Joseph Kanon, Alejandro Zaero-Polo, Daan Roggeveen and Nazlı Gönensay letters
In 1945 you were a city that had spent the war walking a tightrope of neutrality, a playing field for foreign spies table-hopping at the bar of the Park Hotel. The Park is now gone, replaced first by a parking garage, and now by a luxury apartment building. Much else has changed: tram lines have been discontinued, bridges flung across the Bosphorus, streets given new names. 14 million more people crowd its your steep hills and hinterland. The Istanbul of 1945 is now a city of the imagination and to make it real you have to perform a kind of literary archaeology, peeling back layers of history with old maps, photographs, casual references in memoirs.
But recreating infrastructure, a street, is one thing– the real leap is to go back in time. Things that seem impossibly distant to us now were recent events then. The Sultanate had been abolished only 23 years earlier, the recent past, and the harem only 36 years. Istanbul, you would have been filled with Ottoman retainers, nostalgic for past glory, and the young Ataturk generation, determined to race into the modern world. And living among them remnants of the once vibrant minority communities, the trickle, then stream of war refugees, the Western ex-pats, self-absorbed and dabbling in espionage. A wonderful setting, I thought, and maybe not as remote as we first think.
Istanbul you are still a heady mix of peoples and agendas, with streets that look very much as they looked then, still alive with water traffic, still a city of historical layers, 1945 only one of them, enough for my book but only one piece of your mosaic. What would have delighted us then delights us still: Sinan’s ethereal buildings, birds swooping across the Eminonu piers, the patient fishermen lining Galata Bridge. You are always both then and now, a writer’s dream, its history around you, breathing.
I often wonder if you knew what you were doing when you built the Dome, and what lead you to do what you did. I often think that it must have been Constantinople, —that astonishing enclave at the edge between Europe and Asia where the sun turns the waters gold in the afternoon—, that inspired you to do it. I wonder how your patron, — Justinian— ever found you, and, without being an architect, entrusted you to built a space that would surpass Solomon’s Temple. I am wondering what was in his mind when he decided that the building that will crystallise his ambitions was better to be designed by a scientist.
At times I can hardly distinguish you from your patron. Who had the power to move such extraordinary amount of materials from the most remote corners of the Justinian Empire, as if Hagia Sophia was a sort of miniature material assemblage of his kingdom? Were you in charge of bringing Hellenistic columns from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus and Corinthian columns from Baalbek? Did you search for porphyry stones in Egypt, green marble in Thessaly, black stones from the Bosphorus and yellow stone from Syria? Or was Justinian himself who decided the materials that were to be part of the Basilica? Were you there to organise the logistics of bringing those material treasures and to direct the ten thousand people working on the site, or did you simply encrusted them on your design? It is unthinkable that someone would be given such enormous powers to organize matter on the scale of an empire.
I have been often wondered if it was you or your friend Anthemius who envisioned the structural system of the Dome, that unprecedented system of pendentives and exedras that restrain lateral forces, bringing the weight smoothly to the ground. Did you imagine the system or was it Anthemius of Tralles the master geometer, the follower of Heron of Alexandria’s wisdom, who passed you his secrets before his death? Did you envision the piercing of the dome with 40 arched windows which will filter Constantinople’s sun to the centre of the Basilica?
I have always wondered if you did care about the scenographies of the Holy Christian Liturgy or on the contrary you were only concentrating in the achievement of the largest span known to mankind inside of a building: 32m diameter hovering 55m above grade. Were you ever concerned on how the system of domes would be seen from the outside. Would it express the greatness of Justinian Kingdom and the sanctity of the Christian rites? Little you knew that, almost ten centuries after your death, Sultan Mehmed would turn your Basilica into a mosque, where very different rites were to be played for five centuries until it got transformed into a religion-free museum? Or did you? Or perhaps you did not care about such minutiae as you focused on the span.
