Fabric of the Past, Questions for the Future

Restoring the Narmanlı Han
contribution by Emily Neumeier
[1] Plaque announcing the street address above the doorway of the Narmanlı Han, 2014.
Unless otherwise noted, all photos by the author. 

[2] The Narmanlı Han on İstiklal Avenue, 2014.
Every day, thousands of people stream past the historic Narmanlı Han on İstiklal Avenue. Standing at the southern terminus of what is perhaps Istanbul’s best-known street, this low yet imposing building is currently closed to visitors—as it has already been for quite some time. And, for the last year, the distinctive curved façade of the Narmanlı Han has been shrouded behind a framework of scaffolding. [Figs. 2 & 3] The white canvas tarp that today covers the building presents to pedestrians a flat, two-dimensional projection of the architecture behind (while, at the same time, serving as a subtle promotion for the Avea cellphone company). Those in charge of the restoration project presumably put up this covering in an effort to create a street presence for the Narmanlı Han even while the building is undergoing renovation: a conciliatory gesture in response to sharp criticism of the first iteration of scaffolding that went up late in 2014, which essentially transformed the Narmanlı Han into a giant, boxy advertisement for the newest iPhone

[3] The Narmanlı Han behind scaffolding, 2015.

Even though this new, two-dimensional Narmanlı Han can be counted as a victory by those trying to save İstiklal from turning into one continuous billboard, the current appearance of the façade still raises questions about current preservation projects in Istanbul. Ultimately, the flat white canvas obscures the building itself from view, and, through the magic of AutoCAD, all of the Narmanlı Han’s cracks, blemishes and chipping plaster have been white-washed away. What remains is a clean, modern abstraction of the Narmanlı Han’s most essential design elements—a vague promise of what is in store for the building itself and its impending restoration. 

[4] Sign and gate blocking access to the inner courtyard of the  Narmanlı Han, 2014.

In the past several years, buildings on İstiklal have been disappearing left and right, all of them withdrawing behind flimsy walls of thin wood panels or corrugated steel. The pace of urban renewal has picked up to such an extent that the street has taken on the appearance of a large open-air conservatory, with many structures wrapped up and sitting in various stages of gestation—sometimes months, but more likely years. Residents eye these cocoons warily, wondering what will finally emerge once the scaffolding falls away. The public has been given plenty of reasons to remain on their guard when it comes to historical preservation in Beyoğlu. The notorious Act 5366, or the “Law on the Protection of Deteriorated Historic and Cultural Heritage through Renewal and Re-use,” empowered local municipal authorities to declare the heart of the Tarlabaşı neighborhood a “regeneration” area.  These legal acrobatics meant that the low-income residents who lived inside the renewal zone were forced to sell their homes, which were then sold to a third-party developer who is currently in the process of completely bulldozing and replacing the buildings with high-end apartment blocks.  

[5] Projected recreation of the Ottoman Barracks, 2013.
Screen grab from video on www.akparti.org.
Just a few years later, the 2013 Gezi Park protests were sparked by the Taksim Redevelopment Project, which included the reincarnation of the long-gone 19th-century Ottoman barracks [Top Kişla] in the form of a large shopping mall.  [Fig. 5] The clear mobilization of Ottoman architectural heritage—and a monument that specifically emphasizes imperial military strength—as a vehicle for the current government’s neo-liberal politics was not lost on many critics.  After overwhelming protest and civil unrest, the Taksim barracks project seems to have finally been abandoned.

[6] Entrance to the Demirören shopping center, 2014.

Meanwhile, the most controversial example of an urban “renewal” project on İstiklal itself is unquestionably the Demirören shopping center, which opened in March 2011. [Fig. 6] A bizarre imitation of the 19th-century Deveaux apartment building that once stood on the site, the Demirören complex came under fire in both the press and in a report prepared by the Inspection Board of the Ministry of Culture [Kültür Bakanlığı Teftiş Kurulu] for allegedly exceeding the original proportions of the historic façade as well as the square footage that was approved for the project by the Renewal Board [Yenileme Kurulu] in 2007.  Although the offending expansions were reported to be “trimmed,” it is still not clear what exact modifications were made to the site in order to meet the specifications of the approved building permit. 

