Over the centuries Istanbul has been the scene of devastating fires. Wood was the cheapest material and readily available along the Black Sea. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that people began to take seriously the need to use materials other than wood in their buildings. Almost every year until then, wooden structures had been the source of fires. The first ferman or imperial decree about firefighting was issued already in 1560; the Janissaries were put in charge of firefighting; the first fire engine was built by a French engineer in 1714; and Istanbul has had a fire department organized along modern lines for only 85 years.
Most houses are two-storey or possibly three-storey with a storage area or place for servants or animals on the ground floor and a kitchen. A toilet would be in a separate small building perhaps attached to the house or a wall in the typical style of a hole in the ground over which you hovered to do your business.
The central space, the sofa, was the center of everything from entertaining to cooking to sleeping. Furniture was sparse. Divans or stuffed pillows would line the walls and for eating, a tray would be set out and people would eat from the plates and bowls set out there. Then the tray would be put in one of the many cupboards in the walls. Sultan and slave would eat in the same way. At bedtime, the bedding and blankets would be brought out of their cupboards and unfolded on the floor. Everybody would spend the night like that and in the morning the blankets and would be returned to their respective places.
Researchers have suggested that this use of a single, large central space for most living functions may have come from the tents that the nomadic Turkish tribes had u as they moved around Central Asia. There may be something to the idea since rooms opened off the central space but didn’t open into each other; an opening in a tent would most likely lead to another tent room. Using timber also protected people in earthquake zones. Timbers bend when waves travel through solid substances unlike brick and stone. So the lower of the two floors would be made from stone or adobe and a geometric pattern would be created. In later centuries such as the 19th wood would also be used for creating designs especially for the lattices put over, cupboard doors, even staircases.
The roof would be of the pitched type quite unlike the Mediterranean flat roof of red ceramic tiles. This latter was designed so that people could sleep on the roof during the heat of the summer and catch what they could of any cooling breeze. One person has described these roofs as looking like a tent. The garden would be located at the back if the area was large enough. Usually this would be enclosed by walls so that the women of the house could get out in the garden for air without be seen by passers-by.
Wooden buildings could easily be added to if more people joined the family such as a son brought a bride home. Often a porch ran along one side of the house and could be reached from one or more of the rooms leading from the main room. The staircase had to reach the upper stories. This living above a ground floor has possibly been the origin of turning ground floor space into stores or small shops through which rental income might be gained.
In more upper scale houses, there would be a division between the men’s and the women’s sides, the so-called selamlik where men received and entertained male guests and the haremlik or the part of the house where the women were located. The Kıbrıslı Yali in Küçüksu had two parts divided like this although the haremlik side burned down, leaving only the selamlik side still standing The Mocan yali in Kuzguncuk also had two parts connected by a kitchen; however, fire broke out in the kitchen and the haremlik side burned down. Today people can only see the men’s side.
The Wooden Istanbul Exhibition
Once again the Istanbul Research Institute, a part of the Suna and İnan Kıraç Foundation, is hosting an exhibition devoted to the history of Istanbul. This time the history of Istanbul’s wooden buildings is the subject, based on work that the Istanbul branch of the German Archaeological Institute carried out up to the 1960s. During that period, many of Istanbul’s wooden buildings Ğ the wooden generation Ğ disappeared either left to go to wreck and ruin until they couldn’t be repaired and restored or mysterious fires would break out and none of the wooden buildings ever seemed to be save-able in spite of efforts by the Istanbul Fire Department. The exhibition at the Institute begins with the Amcazade Yalı that was built in the 17th century and traces the history of Istanbul’s wooden houses until the beginning of the 20th century with a house on Büyükada. It goes from the magnificent yalıs on the Bosporus up to the small bourgeois houses in the Zeyrek district. Included are plans, mockups and original examples from the German Archaeological Institute’s rich photographic archive.
The Turkish novelist and essayist Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar described Istanbul’s wooden houses in terms of soft lines like velvet and colorfully decorated. But of course these houses are rarely found in that condition. The wood is rotting, no paint peeling off because there was no paint, window frames sagging, glass often broken, a stove pipe sticking out at a makeshift place but that, heaven forbid, has never seen a TV antenna. Often people inherited these houses but didn’t have the funds to execute repairs or may not even have wanted to because they felt they were out-of-date. Interior space was more important than the facades of these buildings anyway but for people of limited means, renovation and even painting the outside of an old building might bring higher taxes.
Dr. Martin Bachmann, the deputy director of the German Archaeological Institute in Istanbul, has pointed out that until the middle of the 20th century wooden houses dominated the Istanbul scene. But these buildings disappeared quickly as the city changed dramatically. However, the German Archaeological Institute undertook research in the 1960s in Istanbul into the city’s wooden houses. This research showed that a large part of Istanbul’s historic topography consisted of a varied microcosm and its architectural history was not limited to the Old City and the peninsula on which it stood.
The exhibition not only aims at presenting the documentation of these wooden houses undertaken by the German Archaeological Institute but also at providing information about the planning and construction of the buildings and about the craftsmen and the architects. A catalogue has been prepared to go with "Wooden Istanbul."
The exhibition is open until March 15, 2009 at the Istanbul Research Institute in Tepebaşı / Beyoğlu. (0212) 334 09 00