The ever-changing face of Istanbul

The architecture of the city that straddles Europe and Asia inhabits a precarious present.

Construction site by old buildings in Istanbul.
Construction site by old buildings in Istanbul. Credit: Boaz Rottem / Alamy Stock Photo

One day the bar was there, and then it was not. It had been called Zeplin until the pandemic, and I drank in there often. It reopened later under a new name but failed to thrive, was closed for months, then the whole building was condemned, and I walked out of the market opposite one day to see a bulldozer teetering on a pile of rubble where it had been.

Another memory palace, gone. The tables on the terrace out front where I would watch the city roll past over the rim of a beer glass. The narrow wooden steps down to the toilets that grew more treacherous as the night drew on. The hot, funereal morning after Turkey’s coup attempt in 2016, when I ate breakfast there with friends; it was one of the only places open that day. If you stay in Istanbul long enough you will watch the contours of your past being erased. Modern buildings are not made to last and are often marked past their sell-by dates within decades. Once-salubrious apartment blocks from the 1960s are casually categorised as ‘old’, giving building managers a get-out from residents’ complaints over leaks and shoddy heating. Developers gentrify and raise the city upwards as they go. That is their business model: replace the homes of existing owners, and add extra apartments on top for profit. That finished the building that Zeplin once occupied, three stories of crumbling masonry and peeling paint. And like this, the city is torn down and rebuilt, block by block in a never-ending cycle, in a miasma of construction dust.

But Istanbul’s buildings are only as transient as its people.

My district is old – not in the sense of the Hagia Sophia or Topkapi palace, but a place with a deep, rich history. It is on the Asian side of the Bosphorus and was once home to large Christian communities: Istanbul Greeks, Armenians and Levantines, who were joined by British expats and other Europeans. Today, most have left. Many of Istanbul’s Armenians were deported east from the Haydarpasha train station, a mile away, during the Ottoman expulsions of 1915. Greeks were forced out in pogroms in the 1950s and 1970s. Istanbul’s cosmopolitan elites thinned out. Today, the district is home to middle-class Turks, students and artists, some expats, and the small remaining patches of those banished minorities. The huge Greek Orthodox church ministers a small congregation, mostly well turned-out old women. The houses of the Rum – Istanbul’s Greeks – were once ornate wooden confections, the intricate trelliswork on  their eaves and balconies painted in sweetshop colours. They lay abandoned after the Rum fled. Most have been pulled down and turned into modern apartment blocks that huddle together as the old houses used to.

Some buildings fall slowly. On a side street close to my home, three surviving Rum houses stand side by side, narrow and four stories tall. The end one has been saved: it is intact, freshly-painted, neatly inhabited with cosy light casting onto the street through clean windows. Its poor sisters are wilting to the ground. The elements have stripped the paint from their wood work and turned it to a dark, brittle brown. The structures are splintering; floors are falling in; and the ground storey is encased in metal hoardings. One is for sale; over the metal grate on the broken window of the other, the squatters living there have hung a sparkling cheerleader’s pom-pom.

Some Rum kept the deeds to their Istanbul houses as they moved to Athens and beyond. Most never returned, and estates have been dividing up between multiplying numbers of descendants as generations pass and the houses stay empty, dotting inner Istanbul’s urban landscape. A few young Greeks are returning to Istanbul to reclaim their place in the city, and a handful of Rum houses have been saved by dedicated Turkish historians and architects, who pour their own funds into passion projects. But the majority are abandoned until they fall down on themselves, the land they stand on worth far more than their fabric, and their history counting for little.

Other Istanbul buildings may fall quickly should the fault line that runs through the city slip. When massive earthquakes struck southern Turkey and Syria on 6 February, levelling towns and cities across ten provinces and killing more than 60,000 people, Istanbul was thrown into a panic. The big one is coming here, too, experts say. Everyone knows its buildings are rotten. The constructors have taken over the city in the past ten years, building whole new cities tacked onto the city to house influxes of migrants from Anatolia, Syria, Russia and elsewhere. There is no urban planning, little open space. Within days of the earthquake, Istanbul’s municipality had received 100,000 requests for building inspections.

Now the bulldozers are accelerating: around every corner, I find startling new gaps on familiar streets. In almost every other building, signs in windows show flats for sale or rent. Down on the corniche the roomy, upper-class apartment blocks are failing their earthquake tests, too. The land they stand on was reclaimed from the sea of Marmara in the 1980s, as Istanbul snatched more pieces of the earth for itself. Whatever replaces the falling buildings will represent the Istanbul that comes next. Not the ostentatious embellishment of the Rum houses, nor the modern functionalism of the last fifty, but the face of an Istanbul where the present is always being wiped out.


Hannah Lucinda Smith