[7] Demirören shopping center, 2014.
A banner hung on the northern side of the Demirören center shortly after its opening shows an old black and white photo of the Deveaux apartment building before the fire of 1890, directly above a photograph of the new shopping complex. [Fig. 7] The banner invites pedestrians to compare the two buildings side by side, with a text that triumphantly proclaims: “[In] the 2011 Demirören [on] İstiklal, the Deveaux lives in all of its splendor.” The photographs have cleverly been composed, re-sized and cropped in such a way that suggests the new Demirören is simply a cleaned-up version of the older structure. This graphic sleight of hand obscures the fact that the new façade has been dramatically stretched both horizontally and vertically: a Deveaux Apartman on steroids. 

The story of projects like Demirören have put activists and the more general public on edge whenever a new set of scaffolding goes up in Beyoğlu. They fear the literal and metaphoric lack of transparency that the scaffolding represents, another potential bait-and-switch situation that will only come to light once the damage had been irreversibly done. 

Back around 2000, it seemed as if the Narmanlı Han might meet such a fate. After most of the tenants had left so that the building could undergo repairs, the architect Halil Onur, who would go on to design the Ottoman Barracks mall for Taksim, was brought in for the project. Onur allegedly envisaged adding three extra stories to the existing two-level building, a plan that would have significantly altered the scale and character of the historic structure that was supposedly being “restored.”  The plan also probably would not have left much, if anything, of the Narmanlı Han’s surviving fabric, whose condition had deteriorated even further after the building had been left closed and untended for several years waiting for its restoration. Once Onur’s proposal was approved by the Preservation Board [Koruma Kurulu], it seemed likely, if not inevitable, that the Narmanlı Han would soon be replaced with a distorted simulacrum of its former self. Yet a couple of NGOs brought the case to court, in the end successfully staying the project  

Although the threat of the Disney-fication of the Narmanlı Han had been temporarily averted, the building continued to languish, with the entrance to the open courtyard barricaded and several of the shops facing İstiklal permanently shuttered. Signs posted in the windows affirmed that retail owners had been obliged to move on to other locations. [Fig. 8] Then, in early 2014, the owners of the Narmanlı Han decided to sell the property in its entirety to two businessmen, Mehmet Erkul and Tekin Esen, for $57 million. Fully aware of the tense situation into which they had inserted themselves, the new owners were quick to try to allay concerns about their plans for the building, assuring reporters that they had no intention to significantly alter the proportion or design of the Narmanlı Han as it stood, nor did they seek to demolish the fabric of the historic structure.  

[8] The Narmanlı Han’s closed storefronts on İstiklal, 2014.

Although drawings or projection models for the future site have yet to be made public, more concrete details about what is in store for the building came early last year from Sinan Genim, the new architect hired for the restoration project. Genim explained in an interview that no extra floors would be added to the existing structure, and that the interior courtyard would remain open. With a relatively small footprint (1000 square meters, as compared to Demirören’s 39,000+), the Narmanlı Han could hardly serve as a hotel or mall, so the owners have decided in the end to convert the space into a complex accommodating seven high-end shops as well as a café and restaurant.  In reference to the question of how much of the historic fabric would actually be preserved, Genim responded that the outer façade would be conserved, but the interior, “being in a complete state of disrepair," would have to be evaluated and modernized with fire-escapes and a new electric grid: “we are not at liberty to warm the place with charcoal braziers."

Of course, most architects and engineers working in Istanbul find themselves walking the thin line between the demands of conservation and modernization. The main issue is that, when it comes down to economics, it is almost always less costly to demolish and rebuild than to preserve. The fact that the Narmanlı Han itself transitioned from a “renewal” to a “restoration” project in the past few years can largely be attributed to developers responding to an increasingly vocal and organized community of activists who are stepping in where they feel their local government has failed. Those who have joined the effort to save the Narmanlı Han have done so because they believe in protecting the site as a historic and cultural landmark—usually stressing the building’s brief stint as the Russian Embassy in the nineteenth century, or when it became a bohemian enclave in the 1930s, home to the likes of Ahmed Hamdi Tanpınar and Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu. Yet a more thorough account of the building’s structural history has yet to be done, and this task is perhaps more pressing than ever, if we are to understand what exactly is at stake. 

What follows is an attempt to lay the foundations for a focused architectural history of the site now occupied by the Narmanlı Han. Besides offering some minor corrections to the timeline of the building’s history that keep circulating in recent news articles, it should also be stressed that what we see on the ground today is not a coherent structure that can be labeled with a single date or architect, but rather an amalgamation of different phases of construction and repair. Most importantly, the famous façade of the building was not part of the original structure, and was only added in the early twentieth century as part of the expansion of İstiklal. The Narmanlı Han has had a long and eventful life. In order to acquire the fullest understanding of what is left standing, we have to peel away these phases, layer by layer.

