A New Perception

An interview with Istanbul-based architect Han Tümertekin about tradition, modernity and current lifestyles in Turkey

Mr. Tümertekin, your architecture combines modernity with a respect for its surroundings. How would you describe your design philosophy?
I have finally understood that I am concerned with scale – not the physical scale, but the scale of intervention. I am obsessed with doing a minimum of intervention to gain a maximum of impact. In conversion projects, instead of creating new spaces I like to achieve a new perception of what already exists by creating a new circulation network. When I do a project from scratch, I never complain about limitations. I am happy if I have many limitations, or I take my time to create them – by analysing the site, the view, the wind, that kind of thing. For example at the 'B2 house', for which I received the Aga Khan Award, I could show you, technically and scientifically, that this building cannot be moved even 20 centimetres. I am obsessed with anchoring every building to its site.

What role does traditional craftwork play?
Traditional craftwork is one part of this. In general, I am very open to all the players with whom I collaborate. If the task is to design the headquarters of a bank in the city centre, maybe it is not about traditional craftwork. But I listen to the engineers to get as much information from them as possible, instead of resisting them. If the context is a village on the Aegean coast, I listen to the local people, using the local materials, but with the aim of creating new feelings.

How important are the interiors?
To me, space is a totality. In my buildings everything is in continuity. If I am asked just to do the interior for a building, I am happy to deal with the existing structure. When I design from scratch, the interior is another way of anchoring the building to its location, using materials, views, everything. I think about how a person will shave in the bathroom in the morning. I want him to contemplate the view that he has at his back through its reflection in the mirror. I am obsessed with these kinds of questions that I create for myself.

Is there something like a Turkish lifestyle, which might influence your designs? How about the countryside; is the lifestyle there changing a lot?
Most of my clients are Turkish people, but the way they live is global. In general, there are no big differences in lifestyle for urban people worldwide. Regarding the countryside and smaller cities, I have to say: unfortunately it has already changed. In a study we did in the '80s we detected that people were not happy with the traditional houses, not just for technical reasons but also due to their social status. All the young people moved to ugly new apartments. A new positive development is that wealthy people are buying the old houses, hiring architects who do very good restoration work. But the number is symbolic now. We have lost cities.

You yourself have a very international perspective. One of your current projects is Turkey's new diplomatic mission to the EU in Strasbourg. Were you asked to include something 'characteristically Turkish' in the design?
I have never been asked to show my Turkish side, and I do not aim to do so. But I was raised in Istanbul and I am sure that there is a residue of what I observed during my childhood. The people in this geographical region have a certain practicality. We have our own ways of solving problems, very simple and direct. As a student I travelled all over Turkey and I am sure I have learned a lot from traditional architecture – not just the Roman, Byzantine or Ottoman architecture, but the vernacular as well. I am still fascinated by architecture without architects. I think that these things unconsciously influence my work. I don't know if it is Turkish or not, but it comes from this geographical background.

Han Tümertekin is an architect based in Istanbul and principal of Mimarlar + Han Tümertekin, which he established in 1986. His work includes residential, commercial and institutional projects primarily in Turkey, as well as in the Netherlands, Japan, the United Kingdom, France, China, Mongolia and Kenya. He has taught architecture at several universities, such as Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Istanbul Technical University, Ecole Spéciale d'Architecture in Paris, and others. He is among the founders of the graduate programme in architecture at Bilgi University, Istanbul, where he still teaches. In 2004 he received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture for his B2 house in Canakkale, Turkey.

Source: Koelnmesse, reprint free of charge.