I wonder how different Constantinople was from your birthplace Miletus. What did you learn from this enclave populated by Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Persians, Goths, Ottomans, Slavs, Avars, Bulgars, Balkans… a place where Christians, Orthodox, Muslims and Jews, lived side by side… No image, no language could act as a link between all those different tribes, and you wisely avoided focusing in the representation of the empire or the rituals of the Church. Instead you concentrated on geometry, so that the massive dome could trickle down through the pendentives and the exedras to the ground. Only the strongest geometry would be able to resist the sequential attempts to colonise the surfaces through ornamentation. With hindsight, Justinian was right to choose you —a physician— and Anthemius —a mathematician— to rebuilt the Basilica after the Nika Riots which threatened his empire. An architect would probably have had the brain full of perishable images. You were the guarantors of acheiropoiesis of the Basilica, as your mind was not contaminated by icons and idols, but structured purely on geometry and matter. It was said that the human mind can neither tell nor make a description of Hagia Sophia… 15 centuries later in New York, a new global metropolis far away from Constantinople, the reconstruction of Ground Zero was driven by an architecture consumed by the Iconic, the representation of Western Culture, Christian values, the martyrs… What a mistake, not to look at Istambul and the Hagia Sophia as a crucial precedent!
Your hands, Isidore of Miletus, were the medium for God to produce a material core able to withstand the Byzantine quarrels on iconography: the plastering over the mosaics and their retrieval, the fundamental questions about the natural and the artificial, between the iconic and the constructed… all that was to happen precisely around Hagia Sophia. Justinian was a visionary in choosing you to design the Basilica, perhaps in an attempt to avoid the schism between the East and the West, between the iconophile Latins and the iconoclasts Byzantines. Fifteen centuries later we remain captive in the same crux that you faced there in Constantinople, the largest metropolis in the Middle Ages and the first global metropolis.
(letter to Isidore of Miletus, architect of Hagia Sophia)
How are you? The last time we met was in the fall of 2007. You looked busy then, and a bit chaotic. I had the impression you were pretty confident about yourself. And you had big ambitions. Someone told me you’re now smaller than Shenzhen, but bigger than Paris. I heard that you plan to keep growing, with 2.5 million inhabitants before the year 2030. That is 800 extra people per day…
I understand you follow a neoliberal path of growth. What does that mean? Do you only measure your achievements through GDP percentages? Do you tend to focus on infrastructure to develop yourself? Please be careful with that GDP thing a bit. My Chinese friends told me it might become an obsession.
What are your plans for the coming years? Do farmers find you as attractive as they find cities the world over? Do you have any idea where these people are going to live? What kind of housing do you like anyway? Is the compound your only remaining residential type?
And do you also break down and rebuild your historic buildings in an attempt to preserve your past? Do you like to think of yourself as ‘green’, while the number of cars on your roads grows by the hundreds every day?
I hope you don’t lean to heavy on the Central Business District concept; it makes you look so pale. A good friend told me you aim to become a financial centre, and that you’re also planning to get the 2020 Olympics. Of course I like you better than Tokyo and Madrid. But can you also think of a plan for 2021?
Dear Istanbul, we had a lot of fun during that great weekend five years ago.
I hope you look even more beautiful as when I left you for Shanghai.
O! Beloved Istanbul of all times, Goddess of all cities, you are my edge. Connecting two faces, two ends, here and after, tangible and intangible, an edge that embodies a powerful interface between extremities. I am your humble citizen. You keep me on the edge, restless, an infinite place of non-place, an endless line of potential for discovering and becoming the other. I feel your pulse. Here, I am among others. I want to remain myself, you comfort me because I can. I am your many faces. You are my Jekyll and Hyde; you create me yet you consume me, seducing me with your illusive beauty while punching me in the stomach.
I was born on one your many edges, where the land met the sea. The tired eye in a perpetual attempt to absorb and reflect your dense texture wandered into emptiness, over the sounds of tiny waves lapping against the shore, glittering. Cries of the seagulls above, matchsticks of minarets afar, the smell of seaweed.
As I wander about the city, I wish to pause and ponder my relationship with you, in vain as the stream of crowds from behind push me forwards and sideways. Do you ever do that? I am walking on air, my feet off the ground. Am I fluid or resourceful enough for you? You made me what I am today but do you realize I make you what you are today? You are my resilience, I am your agility. I want to resonate, hear my own echo in your streets of desire, cast my own shadow on your walls of aged stone. Anguished citizens in alliance against you.
I am your edge. Be it anywhere on this planet, I expand, I grow, and I know how to because you taught me. I am your resistance as you are mine, for you don’t surrender, nor will I. We are in an eternal war, you and I. You inspire me, you suffocate me. You are a giant waiting to devour. Will you push me over the edge into a dirt hole and fossilize me as I am to be mixed inescapably with the pouring concrete? Will I become an archeological treasure discovered in 3012? I watch you expand and swallow other cities. I create my own city among many cities.
Will I lose my edge? You tell me.