[9] Adapted from “Plan de Constantinople,” 1807,
F. Kauffer and I.B. Lechevalier, Weimar. 
Photo: Historic Cities Center, Hebrew University
 and Jewish National and University Library. 
Most secondary sources claim that the building complex today known as the Narmanlı Han was first constructed to serve as the Russian Embassy sometime after 1831, the year of the great fire that wiped out a good deal of  Pera. But what did the site look like before the great fire? The first permanent Russian diplomatic mission in Istanbul was established by the Treaty of Constantinople in 1700.  Although it is not clear where exactly the Russian ambassador resided throughout the eighteenth century, he no doubt lived in Galata or Pera-Beyoğlu, the neighborhoods where most foreign diplomats kept their official quarters in Ottoman Istanbul. As early as 1794, documents from the Prime Ministry Ottoman Archive confirm that the “saray” of the Russian Embassy was indeed located in Galata.  In a German map printed in 1807, which was in turn adapted from an earlier French map first drawn up in 1786, the Russian embassy (labeled “Russie”) is located precisely where the Narmanlı Han currently stands today.  [Fig. 9] The European map-makers represent the embassy as a collection of four or five buildings all surrounded by an outer enclosure wall, and place the complex at the beginning of İstiklal Caddesi (then known as Cadde-yi Kabir), directly across the street from the embassies of Sweden and Naples. In another Ottoman document dated 1812, only five years after this map, we learn that all of these buildings [“Rus Sefarethanesi”] had burned down and, as a result, the government had found another location in Beyoğlu (Pera) to serve as a temporary residence for the ambassador until the embassy could be rebuilt.  

The threat of fire dominates every urban history of Istanbul before the twentieth century. As most buildings in the city were constructed of wood, fires spread quickly and often destroyed entire quarters, with most people losing their homes more than once in their lifetimes. This almost continuous regeneration of the city fabric, however, did not seem to really impact the layout or demographics of Istanbul, at least not until the mid-nineteenth century, as most people tended to simply rebuild directly on top of the plot that had been ruined. There is no doubt that, after the Russian Embassy had been rebuilt after 1812, it yet again went up in flames, like the rest of Pera, in 1831. The 1831 fire was particularly devastating, destroying the entire quarter in a matter of hours. In his diary, the British general Charles Grey writes that Pera “exhibit[ed] the appearance of a forest of chimneys, which in most cases have been the only stone part of the houses.” 

[10] General View of the Nave, Hagia
Sophia, from a drawing by Gaspare
Fossati, Lithography by Louis Haghe,
 1852. Photo: Library of Congress.
The current structure of the Narmanlı Han seems to have been initially erected sometime shortly after 1831. An Ottoman document that mentions the recent rebuilding of the “Rus Sarayı” in Beyoğlu narrows the date for the construction of the structure to 1833.  The architect for this building remains something of a mystery. Many sources claim that the structure was designed by none other than Gaspare Fossati, the Italian architect most famous for his restoration of Hagia Sophia. [Fig. 10] Yet this attribution remains unlikely, as Fossati only arrived in Istanbul in 1837, four years after the building’s reconstruction.  Another recent claim that the architect of the Narmanlı Han was Gaspare’s younger brother, Giuseppe Fossati, is even more dubious. In 1833, Giuseppe was 11 years old—quite the prodigy indeed! More likely, the main fabric of what we see on the ground today at the Narmanlı Han was constructed under the supervision of a local architect, who more or less replicated what had been there before the 1831 fire—a collection of buildings made of brick, wood and plaster, turned inwards around an open-air courtyard.

[11] Russian Embassy (now consulate) on İstiklal, built 1845, Gaspare Fossati. Photo: Alaexis, Creative Commons License.

The circumstances of the initial construction of the Narmanlı Han in 1833 have most likely been confused for such a long time because the structure only served as the Russian Embassy until 1845, when a new, neo-classical palace (designed, in fact, by Gaspare Fossati) opened just a few blocks north on the Grand Rue de Péra (İstiklal). [Fig. 11] The complex today still houses the Russian diplomatic mission in Istanbul. Thus, only a few years after its construction, the Narmanlı Han was demoted to a consulate, a mere satellite to the imposing new building just down the street. While the Narmanlı Han actually preserved the style of urban construction in Pera before the 1831 fire, the new Russian Embassy stood as the epitome of the emerging trend of foreign missions commissioning large, European-style mansions in Pera. 

