir district in Istanbul
The residential area in Atasehir, Istanbul today

Therefore, the future Istanbul home signals a social perspective, which asserts that all of the population is inevitably “the same” due to the uniformity of modern life from the scientific, objective and biological bases of modern life.

So, what can be done for the future Istanbul home?

The new habitats should aim to keep a more balanced mix between existing cultures and different approaches in order to succeed in architectural blending. Otherwise, the national identity and architecture of Turkish society risk forgetting the legacy of their colorful past.

As a solution, more traditional architectural elements should be included in order to connect different cultures, histories and values ​​through domestic architecture.

The next step in the evolution of domestic architecture in Istanbul should focus more on the reflection of its unique identity of contrasts: an understanding of the past, which would integrate more visibly with modernism today and which will join Westerners while preserving their Eastern identity, culture and values. This does not mean creating a confused patchwork of different architectural elements and influences from previous cultures. What is necessary is a deep understanding of the traditions and techniques of the past, and thoughtfully integrating them into the design and everyday life of the inhabitants, rather than forcing them to collaborate.

Only then can one expect to create a complete harmony between social habits and the domestic architecture most suited to Istanbul’s identity.

Because “reflections on the past are intended to unleash the potential for the future”.


Reading Recommendation

Cover of Modernism and Nation Building: Turkish Architectural Culture in the Early Republic by Sibel Bozdogan

Modernism and Nation Building: Turkish Architectural Culture in the Early Republic by Sibel Bozdogan

Cover of AD issue: Turkey at the Threshold by Michael Hensel, Defne Sunguroglu-Hensel and Hülya Ertas

Turkey at the Threshold by Michael Hensel, Defne Sunguroglu-Hensel and Hülya Ertas

Cover of Romantisme featuring “Les paradoxes de l’occidentalisation de l’architecture à Istanbul à la fin du XIXe siècle” by Pierre Pinon

“Les paradoxes de l’occidentalisation de l’architecture à Istanbul à la fin du XIXe siècle” by Pierre Pinon, from Romantisme


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