Unfortunately, we do not have too many details about the life of the Narmanlı Han in the second half of the nineteenth century. As the Russian consulate general, it continued to serve various functions related to the diplomatic mission in the city, providing space for secretarial offices as well as a tribunal. The 1891 almanac Annuaire Oriental states that the Russian consulate, overseen by a Monsieur Aexis Lagowsky, was open for visa applications from 10:00 am till 3 o'clock in the afternoon [p.78]. It does seem that at some point, probably in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Narmanlı Han also began to operate as a prison, but only accommodated Russian citizens who had committed a crime on Ottoman soil. This seems to have been the case until WWI, as the site was essentially left abandoned when the Russians declared war on the Ottoman Empire in 1914. After the war, the Bolsheviks came to Istanbul, and complained to the Ottoman government that they found all of the Russian properties, including the Narmanlı Han (referred to as “La Maison du Consulat à Péra”), “unduly occupied by people who have no quality.”  Interestingly, the argument that the building be evacuated of undesirable persons so it can be returned to its former glory mirrors the more recent efforts in the last two decades to evict businesses and residents from the Narmanlı Han, ostensibly for its restoration. After the war, the buildings were given back to the new representatives of Soviet Russia. With all of the foreign embassies moving to the new capital in Ankara in the early 1920s, the building continued to serve consular functions and rent out office space until 1933, when it was sold to the Narmanlı brothers. 

[12] View of the Ruins after the Pera Fire. Illustrated
London News,
2 July 1876.
Photo: Collection of Maggie Land Blanck.
Amazingly, the structure of the Narmanlı Han itself seems to have escaped being consumed by fires that continued to plague the city throughout the nineteenth century, notably avoiding the fire of June 1870, when Pera lost more than 5,500 buildings and almost the entire length of the Grande Rue de Péra. [Fig. 12] The Narmanlı Han appears in the D’Ostoya map of Istanbul produced in 1858-1860, about a decade before the great Pera fire, and  the profile of the complex appears almost exactly as it does today—a collection of six buildings encircling an open courtyard.  [Fig. 13] The fact that the buildings survived the 1870 fire, therefore, makes the Narmanlı Han one of the oldest structures currently standing on İstiklal.

[13] Aerial view of the Narmanlı Han in 2012. Photo: Adapted from Google Earth.

[14] Detail of the Goad Insurance Map of Istanbul,
1905. Photo: Paolo Girardelli.

A careful analysis of cadastral maps reveals that the façade of the Narmanlı Han received an extreme makeover in the early twentieth century, most likely the result of a more large-scale expansion of the street towards Tünel. A detail from the famous Goad insurance maps, prepared in 1905, shows the complex as it stood before the Grand Rue de Péra was widened.  [Fig. 14] According to this map (using the scale accompanying the image), the front part of the building facing the main street was approximately 15.3 meters in depth, with the section of the avenue directly in front of the Han being 6 meters wide. 

[15] Detail of German cadastral survey, 1913-1914.
Photo: Alman Mavileri, ed. İrfan Dağdelen (İstanbul:
İstanbul Büyükşehir Başkanlığı, 2006).
Meanwhile, another important map from the period produced about a decade later in 1913-14 indicates that the street has been expanded to 15.4 m, i.e. more than twice the original width, and, as a result, the front part of the Narmanlı Han was at that point only 12.2 m in depth, losing 3 meters of fabric on the side of the complex facing the street--the original façade being presumably destroyed and replaced with what we see on the ground today. [Fig. 15] The partial demolition of the Narmanlı Han, which took place sometime between 1905 and 1914, seems to have been part of a larger project to enlarge this section of İstiklal Caddesi, with the electric tram being introduced around the same time. Unfortunately, we do not have any information about the architect of the new façade, although it is interesting to note that the austere style, characterized by an almost complete lack of ornament and anchored by massy Tuscan columns, looks to the Russian neoclassical revival that took hold in St. Petersburg and Moscow before WWI. [Fig. 16] We could thus speculate that the Russians brought in one of their own when their consulate on İstiklal required an updated design.

[16] Mindovsky House, Nikita Lazarev, 1906, Moscow. Photo: By NVO, Creative Commons License.

[17] The d Group at the opening of their first exhibition
at the Mimoza Hat Shop, 1933. Photo: Adan Çoker
et all, Cemal Tollu (Istanbul: Model, 1996), p. 71.

Most people know the rest of the story. When the businessmen Avni and Sıtkı Narmanlı bought the building in 1933 to house their offices, the art-loving pair also transformed the location into a kind of bohemian enclave for the emerging modernist set, renting out the rest of the space to small publishing houses, writers, and artists. Tanpınar wrote Huzur there. The avant-garde artist collective “d Group” held their first exhbition there. [Fig. 17] In the second half of the twentieth century, the daily Armenian newspaper Jamanak was printed there for almost thirty years. In the late 1980s and 1990s, a new generation discovered the Narmanlı Han, especially gathering around the Deniz Kitabevi, selling used books and vinyl records. This was all more or less shut down around 2000, and nostalgia for the quiet courtyard and the wisteria blossoms has been mounting ever since.

The prevalent discourse on cultural heritage management in Istanbul largely falls between two camps, those who prioritize the preservation of historic fabric to the greatest extent possible, and those who perceive preservation as a real hindrance to progress. The divide between these two approaches distinctly emerges when one parses the language of the slew of documents that accompany development legislation and project proposals. While the term “restoration” [restorasyon] usually signals the conservation of historic fabric as a priority in the project, the term “renewal” [yenileme] tends to describe the complete or partial demolition and replication of a historic structure. Both words promise the protection of cultural heritage, but the results on the ground look very different indeed. In the end, it seems that the Narmanlı Han will be subject to both renewal and restoration, with the early 20th-century façade being cleaned up but essentially left as it stands, while the fate of the earlier nineteenth-century fabric within remains much more precarious. 

Back in 2013, then Prime Minister Erdoğan asked his critics: “You save the pots and pans, why do you not want to protect the historic barracks?" The Prime Minister was expressing confusion about why the construction of the Marmaray and Metro stations in Yenikapı was expected to be held up for years upon years for the sake of recovering archaeological artifacts that kept emerging from the ground, while, for some reason, no one seemed particularly thrilled about the comeback of a historic Ottoman building that had been bulldozed in the 1940s to make way for Gezi Park. The answer to this rhetorical question lies in the difference between “renewal” and “restoration”—a dialectic between replica and relic. Those who advocate for “renewal” maintain rather optimistically that the past is never truly gone, it can always be revived and perhaps even re-engineered better than before. Meanwhile, people in the “restoration” camp believe in the intrinsic power of an object or a building to keep us connected to the lives of earlier generations. This perspective fosters a real sense of urgency when it comes to the preservation of historic fabric, because once it’s gone, it’s gone. 

EMILY NEUMEIER is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Art History at University of Pennsylvania. Her research concerns the art and architecture of the Ottoman Empire and Turkish Republic. 

**This essay was adapted from an article published in the December 2015 issue of Toplumsal TarihMy thanks especially to Paolo Girardelli and Aslıhan Demirtaş for their help and insight when first developing the ideas for this essay, which has taken more time to write than I would like to admit. I also would like to thank Alexander Balistreri, Zaur Gasimov, Sato Moughalian, Irvin Schick, and Ahmet Akşit for their assistance in preparing the text and images.

Citation: "Fabric of the Past, Questions for the Future: Restoring the Narmanlı Han," Emily Neumeier, Stambouline (February 26, 2016). http://www.stambouline.com/2016/02/fabric-of-past-questions-for-future.html

Primary Sources:
Prime Ministry Ottoman Archive (Başbakanlık Arşivi), Istanbul
AE.SSLM.III 160/9586 (1208 Dhu'l-Hijja 29/ 1794 July 28)
HAT 965/41285 (1227 Rajab 06/ 1812 July 16)
HAT 1166.4611 (1249 Rebīülâhir/ 1833 August-September)
HR.İM 67/83
HR.İM 113.16 (1924 August 13)

More reading:
AKPINAR, İpek Yada and Korhan Gümüş, “Taksim, Dün-Bugün: İdeolojik bir Okuma,” dosya 28 (Jul. 2012), pp. 41-42. 
BRUMFIELD, William C., “Anti-modernism and the Neoclassical Revival in Russian Architecture, 1906-1916,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 48/4 (Dec. 1989), pp. 371-386.
DINÇER, İclal, Zeynep Enlil and Tolga İslam, “Regeneration in a New Context: A New Act on Renewal and its Implications on the Planning Processes in İstanbul,” Paper presented at Bridging the Divide: Celebrating the City. ACSP – AESOP Fourth Joint Congress (July 6 – 11 2008, Chicago, Illinois). 
GIRARDELLI, Paolo, “Italian Architects in an Ottoman Context: Perspectives and Assessments,” in İstanbul Araştırmaları Yıllığı 1 (2011), pp. 101-122.


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